City officials are hopeful that the Biden administration will help direct federal aid to Detroit for affordable housing and other initiatives. (Shutterstock photo)

One dollar out of every $7 in Cass Community Social Services’ budget comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, better known as HUD. 

The Detroit nonprofit serves 700,000 meals each year, shelters up to 150 homeless a night, finds permanent housing for people living on the street, operates two weekly free medical clinics and a day program for those with developmental disabilities. It also employs adults to help clean the city and encourage recycling.

“All three of our emergency programs are at or over-capacity, and our street outreach teams engage and intake people living on the street every night,” said the Rev. Faith Fowler, the nonprofit’s executive director.

The HUD funding is especially key when it comes to helping the homeless find permanent homes because it is tough to find other sources of funding, Fowler said, and “we need more housing than we have.” 

Detroit now has high hopes that more HUD funding, Community Development Block Grants, and other federal money will come under the Biden administration after years of overall decline, city officials said. 

“We have watched the federal government being manipulative against cities for the past four years,” Mayor Mike Duggan said at a recent press conference. “Now, we have a partner in President Biden, who I think will treat cities fairly.”

The importance of Community Development Block Grants 

Funding to help Detroit deal with its housing challenges has shrunk considerably over the past two decades. In 2002, total federal funding to Detroit for housing programs was just over $75 million, including $53 million for Community Development Block Grants, or CDBGs, according to this 2018 City report. 

CDBGs are the main way HUD funds cities and other local governments for a wide range of housing initiatives and other economic programs for low- and moderate-income people.  

In 2016, the City received $41 million in federal housing money, a 45% drop from 2002. That included $31.4 million in CDBGs, according to the 2018 City report. 

In the 2019-20 fiscal year, HUD allocated almost $35 million to CDBG-funded programs in Detroit, according to city data. To get a sense of how wide-ranging the city uses the money, here’s a list of more than three dozen nonprofits awarded such funding.

The Trump administration brought an extra level of uncertainty because the administration was “basically zeroing out” CDBG and other HUD funding in its proposed annual federal budgets, said Julie Schneider, acting director of the Detroit Housing and Revitalization Department.

But Congress would then add HUD funding back, Schneider said, and the result was Detroit received “modest” increases in its CDBG funding for at least the past two years. 

Biden expectations

In his first week of office, President Biden made a point to take action on racial discrimination in housing. Through an executive order, he directed HUD to “examine the effects of the previous administration’s regulatory actions that undermined fair housing policies and laws” and use its findings to implement the Fair Housing Act’s standards as needed.

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To many, that was a signal HUD funding for housing issues is of high importance.

“That makes a pretty strong statement about the values they view housing has for all of our cities, all of our counties,” Schneider said. “I’m pretty optimistic we are going to see a really serious look at how we are building and meeting the needs of our cities, and townships. We haven’t, as a country, been focused on a need for these resources in decades.”  

The City has a team of officials and others who are building their case for more federal funding. 

Dozens of Detroit nonprofits rely on CDBG funding. Several said they hope that future HUD funding will be flexible enough to meet the many challenges that the groups are working to alleviate.   

One organization that received $82,000 in such funding last year was the International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit in Midtown. The group used it to assist more than 1,000 people through programs such as adult education, career development and vocational training programs, as well as immigration and legal services, said Wojciech Zolnowski, the organization’s executive director. 

“The funding was critical,” Zolnowski said. 

CDBG money will be needed for job training caused by the economic fallout of COVID-19, Zolnowski said. Also, expected changes from the Biden administration regarding immigration will translate into more services aimed at immigrants that the International Institute provides, Zolnowski said. 

Housing needs 

Safe and affordable housing is a critical issue in Detroit, and HUD funding is vital, said City officials and nonprofits. 

Southwest Solutions is among the dozens of nonprofits working to address the complex problem. Last year, with the help of HUD funding, the organization worked with hundreds of Detroiters in various programs that dealt with potential first-time home buyers, home preservation and foreclosure prevention, said Alex Makohn, manager for homeowner assistance program.

The HUD funding, which came through a State-run program, accounts for a fifth of the budget for the nonprofit’s homeowner assistance programs, Makohn said. 

Every aspect of the city’s housing situation — creating more affordable housing, finding ways for potential home buyers to get financing, providing more funding for home repair — needs to be addressed and could use more funding, Makohn said. 

The impact of COVID-19 has meant home repairs have gone neglected, exacerbating an already big challenge for many Detroiters, she said.  

“I know I’m speculating, but I would argue pretty much close to everyone who owns a home outright in Detroit — meaning they don’t have a mortgage — needs some type of home repair. It is a serious issue,” Makohn said. 

Louis Aguilar is BridgeDetroit’s senior reporter. He covered business and development for the Detroit News, and is a former reporter for the Washington Post.

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