The University District neighborhood on Detroit’s northwest side was photographed in June 2022 in this BridgeDetroit file photo. (BridgeDetroit Photo by Malachi Barrett)

A narrow majority of Detroiters own the home they live in, according to new census estimates that suggest a shift in the decade-long trend of a city with more renters than homeowners.

Mayor Mike Duggan celebrated the findings Thursday during a Detroit Homecoming event, though his administration has challenged the 2020 census count, which showed Detroit lost population in the last decade. 

John Roach, a spokesman for Duggan, called the census estimates a significant sign of progress for the city’s housing stabilization initiatives. Researchers however note that while positive, the gains thus far were marginal and pointed to a slower rate of growth in Black homeownership that they say is partly driven by an influx of white residents from the suburbs. Bias in appraisals, credit barriers and other racial disparities also have contributed to the challenges for Black home buyers.

“Homeownership is a key building block to creating generational wealth and it’s great to see that more Detroiters are able to experience that,” Roach said in an email. “The mayor and a number of our community partners have made preserving and expanding homeownership a major priority since he was elected and it appears those efforts have been paying off.”  

In 2021, an estimated 51.3% of Detroit housing units were owner-occupied, compared to 47.8% in 2019, according to the latest census estimates. Survey data was not released in 2020 due to the impact of the pandemic on data quality. Detroit’s homeownership rate had first dipped below 50% in 2012. Duggan, now in his third term, took office in 2014.

The census estimates show the percentage of Black Detroiters who own homes increased from 47% to 50%. But, the findings also show 1,765 fewer Black homeowners in the city compared to 2019. The 2020 census found Detroit lost 93,361 Black residents in the last decade, but it still remains a majority-Black city.

Homeownership among white and Hispanic Detroiters increased at twice the rate (6%) of Black homeowners from 2019 to 2021. The census estimates show 59% of both white and Hispanic individuals own a home in Detroit. 

“We need to really break these things down to see what’s going on,” said Kurt Metzger, founder of nonprofit research group Data Driven Detroit and current mayor of Pleasant Ridge. “The whole idea of ‘Detroit’s comeback’ is great for suburban whites who are now deciding to come into the city. For the long-term Detroiters, how much benefit are they getting? What we’re seeing is more of the benefits are being realized by people with the resources and the assets to move into the city, and certainly a lot of that is younger whites who were able to benefit from their family’s homeownership in the suburbs and building assets.”

Census estimates show Detroit added 1,283 owner-occupied housing units since 2019, an increase of 1%. The census estimated 251,729 total housing units in the city are occupied, while 129,084 housing units are occupied by owners. 

Detroit’s occupancy rate, which includes homeowners and renters, increased from 74% in 2019 to 78% in 2021. The city’s vacancy rate decreased from 26% to 22% over the same period.

Census data also shows fewer renters living in the city. The number of renter-occupied units dropped by 16,149 – a 12% decrease – from 2019 to 2021. 

Still, the new estimates suggest Detroit is losing housing. Detroit shed 35,717 housing units between 2019 and 2021, a decline of 10%. The number of occupied housing units dropped by 6%, decreasing by 15,410 units during the same time period for a total of 322,906 in 2021.  

City voters in November 2020 approved a $250 million to target upwards of 16,000 properties over five years for demolition or stabilization. As of early August, the city had torn down 2,377 blighted homes and stabilized another 1,053 properties under the program. But researchers say this doesn’t account for the larger loss of housing stock reported by the census. 

The census figures have drawn some skepticism. Duggan argued in a July congressional hearing that  “systemic racism” in the government’s approach to determining the city’s population led to an undercount. The census data released this week was collected from surveys that used the 2020 count to draw citywide estimates, which creates some uncertainty with the data. 

Reynolds Farley, a retired sociology professor at the University of Michigan who studies demographic trends, said the steep drop in housing units seems “quite implausible.” 

“(Hurricane) Katrina didn’t come through Detroit,” Farley said. “There’s certainly been demolishment but the current number (of housing units) looks to me to be far too low, and that’s at the center of the mayor’s protests about the census count. Nevertheless, the number of people who own their unit has ticked up and the number of renters has gone down, so that reflects a trend.”

Farley said the “modest” increase in homeownership does seem plausible, though. 

“There certainly has been a renewal effort going on with some success in many neighborhoods far away from downtown and there has been an apparent effort to increase lending to Detroit residents by some of the major banks,” Farley said. “These strategies, and some of the reforms of the land bank, have probably contributed to an increase in the number of owners. It definitely is a positive sign.”

Roach highlighted the impact of the land bank’s home auctions and other purchase programs that have sold 16,000 vacant homes to new owners. The land bank’s Occupied Buy Back program, he noted, helped nearly 1,000 Detroiters living in land bank-owned properties become homeowners.

He also pointed to partnerships with the Rocket Community Fund, Gilbert Family Fund and Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency on programs shown to help reduce tax foreclosures on owner-occupied homes by 94% from 2015 to 2019. That includes the city’s Homeowners Property Exemption program, which has grown to about 15,000 participants, Roach said. 

“A trend has not started yet, but it is good news,” Metzger said. “It supports a lot of what we’ve been seeing recently in terms of people moving from the suburbs to buy homes in Detroit. We combine that with a lot of work coming out of the Detroit Land Bank (Authority) that has taken a lot of homes and turned them over to owners.”

Ted Phillips, executive director of the United Community Housing Coalition, which provides free legal representation to low-income Wayne County residents, said the newest census data suggests some progress to improve Detroit homeownership, but there’s a long way to go. 

“We completed another 240 homes through the Make It Home program to convert tenants in tax foreclosed properties to become homeowners, that’s of course a drop in the bucket but it’s one effort among a lot (of others),” Phillips said. “We have seen what appears to be a little bit of an uptick in mortgage foreclosures. In the last few months, we’ve seen an uptick in cases there. It’s something that needs to be addressed or we’ll be back on the other side of this.”

Farley said Detroit was once unique among major U.S. cities for its high rate of homeownership, but that started to change in the 1970s. Homeowners made up the majority until 2012. Farley said since the city filed for bankruptcy in 2013 the shift toward homeownership has been steady.

Researchers said the census data shows Detroit’s housing market was resilient through the COVID-19 pandemic. Alex Alsup, vice president of research and development at Regrid, a parcel data technology company, said emergency stimulus checks, a tax relief fund, the city’s Pay as You Stay program, and a moratorium on evictions all helped keep families housed during the pandemic.  

“Had the pandemic hit in the tax foreclosure conditions of (around) 2015, it would have been really, really devastating,” Alsup said.“We didn’t have the tools seven or eight years ago to deal with something like that. The fact that not only was there no increase in tax foreclosures, but also a decline in delinquency and an increase in overall homeownership is good to see. It shows there’s a different and more supportive environment these days for homeowners in general.”

The census figures also show housing remains expensive for renters. Half of Detroiters are paying 35% or more of their income on rent. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines affordability as 30% of income

The median cost of monthly rent in Detroit was estimated at $925. Census estimates show 35% of renters pay between $1,000 and $1,499 per month, while 46% pay between $500 and $999. 

One-third of owner-occupied housing units in the city have a mortgage, while 66% don’t. The median mortgage costs $1,063 per month, according to the census estimates. 

The median value of an owner-occupied home is $69,300 in Detroit. A third of those homes are worth less than $50,000, census figures note, while two-thirds are worth less than $100,000. 

Policy researchers and community advocates continue to sound the alarm over Detroiters who pay too much in property taxes. Detroit’s City Council held a hearing Thursday about property tax overassessment and possible reforms, with input from the Coalition for Property Tax Justice. 

Detroit Deputy CFO and Assessor Alvin Horhn told the council  “there is no systemic problem” with homes being overassessed in Detroit, though property law scholar Bernadette Atuahene argued the city’s own data shows low-value homes are being charged illegally high amounts. 

Housing advocates have continued to raise concerns about Detroiters losing their homes to tax foreclosure. From 2005 to 2015, nearly half of all residential properties in the city experienced mortgage or tax foreclosure. A Detroit News investigation found Detroiters were overtaxed by an estimated $600 million from 2010 to 2016. The city completed a citywide property reappraisal in 2017. That effort was ordered by the state in the wake of overassessment problems. 

Council members this spring adopted a budget plan that appropriated $2 million toward a program meant to support residents overtaxed in the years following the Great Recession as well as a request for the city’s administration to bolster the program with $4 million more in federal dollars. 

“It’s hard for me, knowing how much homeownership was preventably lost to tax foreclosure, to be too cheery about (the census data),” Alsup said. “We really didn’t need to be in this position in the first place.”

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  1. Middle class black families have moved to the suburbs for the same reason others have left Detroit. Better communities, public safety, lighted streets, great schools, lower water bills and lower taxes.

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