Home repair programs are making the difference for some Detroit residents who can’t afford to fix leaky roofs and other major problems, but thousands more still need help.
BridgeDetroit partnered with Detroit Public Television to explore the city’s home repair crisis and barriers that stand in the way of residents getting financial assistance. Researchers at the University of Michigan estimate 38,000 families live in substandard housing, with the cost of repairs totaling between $2 billion to $4 billion. The City of Detroit and several philanthropic organizations have created programs to help the most vulnerable residents pay for new roofs and windows, but a small fraction of Detroiters in need qualify.
Lifelong resident Samela Dean is a senior, disabled and qualifies for a property tax exemption for low-income residents, which made her a prime candidate for the city’s Renew Detroit Home Repair Program. The $45 million effort intends to help 2,000 low-income Detroiters fix up their homes over the next four years. Those who applied in the first round could receive a new roof at no cost. A second phase of the program opened in October – and will include window replacements.
Dean, 60, has lived on a fixed income after she was injured in a crash while driving buses for the Detroit Department of Transportation. After she was left unable to work in 2006, Dean bought her 100-year-old home on the city’s east side just north of the Hamtramck border. For the last three years, Dean said she struggled to save money to patch a hole in her roof that continued to get worse.
“There was nothing I could do about it, so I just worked it out,” Dean said. “I just had my bucket there, put some towels down, that’s it. I just do what I do to make it work.”
Dean was one of the first Detroiters to receive a new roof at no cost through Renew Detroit, a program funded with a portion of Detroit’s federal American Rescue Plan Act pandemic aid. If not for the program, Dean said she wouldn’t have been able to save enough money to replace the leaky roof.
“My plan was to fix (the house) up, but it was taking longer than I thought,” Dean said. “If I had not got a roof, it probably would have been 16 more years before I got a roof done.”
Dean said she was scammed by a local repairman who took a deposit for the work and then ran off and, in a separate financial challenge, Dean said her federal stimulus check was stolen.
She has a long list of other issues that need fixing: leaky kitchen plumbing, water damage from massive summer flooding in 2021, broken windows and cracked ceilings.
Vanessa Taylor lives less than five miles west from Dean in a home she’s owned for 40 years. Taylor also applied to the Renew Detroit program, but said she hasn’t yet heard whether she qualifies. Taylor, who is also disabled, estimates it will cost between $20,000 and $40,000 for the home repairs she needs. It can take a long time to save that kind of money, especially for someone living on a fixed income.
“I have to make sure that I’m getting food for myself,” Taylor said. “I have to make sure that my DTE bill is paid. I have to make sure that my water bill is paid. I have to make sure that the cable and my internet is done, my phone, my personal needs. By the time I finish doing all that, I’m lucky if it’s like $200 left.”
Taylor needs to replace the deteriorating siding, gutters, roof and windows on her home. She said some contractors refuse to perform work in the Hope Village neighborhood where she lives, and the damage to her house has made it impossible to secure home insurance.
“Most people need roofs, gutters, siding, brickwork, porch work, windows – they need everything,” Taylor said.
Community organizations working to connect residents to financial help say the scale of home repair needs in Detroit is immense. Barriers that prevent Black and low-income homeowners from receiving bank loans exacerbates the problem.
Donna Givens-Davidson, president and CEO of the Eastside Community Network, said the failure of banks to lend in communities with low property values is essentially a modern form of red-lining. Black Detroiters have not had the same opportunities to purchase affordable homes, Givens-Davidson said, and discrimination in both housing and employment leaves them with reduced income with which to make repairs.
“When people are shut out of that valuation market during the years they are earning income, and then they become seniors their homes are declining and they weren’t able to stop the decline when they could and now are stuck with even bigger bills because the preventative maintenance wasn’t done,” Givens-Davidson said.
Edythe Ford, director of community engagement for MACC Development, said the need for repairs is “huge” on Detroit’s east side. Ford works with the city and community organizations to steer resources toward the Detroiters who need help. But she argues that the City of Detroit is partly to blame for homes falling into disrepair.
Detroit homeowners are estimated to have been overtaxed by at least $600 million over a six-year period after the Great Recession. That’s money they could have put toward home repairs, she noted.
“You have years where people had to pay over assessed property taxes that we illegally assessed on their property instead of keeping up with their homes,” Ford said. “Then you also had a climate event last year when our basements flooded and we had people that have new furnaces that they bought and paid for that they couldn’t use.
“We have quite a few low-income people and seniors who could have normally kept up with their houses and did – now they cannot,” she said.
The Gilbert Family Foundation is working with Wayne Metro Community Action Agency to administer a $15 million program helping Detroiters facing the risk of tax foreclosure pay their overdue property taxes. To qualify, homeowners must first be approved to receive a property tax exemption from the City of Detroit.
“In many cases, we’ve actually seen Detroit residents who are feeling really stuck in their property,” said Laura Grannemann, executive director of the Gilbert Family Foundation. “They can’t leave because they can’t sell their house for a value that they think is worth it. They can’t refinance, they can’t get that wealth out of their home. They also don’t have the liquidity to invest in their home.”
Ford said tax relief has had a direct impact on the ability of residents to keep up their homes. One woman that she helped apply for the Gilbert Foundation program was paying $782 per month toward back taxes, more than her mortgage, before having her debt fully wiped out.
“When that came, you could hear people banging and hammering, people started fixing stuff on their houses,” Ford said. “Nobody wants to stay in an unsafe house.”
Advocates and residents who spoke with BridgeDetroit said the home repair crisis poses a public health threat. The cumulative effects of substandard housing can also lead to lifelong declines in physical and mental health.
“If you need a roof, it’s raining in your house, you’ve got mold and mildew in the walls, it’s affecting the electricity, your health and everything,” Ford said. “It’s a long time getting help. Also it’s hard, a lot of times, for citizens to know how to navigate the programs. This is another problem that I’m discussing with the city. Our services are not easily accessed.”
Some Detroiters are finding creative ways to raise money. Field Street Block Club President Jennine Spencer crowdfunded more than $14,000 in the last year to help families in the Islandview Neighborhood on Detroit’s east side.
“I don’t qualify for these home repair grants, so what do I do?” Spencer said.
The Gilbert Foundation also launched a $20 million Detroit Home Repair Fund this spring for 1,000 low-income homeowners over the next three years. That fund helps homeowners identified through DTE’s Energy Efficiency Assistance Program who are at 200% of the federal poverty line and applied for a property tax exemption through the City of Detroit.
Grannemann said the Gilbert Foundation received 150,000 calls within the first 48 hours after the program launched and 250,000 calls in the first week. Grannemann said seeing the calls come in triggered “an emotional realization” of how many residents have needed support and were not getting it.
“There’s an incredible amount of need across all backgrounds of Detroit residents and it’s not just an individual issue,” Grannemann said. “So often, when we think about things like not paying property taxes or not keeping your home up, we put the responsibility on the individual. And in this case, when you see numbers like 250,000 phone calls, it’s not an individual personal responsibility issue, it is a systemic issue that really has affected every corner of our city.”
Givens-Davidson also described the home repair crisis as a systemic problem.
“We need systemic solutions and not these one-off solutions where we’re going to help a few people but leave other people in a bad situation,” Givens-Davidson said. “There is an argument that would suggest improving home values by fixing up homes would increase the value of the city … I feel like we have short-sighted solutions around housing. We’re unwilling to take the same kind of risk in helping people who live in homes as corporations who say they do things to increase the workforce.”
Detroit’s Chief of Special Housing Programs Heather Zygmontowicz said the city directed federal ARPA funds to roof repairs because it’s often the most expensive maintenance issue affecting residents. The city is working with community development organizations to find other solutions.
“What we’re really trying to figure out is how to piece together the programs and the right resources so that if you need much more than a roof – which most of the homes we go to do – how do we start lining them up for success so we put them on that path? That’s really what we’re trying to do with Renew Detroit,” she said.
Ford said disinvestment in neighborhoods is ultimately driving the Black middle-class out of Detroit.
“You got to have all income levels and all classes of people to make a city work,” she said. “That has driven them out because (people think) ‘why should I spend $100,000 to rehab this house when the one next to me, it’s like only God and cobwebs keeping it up?’”