Detroit’s home repair crisis is even bigger than experts thought

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A participant at an Oct. 8 rally downtown that protested the City’s plan to spend $826 million in federal aid known as the American Rescue Plan Act. So far, the City has launched a $30 million fund using ARPA money to repair homes for Detroit seniors. (BridgeDetroit photo by Louis Aguilar)

An estimated 37,630 Detroit households are living in housing with neglected and often dangerous maintenance issues, according to a new University of Michigan report. 

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The new study raises the number of households that need major repairs by 71 percent over an earlier estimate done by the same U-M group. It also shows renters and people younger than 65 are at higher risk; two groups often excluded from current City funding efforts, which typically focus on senior populations. 

The new report finds that 13 percent of Detroit households live with hazards such as exposed wires or electrical problems, broken furnaces or heating problems, or a lack of hot or running water. The percentage of Detroit households with inadequate housing conditions is more than four times higher than the estimated 3.2 percent of Detroit suburban households with the same conditions, according to the new report. 

Survey results

The study by the University of Michigan’s Detroit Metro Area Community Study (DMACS), released this week, comes at a time when many housing advocates and several academics say neglected home repair has reached crisis level citywide. 


The estimate of 37,630 Detroit households that need major home repair is far larger than the previous estimate of 22,000 households found by the same U-M group in an October report. The new report is based on a much larger citywide sample of 1,898 Detroiters surveyed between June 2 and July 9 of this year. The earlier report relied on 2017 American Housing Survey data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau.

This is another way to think about housing fragility” in Detroit, said Lydia Wileden, one of the U-M researchers who worked on the report. The pandemic provided temporary moratoriums on evictions and tax foreclosures. “Even if people are able to live in their houses, a lot of Detroiters are living in substandard conditions, living without heat, in homes that need entire foundation repair,” she said. 

As the repairs pile up, fewer residents have the means to fix the problems, according to recent studies and city housing advocates. A growing number of lower-income Detroit residents, along with those with low credit scores, cannot get loans from private financial institutions. Many contend there also are insufficient funds from grants and other programs. 

American Rescue Plan Act funding

Home repair was among the top priorities residents told City officials seeking feedback on how to spend Detroit’s share of federal COVID-19 aid. The aid, known as the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, is intended to help municipalities recover from the pandemic. Detroit is getting a whopping $826 million in one-time ARPA funds, with $426 million going toward community investments. The other $400 million is being used to make up for City budget deficits caused by the pandemic. 

This past summer, City officials and community groups held 65 public meetings and posted an online survey asking residents how the ARPA money should be spent. A wide range of residents — from owners of historic homes in Palmer Park and Woodbridge to buyers of inexpensive land bank properties to many longtime residents —  urged the City to fund home repair programs.

Home repair is among the top priorities residents want the City to spend the federal COVID aid on. (BridgeDetroit photo by Louis Aguilar)

Renew Detroit 

On Sept. 30, the City rolled out a $30 million home repair program for low-income seniors and homeowners with disabilities in Detroit. The program, called Renew Detroit, is the first program to use ARPA funds, which triples the amount that the City currently spends on its existing home repair program. 

Mayor Mike Duggan and other City officials acknowledge $30 million won’t solve the home repair crisis, but the budget is based on “the contractor capacity in this city and how much could we spend in three years,” Duggan said at a press conference that introduced the home repair program. “Anybody who has tried to get a home repair worker in this town lately knows it is not that easy. “

City officials want to give the contracts to Detroit-based companies and workers. That further narrows the labor pool, as many firms and their employers are based in the suburbs. The Duggan administration is also working with foundations and corporate partners to raise more funding for home repairs.

Renew Detroit’s first phase will aim to repair 1,000 roofs. The next phase, slated to launch in a year, is expected to provide additional repairs to another 500 homes. The program uses the Homeowner Property Tax Exemption, HOPE, as part of its qualification process. HOPE is a low-income homeowner’s tax exemption formerly known as the Homeowners Property Tax Assistance Program (HPTAP). 

To qualify for the tax-exemption status, a one-person household can earn no more than $22,840 in income annually; for a two-person home, the maximum annual income is $26,250; for a family of four, the maximum income is $32,488. 

The U-M study bolsters the contention that Detroit’s current home repair plans excludes far too many out who need funding. 

“What about helping the longtime residents who helped keep the lights on, paid our taxes — even when we were overtaxed?” asked Daisy Jackson, a member of the Charlevoix Village Association on the lower east side. “Now, we have developers coming in and they get tax breaks for their projects. It’s an injustice.” 

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