Tens of thousands of occupied homes in Detroit are becoming increasingly dangerous due to years of neglected upkeep, according to several academics and a dozen housing advocates.
The need for major home repair — with leaking roofs, broken furnaces and faulty wiring among the top issues — has reached crisis level citywide. It’s a health risk to the many residents living in the conditions. The dwellings undermine the rebounding housing market in many neighborhoods because it lowers the overall value of residential property.
As the repairs pile up, fewer residents have the means to fix the problems, according to two recent University of Michigan studies and city housing advocates. A growing number of lower-income Detroit residents can’t get loans from private financial institutions, and there are insufficient funds from grants and other programs.
“The repair needs in Detroit are significant, and our analysis … suggests current resources devoted to repair don’t come close to meeting the need,” said Patrick Cooney, assistant director of economic mobility at University of Michigan Poverty Solutions.
Cooney co-authored a recent U-M study that estimates more than 24,000 housing units in Detroit are “severely or moderately inadequate” — a description covering a wide range of risky living conditions. The estimate is on the “conservative end,” Cooney said. It’s the first time any group has attempted to estimate the number of Detroit housing units in need of urgent repair. The 24,000 figure represents 5% of the city’s occupied residences.
Though 24,000 residences needed major repairs, in 2018, only 2,934 homes were able to gain access to funds, such as grants and loans, aimed at low-income residents, according to the U-M study. The low number of those who received assistance shows the dearth of available funding.
Housing advocates, some who work in certain communities and others who work citywide, say every neighborhood has many residents in urgent need of home repairs. The problem is far more widespread than the U-M estimate, the advocates contend.
“We may have 24,000 homes that need serious repair in the communities we serve” on the Southwest side, said Phyllis Edwards, executive director of Bridging Communities. Lisa Johanon, executive director of Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corp., said home repair is a “massive problem” and one that hundreds of residents reach out to the nonprofit each year in order to get help.
On the Eastside, more than 3,200 households have received funding through the nonprofit Jefferson East Inc. in the past five years. “We haven’t even scratched the surface,” said Michelle Lee, director of housing and neighborhood revitalization for the organization. Even with all the households Jefferson East has helped, she admits there is “never” enough money to fix the hosts of repairs at a home.
Rescued from foreclosure, grappling with mounting repairs.
Longtime Detroit residents John and Mary Jones have lived in a dangerous house for over six years. The couple requested BridgeDetroit use pseudonyms rather than publish their real names. Both are elderly, disabled and have security concerns.
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The couple began renting the two-story home in a northeast neighborhood when both were preparing to retire due to failing health. The couple relies on a monthly income of $2,500. The rent was $700 for the two-bedroom home with a basement. The home was built in 1924, according to property records.
Their new home had gone through a string of owners since 2008, all of whom narrowly avoided having the property seized by Wayne County for unpaid property taxes, according to public tax records.
The roof began to leak shortly after the Joneses moved in. The toilet routinely backed up. The furnace was unreliable. The landlord promised repairs that never happened, the couple said.
The roof leaks worsened. “Soon, we had buckets and pots in different rooms,” to collect the water dripping from the ceiling, John said. The leaks caused part of the ceiling in their son’s bedroom to collapse one night as he slept.
In 2018, the owner tried to abruptly evict the couple, who say they were never late on the rent. The Joneses sought the help of the nonprofit United Community Housing Coalition. The couple learned the home had been foreclosed upon by Wayne County because the owner didn’t pay $5,800 in property taxes for several years.
The Joneses avoided eviction thanks to the nonprofit. The housing coalition is part of a program called Make It Home that’s funded mainly by the Rocket Community Fund, a philanthropic arm of Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures’ host of companies. Through Make it Home funds, the nonprofit bought the Joneses’ home from the county and sold it to them in late 2019 for the price of the back taxes.
The Joneses also received $12,000 from the Make It Home program that’s devoted to home repair. The couple used the money to patch up the roof, a repair that cost more than $18,000. The couple used their savings and a loan from a neighbor to come up with the additional $6,000.
But the roof is just one in a host of needed repairs. There are still gaping holes in the ceilings and walls throughout the home. One room is so cold, the couple store food and bottled water in it. There are bugs and rodents.
“We’re extremely grateful for all the help we’ve gotten,” John said. “We’re trying to save for more repairs, but it’s really tough. ” Especially, since the couple decided to take in their granddaughter during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their son no longer lives with the couple.
The Joneses represent a harsh truth of Detroit’s housing market, said U-M researcher Alexa Eisenberg. She’s the lead author in this recent study about the city’s home repair needs. “For most Detroit residents with low incomes, safe and affordable housing is far out of reach,” Eisenberg said.
The root causes
The seeds of the dilemma have to do with the city’s aging housing stock and older residents. Eight in 10 housing units in Detroit were built more than 60 years ago, U.S. Census data show. Nearly 27 percent of city households have residents who are 65 or older, according to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. And while the city’s overall population is declining, the number of residents between 55 and 64 is growing.
Another major factor is the rising number of renters. Late in the last decade, the number of people renting homes in Detroit became higher than the number of homeowners for the first time since 1950, according to a 2017 Detroit Future City report.
There’s a long waiting list for federally subsidized housing units in Detroit, Eisenberg said. That leaves a growing number of low-income households to seek shelter in an increasingly competitive private rental market. In 2019, housing costs were unaffordable for 73% of Detroit renters earning less than $35,000, with nearly half of those households spending at least 50% of their monthly income on rent, according to the U-M study
The optimistic news is the broad coalition of private, public and academic entities that have been working on Detroit’s housing challenges — reducing tax foreclosures, demolishing empty blighted properties, halting mass water shut-offs — are starting to focus more on home repair.
“I think there is hope,” said Cooney, the U-M policy analyst. There is more data on the issue that enables policymakers and others to work on solutions, he said. Like others, there is a belief the Biden administration will result in more federal funding for Detroit.
Rocket Community Fund, a key funder and collaborator with groups working on Detroit’s housing challenges, intends to commit more attention to home repair needs, said Laura Grannemann, vice president of strategic investments for the fund.
“We are going to continue to be very committed to this challenge and we are scaling up our work here. This is our next big challenge on the horizon,” Grannemann said.