Data from the Eviction Machine shows that landlords filed roughly 36,000 new eviction cases since the onset of the pandemic, and 18% of renters are expected to face eviction by the end of this year. (Photo by Alexa Eisenberg)

By Alexa Eisenberg

Last week the Duggan administration celebrated new data from the U.S. Census Bureau showing that Detroit is again a majority-homeowner city, claiming that the city’s housing stabilization efforts are working.  But a closer look at the data, and our recent history, suggests that now is not the time for celebration.

As a researcher, I’d be remiss not to first point to caveats in the data. Detroit’s homeownership rate rose to 51.3% in 2021 from a low of 46% in 2016, according to the American Community Survey (ACS). Whereas the Census counts the population every 10 years by surveying all households, the ACS estimates population trends annually based on a rolling sample of households (roughly 2%), meaning ACS estimates contain considerable uncertainty. This interpretation isn’t catchy, but it is accurate: in 2021, there was a 90% chance that Detroit’s true rate of homeownership was somewhere between 49.9% and 52.7% (meaning there’s a 10% chance it was not). 

Moreover, the ACS systematically undercounts Black and Latino people, children, poor people, and the unhoused – groups that are more likely to be current or former renters. Duggan himself acknowledged systemic racism in the 2020 census undercount when he sought to appeal Detroit’s count last year.

Alexa Eisenberg, a Detroit resident and a postdoctoral research fellow at Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan. (Photo by Jonah Raduns-Silverstein)

Statistical arguments aside, celebrating Detroit’s re-emergence as a majority-homeowner city is an affront to the tens of thousands of mostly Black Detroiters who were forced into the rental market after their homes were taken through foreclosure. Between 2005 and 2015 at least 160,000 combined mortgage and tax foreclosures impacted 120,000 homes, equivalent to 48% of Detroit’s residential properties. For much of the past decade, the city was negligent in its administration of the Homeowner Property Tax Exemption (HOPE) and overassessed property taxes to the tune of at least $600 million between 2010 and 2016, an injustice for which Detroiters have not been compensated. Following this recent wave of mass dispossession, the city’s homeownership rate really had nowhere to go but up.

Detroit’s historic reputation as a majority-homeowner city was significant not for its overall figure, but because the majority of Black residents were homeowners. To celebrate rising homeownership as a sign of progress, we must honestly account not only for what was lost, but also who has gained. Even after accounting for the 5.6% increase in the rate of Black homeownership since 2016, the number of Black homeowners in Detroit fell by 10% (10,778) since 2011. At the same time, the number of white homeowners grew by 20% (2,778). Black households accounted for 51% of the increase in the number of homeowners since 2016, despite comprising 77% of the city’s households. White households accounted for 14% of the increase and make up 12% of Detroit households.

And while 58.8% of white Detroiters owned their homes in 2021 (as did the majority of white households throughout the city’s decade-long tenure as a majority-renter city), half (50.3%) of Black Detroiters continued to rent. 

There is a larger trend in the data that demands action by our elected officials: Black renters face an escalating crisis. Trends since 2016 suggest that thousands of renters have left the city, by force and by choice. In 2021, Detroit had roughly 18,000 fewer Black renter households (an estimated 15% drop) than it did in 2016, and this difference cannot be accounted for by the increase of 5,000 Black homeowners during the same time period.

The apparent loss of Black renters may be in part attributable to systematic undercount, but displacement due to rampant evictions and a lack of decent or affordable rental housing undoubtedly plays a role. According to ACS data from 2021, rents in Detroit have risen 20% since 2016. A staggering 87% of renters making less than $35,000 a year (just less than 50% the Area Median Income for a family of four) could not afford their rent in 2021. This is due to the city’s shortage of more than 30,000 affordable rental units for this income bracket (based on the most recent data available, 2016-2020). 92% of Detroit rental properties lacked code compliance as of July 2022. 

This summer, tenants forced to live in hotels, shelters, and in their cars after being evicted protested and repeatedly spoke out at city council meetings about the dire state of Detroit’s rental crisis. Data from the Eviction Machine shows that landlords filed roughly 36,000 new eviction cases since the onset of the pandemic, and 18% of renters are expected to face eviction by the end of this year. No-cause evictions have risen 70% since the start of COVID-19 emergency rental assistance, a $265 million safety net that expires at the end of this month. Just 1 in 5 tenants has full legal representation in eviction court, and the Duggan administration has yet to allocate funds or take any steps to implement the Right to Counsel ordinance that the law set to begin on Oct. 1. 

So let us be clear-eyed about Detroit’s return as a majority-homeowner city. Twin waves of mortgage and tax foreclosures contributed to a mass displacement event that pushed thousands of Black homeowners into an increasingly inhospitable rental market. The city has begun climbing out of a hole dug in part by its own policies – a hole that never should have existed in the first place.  

This is not a cause for celebration, especially not while half of the city’s residents face an escalating crisis. We can celebrate Detroit’s legacy as a city of homeowners while also making clear that being a majority-renter city is not a point of shame: the real shame lies in our government’s failure to enact and implement policies that could guarantee equal rights to safe and affordable housing to people who don’t own property.

Alexa Eisenberg, PhD, MPH, is a Detroit resident and a postdoctoral research fellow at Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan

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