UM addressing Detroit poverty with initiative

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Over the last 15 years, one of the most devastating blows to Detroit has been the Wayne County tax foreclosure process, which has displaced 100,000 people from their homes and left thousands of vacant properties, according to estimates by Loveland Technologies, a Detroit data company.

One of the ways that low-income Detroit residents could avoid foreclosure is by applying for a state property tax exemption that would reduce or eliminate property taxes, officials say, but is it a multi-step process that must be applied for every year and is underutilized by at least 12,000 residents.

Now, the University of Michigan is launching a partnership with United Community Housing Coalition, the Detroit organization helping residents avoid foreclosure, as part of an initiative aimed at finding solutions to address poverty.

UM researchers plan to look deeper into the process of residents who have applied for the tax exemption, identify where the process broke down and who fell through the cracks, said Michele Oberholtzer, coordinator of the tax foreclosure prevention project at the United Community Housing Coalition. UM plans to find ways to boost participation in the property tax exemption process and ultimately help more residents avoid eviction from their homes.

“This will have the power to prevent (foreclosure) and to supplement our work, which is often triage-based,” Oberholtzer said. “We’re trying to make sure we understand why people are not getting it so people don’t lose their home unnecessarily.”

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel

UM’s launch of the initiative, known as Poverty Solutions, is beginning under the leadership of President Mark Schlissel and other faculty working to take the university’s resources and use them to diminish vexing problems in society, such as poverty. While its initial poverty work will begin in Detroit neighborhoods, the university hopes to create models that can be replicated in other communities across the nation to alleviate poverty.

“A great public university should focus its research investments on important challenges confronting society. Through Poverty Solutions and projects like those launched today, we aim to promote actionable policy that has the potential to lift more American families out of poverty,” Schlissel said. “This first round of support leverages the academic breadth of the University of Michigan paired with strong community partnerships to make a major difference.”

UM plans to launch nine programs to address poverty but two were announced Tuesday. Besides making low-income homeowners in Detroit aware of the tax exemption to reduce property taxes, the other effort will dispatch health care workers in the west side Detroit neighborhood of Cody Rouge to help residents take better care of themselves.

These health care workers will be residents from the community who are trained to reach out and assess the needs of their neighbors, said Michele Heisler, professor of internal medicine at the UM Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation. Cody Rouge has many residents on Medicaid and not using their primary care doctors, instead using the emergency room or getting hospitalized for problems that might have been avoided, Heisler said.

“If you have people not managing their health well, they are not going to be able to be productive,” Heisler said. “The idea is an initial step that may lay a foundation for other community development efforts.”

Dave Law, executive director of the Joy-Southfield Community Developmentment Corporation, added there are many resources in Cody Rouge, and partnerships are needed to help it continue to flourish.

“It is a community that is reinventing itself but we are doing it without gentrification, without displacement and by systematically bringing in the resources that are missing,” Law said.

UM’s Poverty Solutions will be funded with $200,000 and co-sponsored by nine community-based organizations, the Detroit Health Department, Henry Ford Health System and the Detroit Urban Research Center — a partnership with UM’s schools of public health, nursing and social work.

“The initiative will be solution-oriented, building on work that focuses on understanding the causes and consequences of poverty,” said H. Luke Shaefer, a UM associate professor of social work, director of Poverty Solutions and co-author of the book “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America.” “That work is incredibly important and will continue. Our initiative will be deeply interdisciplinary and seek to take poverty research at UM to the next level.”