More than 90,000 Detroit residents live in inadequate housing, UM report estimates

Hayley Harding
The Detroit News

Detroit — An estimated 90,000 Detroiters live in inadequate housing, according to a new report from the University of Michigan.

Residents of color, people with children, those living in rental units and those who earn less than $60,000 annually are hit the hardest, the study found. 

The report, released this month, comes from UM's Detroit Metro Area Communities Study. It estimates that about 37,630 households in the city live in inadequate housing, which translates to about 90,690 people.

This 2,100-square-foot home at 3926 Three Mile, under construction in June 2021, is among the dwellings being restored under the city's Rehabbed and Ready program in Detroit's Morningside neighborhood. The Detroit Land Bank Authority and the city of Detroit offer multiple programs to repair the city's aging housing stock.

Based on the study parameters, housing was considered inadequate if it has major problems with electrical needs including exposed wires, furnace or other heating problems, or a lack of hot or running water in the past year.

Of those surveyed, 81% had at least one problem with the condition of their home. In total, 43% of people reported needing at least one major repair.

Among the greatest complaints were concerns about plumbing (reported by 39% of people), pests like mice and roaches (33%) and crumbling porches (32%).

"Living in inadequate housing has been shown to affect people's physical health, in that they're more likely to have asthma and other health issues," said Lydia Wileden, a research associate with DMACS and author of the report. "It affects emotional health too, because it's incredibly distressing to not be able to support or sustain the life you need or desire.

"There's also a financial toll. It's really a matter of basic aspects of human rights and human decency."

The study updates a separate analysis from last October that looked at the larger Metro Detroit area. The new study focuses on a broader range of issues faced by residents of the city itself and was conducted by surveying a representative sample of 1,898 Detroiters between June 2 and July 9. 

The report illuminates how different life can be for Detroiters compared with those living in surrounding cities, Wileden said. About 13% of Detroiters live in inadequate housing, the report found, compared with about 3.2% of those in the metro region.

The median household income in Detroit in 2019 was $30,894, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The median household income for the Detroit-Warren-Livonia metro area was $63,474 in 2019. About 77% of the city is Black. Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties together are nearly 24% Black and about 61% White, according to the 2020 Census.

Programs like ones sponsored by the city of Detroit can make a big difference for people, Wileden said. The city is planning to help some homeowners begin to repair  their homes through Renew Detroit, a $30 million initiative funded by President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and unveiled last month by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. 

For households approved for the program, the city will hire contractors to make major repairs for homeowners. The program is open to seniors and those with disabilities. People must own their homes to qualify and have an approved homeowners property exemption (commonly referred to as HOPE) available to those with lower incomes.

"The mayor did a series of community engagement meetings throughout the summer, and people overwhelmingly indicated that HOPE repair was considered the highest priority to stabilize neighborhoods," Heather Zygmontowicz, the city's chief of special housing, told The Detroit News.

Many people are looking to repair their homes, she said, and the city's effort is an attempt to help those most in need.

"There is a housing stock in Detroit that has degraded for lack of investment for decades," she said. "This is not the fault of these Detroiters but instead of years of systemic inequalities. But as the costs rise and the housing stock is deteriorating, we have to do something. Seniors are in many cases on a fixed income and can't absorb these repair costs."

The program is the newest in a series from the city. Julie Schneider, director of the housing and revitalization department, said others include a senior emergency repair fund, lead hazard reduction programs and a loan program that offers 0% interest loans to Detroit homeowners with lower incomes. Several nonprofits in the city also have programs to help make loans and grants more accessible to people, she said.

Zygmontowicz said officials expect that Renew Detroit will be able to help about 1,000 households, but more than 5,000 already have applied.

"We're going to maximize contractor capacity spending this $30 million over the next three years, and hopefully we can use this as an example that, in turn, attracts more funding," she said.

Anthony Adams, who is opposing Duggan in the Nov. 2 election, said he was disappointed that only $30 million was put into Renew Detroit. He argues he would direct $100 million toward home repair — money he said he would divert from projects such as the Joe Louis Greenway, a 27.5-mile pathway for walkers, joggers and cyclists.

"We have to deal with bread and butter issues facing people who live here," Adams said.

Having more people in need than money available isn't a new problem, said Sylvia Orduño, an organizer with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. She said she's seen it happen with programs at all levels of government.

"We have to find a way to make a commitment to the needs of low-income residents. Governments will push back on that, but when they have a significant percent of low-income residents or people of color, there have to be protections for those residents," Orduño said. "We have to find ways to ensure our residents are safe and secure and can be thriving participants in this democracy.”

Wileden said that based on the research, she considered the Renew Detroit program "an important first step" to fix some of the most needed repairs for homeowners. The number of homes served, though, wouldn't be enough to reach everyone who needs it, she said. 

Programs like Renew Detroit, which focus on older residents, can leave out other people in need, she noted. 

Oftentimes, younger residents and families are more likely to need major repairs than seniors. Renters are typically excluded from programs to better housing. The city has a program for people renting housing with major repair needs to report it to the city, but Wileden said some people fear retaliation if they report problems.

Orduño noted many Detroiters have stayed through multiple crises in the city because it is their home and they have been affected by the pandemic more than others realize. Giving people "breathing room" can make a big difference, she said. 

"From here, I hope we can think about what we can do to expand these programs to other populations and beyond," Wileden said. "Where can private funding and other major development efforts come in? Where can we think about investing existing homes?

"This work is how we end up with a community that is more vibrant and more sustainable," she said.