Amplifying Our Voices in Response to the Housing Crisis  

by Donna Givens

In November 2016, the City of Detroit published a housing study which concluded that even the most luxurious new apartments rented to the wealthiest tenants  in the most exclusive areas of the city are not economically viable without public investment of cheap land or tax breaks. This study is used to justify taxpayer subsidy for every new housing development. Developers receive these breaks on the condition they will make 20% of new units affordable to people earning up to 80% of the Area Median Income (Detroit Metropolitan Area) of $56,000, which is more than double the city of Detroit Median Income of $26,000.  This means these units are unaffordable to average Detroiters, and they are generally offered as studio apartments that target individuals, not families.

 

Housing is cheap in Detroit.  Just ask anyone with knowledge of the real estate market.  On average, the median value of a home is $26,000 and the median rent is $800, well below metropolitan, state and national averages.  And in some neighborhoods homes sell and rent well below these established medians.

 

At the same time, housing is available with an overall residential vacancy rate of 22% and vacancies exceeding 50% in some neighborhoods.  So why are over 16,000 Detroiters counted as homeless and thousands more couch surf, squat in vacant homes, and double up with family members?  Why do more than 24,000 households face eviction on an annual basis, some more than once per year?

 

Quality, stable housing is in short supply in most neighborhoods, especially for those living at the lowest income levels.  Despite the heralded comeback of Detroit, there are few plans to fix the problem for residents who live outside the seven neighborhoods designated for growth and investment by the city.  The real money, effort and planning— the tax incentives and public funds— are concentrated in areas considered viable for redevelopment. In places where mortgages are more accessible, buyers are moving in, and houses are increasing in value.  

 

In the rest of Detroit, there are no plans for renewal. The city is working to protect subsidized affordable homes. The city is working to demolish homes that are vacant, to board homes awaiting demolition, and to help homeowners purchase adjacent vacant lots.  Land bank properties are available for sale and renovation to qualified purchasers. But there are no real plans in place to IMPROVE housing stock and housing stability for vulnerable homeowners.

 

Community Development Corporations (CDCs) were first formed in the 1960s, charged with a mission to fight economic injustice and create resident-driven power.  They were formed in response to top-down public and private decision making that privileged the privileged. They worked to deliver sustainable improvements that addressed overlapping domains of human, environmental, housing, commercial and economic needs. They were positioned to aggregate government, philanthropic, donated, and volunteer investments to supplement market resources and create alternative pathways at the neighborhood level.

 

Over time, many of these CDCs developed contracts with government to deliver services, developed partnerships with contractors to build housing and commercial properties, and developed political influence. In all too many cases, the needs, preferences and priorities of local residents were subjugated by corporate influence. Bottom-up organizing was supplanted by localized top-down approaches. CDC’s that were intended to represent the needs of residents balanced those needs against the demands of outside interests with whom they partnered and from whom they received financial support.

 

It is time for a return to the original purpose of CDCs. It is time to remember our original calling.  Housing justice has never been more elusive. Detroit’s homeless population has never been so large. Our housing stock has never been so in need.

How do we reconcile the conflicting realities of underhoused residents and surplus vacant homes?  What should mission-driven developers do to make change? Should we continue partnering with for-profit developers? Perhaps.  If we can harness political will and leverage our strengths. Not if we are mere window-dressing and exert no real power in a partnership.

 

Should we develop models for rebuilding occupied homes and acquiring and rehabbing vacant homes?  Should we explore cooperative homeownership and community land trusts that preserve affordability?  Should we train residents to purchase and rehab homes they can own free and clear of financing or repay over time?  If housing justice is our shared intent, we need to roll up our sleeves and find new ways to address old problems. We need to take a few risks, evaluate our success, and replicate good ideas.

 

Let’s place our residents at the center of all of our planning efforts and pair them with experts to visualize a renewed community. Let’s join forces with our brothers and sisters working in the field of social justice and make demands on our local and state governments for equitable access to water, equitable tax reform, and community benefits.  Let’s promote a policy to charge high-end developers a linkage fee for every housing permit they obtain and invest that money in an Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Let’s promote creation of an entertainment tax to re-capture some of the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in our greater downtown and invest those dollars in an Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

 

Housing justice is not merely a matter of good intentions. It is intentional actions that balance the power, harness resources, and create new pathways to housing opportunity. Together we can.

 

Donna Givens is  CEO of the Eastside Community Network. She has previously served as president of the Youth Development Commission in Detroit and as deputy director of programs for Warren/Connor Development. Givens has also served as executive director of Brightmoor Community Center and as a partner in the Beverly Hills, Mich.-based Visions Education Development Consortium LLC. Prior to that, she was executive director of Vanguard Community Development Corp. for eight years and vice president, programs at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit for two years.

 

For more information on the Eastside Community Network and the recent ECN Housing Summit, visit www.ecn-detroit.org.

 

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