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U-M faculty and external partners tackle poverty in Michigan and beyond

Poverty Solutions and Detroit URC grant-funded projects help address housing stability, homelessness, energy poverty and more

Photo courtesy of Tricycle Collective Detroit, a woman-led volunteer-powered nonprofit organization working to provide additional support to Detroit families with young children who live in homes facing tax foreclosure.

Since 2010 more than a quarter of all Detroit homes have been foreclosed and auctioned off. Studies have shown that the impact of foreclosure extends well beyond the loss of tax revenues: it disrupts neighborhoods, destabilizes housing markets, and displaces families, including homeowners with low- and fixed-incomes and renters whose landlords failed to pay the taxes..

U-M assistant professor Roshanak Mehdipanah and PhD candidate Alexa Eisenberg, supported by a grant from U-M’s Poverty Solutions and the Detroit Community-Academic Urban Research Center (Detroit URC), partnered with the United Community Housing Coalition, a nonprofit providing housing assistance programs in Detroit, to explore ways low-income Detroit residents can benefit from an existing law that could help keep more people in their homes.

“Families across Detroit are losing their homes to tax foreclosure for taxes they could have been exempt from paying,” says Mehdipanah, assistant professor of health behavior and health education at U-M’s School of Public Health.

Detroit’s Homeowners Property Tax Assistance Program (HPTAP) can help residents avoid foreclosure by substantially reducing property taxes for homeowners living at or near the poverty level. Each year, around 40,000 households are eligible for the exemption, but only about twelve percent of families actually get it.

The project is one of more than 20 action-based research projects to prevent and alleviate poverty supported by Poverty Solutions and the Detroit URC in the past two years. A new round of more than $200,000 in total funding is now open to faculty at U-M’s Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint campuses through two funding mechanisms: community-academic partnership and faculty project development. Faculty have until Nov.12, 2018, to apply.

For their part, Mehdipanah and partners conducted a survey of residents and have continued working with the city of Detroit to improve the tax exemption application process. Out of 105 residents surveyed, they found 82% reported severe housing cost burden, with more than one half of their income going toward housing. Moreover, 72% indicated they had to decide between paying for housing and other necessities, like food or medical care, during the past year.

They also found that lack of awareness about the exemption is one of the biggest hurdles, and with additional funding from Poverty Solutions, produced an informational video to spread the word. The team also collaborated with other community-based organizations to design educational and outreach materials used to train organizations across the city to assist residents in completing the application.

“I make little to nothing, so my housing costs–utilities, taxes, all of that–you’re not going to believe me, but 100% of my income goes to that,” said one study participant. “I’d say my biggest bill right now is the back taxes. With utilities, if those are turned off they can always be turned back on. But with your taxes, that’s your house, it’s gone.”

Informed by data about what homeowners were experiencing, Mehdipanah, Eisenberg and their community partners (including UCHC and others) have been working with the city of Detroit Assessor’s office to increase awareness and streamline the application process for eligible Detroit residents. In part because of this work, applications for the exemption have significantly increased this year.

“The insight we’ve gained has the potential to inform efforts that state and local governments can take to ensure that the exemption is readily available, easily obtainable and equitably provided to all eligible homeowners,” says Eisenberg. “We will continue to advocate for these changes at the local and state levels.”

The team will issue a report this fall that will highlight steps that governmental actors can take to further improve program awareness, access and accountability, as well as relief for homeowners who were unable to benefit from the program due to significant barriers.

Breaking the cycle of homelessness and trauma

Nicole Carbonari and LaTonia Walker of the Coalition on Temporary Shelter, and Laura Gultekin, assistant professor at the School of Nursing team discuss their work at a community-academic partnership training.

While Mehdipanah and her partners are working to prevent residents from losing their homes, another group of faculty and community partners are working together to improve interventions for women experiencing homelessness.

In 2016, nearly 25,000 people from 9,700 households across Michigan entered a homeless shelter. The majority of these households were headed by a single mothers.

Research shows that more than 90% of mothers who become homeless have significant histories of childhood trauma, as well as episodes of domestic violence and victimization in adult years. “So when these families enter an emergency shelter, along with the trauma of becoming homeless, they have all this background trauma that hasn’t been addressed,” says Laura Gultekin, assistant professor at the School of Nursing and co-principal investigator of the project.

Gultekin and colleagues Denise Saint Arnault and Barbara Brush, the Carol J. and F. Edward Lake Professor of Population Health at U-M’s School of Nursing as well as Kathleen Durkin from the Department of Psychiatry, and Richard Bryce from Community Health and Social Services Center, Inc. (CHASS) are partnering with colleagues at the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS), an emergency shelter and service provider to families in Detroit, to help women deal with traumatic life experiences, as well as support help-seeking activities.

To do this they are building upon a tool created by associate professor at the School of Nursing Denise St. Arnault that helps people process experience related to trauma, how they feel, view it and live through it. St. Arnault’s tool has been used with success all over the world.

“Over the course of our work in Detroit we thought about how this existing tool might be adapted to help residents in the city,” says Gultekin. “We observed the need to tailor it, specifically to work with mothers experiencing homelessness in Detroit.”

Along with their partners at COTS Detroit, including Delphia Simmons, Nicole Carbonari and LaTonia Walker, the team is working with clients, like Symone Wilkes, and staff at the shelter to adapt the tool’s language, and adjust order and layout.

“It has been a very collaborative, transparent process,” says Walker. “Our U-M partners have helped to ensure that everyone’s voice carries the same weight in terms of input. We’re all helping to shape this together.”

Key to the effort, according to the team, is the involvement and input of two women living in the shelter.

“So many interventions miss the mark because the people they are intended to help do not connect them to the real world,” says professor Barbara Brush. “We collectively feel that is critical.”

“We were hearing a lot from women about their experiences and wanted to help them move on for additional support, but that was often the challenge,” says Carbonari.

To that end the team is also partnering with Detroit organizations Community Health and Social Services (CHASS) and SOS Community Services to develop an on-site, integrative care model that streamlines and sustains access to trauma-informed health services for women from shelter to rehousing.

“There was no trauma-informed system in place,” adds U-M’s Gultekin. “So while women would begin to explore and share that trauma, a seamless link to resources to work through both the physical and mental components were lacking and many stopped there.”

The team says they are making progress on the tool and hopes to have coaches and staff use it with COTS clients soon.

“We know that behavioral and physical health are inextricably linked by trauma, says Walker. “Our goal is to use this tool to forward an integrated healthcare model, either onsite or in close partnership with a clinic to effectively address both.”

The team will also pilot the revised version of the tool with other Detroit agencies. “We want to make sure it is doing what we think it is to help families move to a new and better healing place,” she says.

“Ultimately we want to help them address this trauma while finding a way to look toward the future with hope,” adds Gultekin.

More about the project and partners.

Eliminating the path to energy poverty

Just as with property taxes, energy bills often require low-income families to make decisions about whether to pay for food and other basic needs, or keep the lights on and water flowing.

“This burden can end up impacting a family’s long-term health, education, employment and financial stability,” says Tony Reames, assistant professor at U-M’s School of Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) and the project’s principal investigator. “However, households can be empowered to reduce this burden when they become energy efficient, which can substantially reduce their bills.”

But questions about equity and access to energy efficiency resources remain. Through a grant from Poverty Solutions, Reames and SEAS graduate student Ben Stacey are examining whether energy efficiency investments are being distributed equitably, whether some states have policies more effective than others, and how to compare this performance across states.

“Energy efficiency offers an opportunity to address energy poverty measures like LED lighting, energy-efficient HVAC systems and insulation,” says Reames. “But current state policies often distribute funding and program benefits disproportionately across socioeconomic groups.”

Reames and Stacey first noticed this issue when researching the availability of energy efficient light bulbs in Detroit. They found that in high-poverty areas, few retailers carried efficient light bulbs and almost none provided cost-lowering in-store rebates through utility energy efficiency programs.

That finding led to a collaboration with organizations like EcoWorks Detroit, Michigan Public Service Commission and the State Energy Waste Reduction Collaborative on an analysis which found that while Michigan legislation required utilities to provide low-income targeted programs, however, did not require a specific spending level.

The team discovered that other states did have standards for distributing funding in an equitable way and they are now examining how Michigan stacks up.

Ben Stacey presents findings at the Energy Policy and Research Conference in Boise, Idaho.

“We’ve found significant difference between how states and utilities within states are performing in terms of equitably investing in low-income energy efficiency programs — and several states are improving their performance as policy changes emerge in response to the concerns of advocacy groups.,” says Ben Stacey.

Reames and Stacey hope to impact states’ home energy affordability gap by helping utilities and states make more equitable program investments. They have begun sharing preliminary results with colleagues and organizations across the nation. And in one recent brief, Reames’ research team also examined water affordability in Detroit.

The researchers believe this work could help guide state policy makers, regulatory agencies, utility decision makers and energy affordability practitioners to determine appropriate levels of investments in low-income programs could be annual energy efficiency portfolios.

“Our hope is that this research will help more equitably direct hundreds of millions of annual residential ratepayer-funded dollars toward the reduction of each state’s severe home energy affordability gap,” says Reames.

More about the project.