Detroit’s housing crisis is multifaceted and complex. It has been shaped by an inadequate supply of affordable housing; high property tax rates often based on inflated property assessments; aging and deteriorating housing; a lack of home repair resources; and a pattern of bulk ownership that has exacerbated displacement pressures.
Each of these factors contributes to an environment in which safe, stable, and affordable housing is out of reach for many residents with low incomes. As city officials and housing advocacy organizations work to address those challenges, research supported by Poverty Solutions provides crucial feedback on what’s effective and what’s not.
Over the past five years, researchers at Poverty Solutions have explored a number of features of Detroit’s housing ecosystem that prevent many Detroiters—78% of whom are Black—from obtaining safe, stable, affordable housing. First, predatory lending practices and the economic impact of the recession led to widespread mortgage and tax foreclosures. From 2005 to 2015, 120,000 residential properties in Detroit—nearly half of all such properties in the city—experienced at least one mortgage or tax foreclosure. During this time, Detroit shifted from a majority-owner to a majority-renter city. And while thousands of homeowners were eligible for Detroit’s Homeowners Property Tax Assistance Program (HPTAP, now called HOPE), Poverty Solutions researchers found that just a fraction of those eligible applied for this exemption that could have prevented foreclosure.
The large number of foreclosures spurred greater instability in the city’s housing market, as speculators bought foreclosed properties in bulk, generated profits, and in numerous cases evicted tenants. With banks largely unwilling to lend after the foreclosure crisis, many of these homes were also resold to Detroiters through predatory land contracts, which often carry high interest rates and little protection from eviction.
In addition, due to the city’s aging housing stock, deferred maintenance from investor-landlords, and limited enforcement of rental codes, homeowners and renters alike face significant home repair needs, threatening their health, safety, and long-term housing stability.
These factors combine to create significant barriers to Detroiters obtaining safe, stable, affordable housing. And it is these barriers that Poverty Solutions researchers have set out to tackle, in partnership with policymakers and community groups.
To fully understand how these housing issues affected Detroiters, Poverty Solutions staff and faculty affiliates analyzed the housing needs of residents and the housing ecosystem in a variety of ways:
- Helped identify housing in Detroit at risk of losing affordability protections;
- Interviewed 105 homeowners with low incomes to understand the barriers they faced in accessing Detroit’s HPTAP exemption;
- Analyzed patterns and consequences of bulk property ownership in Detroit by linking datasets on property transactions and ownership to subsequent eviction filings, childhood lead poisoning events, and demolitions;
- Interviewed dozens of community-based organizations to better understand the city’s home repair ecosystem;
- Analyzed overall home repair needs in Detroit;
- Partnered with the City of Detroit to place an Affordable Housing Policy Fellow, Karen Kling, in the Housing and Revitalization Department where she evaluated existing home repair programs in the city and reviewed leading home repair programs in other cities;
- Interviewed 39 participants in a local program that helps Detroit homeowners with low incomes pay for necessary home repairs, to understand the impact of small-scale, emergency repairs on housing stability;
- Reviewed existing research on land contracts and interviewed local and national experts on the dangers and potential benefits of land contracts;
- Met with community leaders and local residents to discuss the factors that led to both positive and negative experiences with land contracts.
In 2017, Poverty Solutions faculty experts Margaret Dewar and Lan Deng helped compile information about Low Income Housing Tax Credit properties whose affordability restrictions were set to expire between 2016 and 2022 and map them by neighborhood. This resource has been critical to city staff as they make plans to preserve affordable housing in developing neighborhoods.
In December 2018, Poverty Solutions faculty expert Roshanak Mehdipanah and postdoctoral fellow Alexa Eisenberg published a report and policy brief sharing the findings of the HPTAP research. This research found that 70% of the homeowners interviewed had never applied for HPTAP, even though 92% would have qualified for the exemption. Importantly, the researchers also found the application process often prevented eligible homeowners from successfully receiving the tax exemption. These publications outlined several recommendations for how to improve HPTAP awareness, access, and accountability, and alleviate tax debt for eligible residents who hadn’t received the exemption in past years.
This was followed by a working paper by Poverty Solutions faculty expert Josh Akers (and co-author Eric Seymour) and subsequent policy brief in 2019 outlining how bulk property sales created an “eviction machine” that magnified housing instability in Detroit’s low-income housing market. According to this research, 90% of purchases from the Wayne County tax foreclosure auction went to investors and bulk buyers. These properties were the sites of multiple evictions, neglect, additional tax foreclosures, and eventual demolition at public cost. Researchers recommended a number of reforms, including significant modifications to the tax foreclosure auction; targeted attention to owners with an outsized number of evictions and demolitions; support for renters living in properties in significant disrepair; a retroactive property tax exemption for homeowners with low incomes; and guaranteed legal counsel for tenants with low incomes facing eviction.
In 2021, Poverty Solutions disseminated another policy brief on the risks and benefits of land contracts in Detroit. This brief both outlined how these contracts could affect housing stability and proposed policy guardrails to maximize protections for Detroiters.
Also in 2021, Poverty Solutions shared a working paper, policy brief, and report on public attitudes that documented the magnitude of home repair needs in Detroit. The findings noted that around 90,000 Detroiters are living in housing with significant repair needs—most of which residents were not able to afford. They also found that for participants of United Community Housing Coalition’s Make It Home Repair Program, small-sum repair grants helped address many critical repair needs.
Detroit City Council passed an ordinance in November 2018 that simplified the HPTAP application; Eisenberg worked with the Coalition to End Unconstitutional Tax Foreclosures (now the Coalition for Property Tax Justice) to help draft that ordinance and revise the city’s HPTAP application.
In March 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer drew from the recommendations of a coalition of community leaders, including Poverty Solutions, to create a new “Pay as You Stay” program that reduced the burden of back property taxes for low-income Detroiters who qualify for HPTAP.
In 2020, Poverty Solutions served on a working group with the governor’s office to establish a comprehensive $50 million eviction diversion program that included emergency rental assistance funding, expanded eviction diversion programs statewide, and changed court procedures to enable tenants to connect with legal services and protect their rights. This program was informed by recommendations outlined in research supported by Poverty Solutions and led by faculty affiliates Robert Goodspeed and Dewar in partnership with housing attorneys. Their research provided the first comprehensive analysis of statewide eviction filing rates.
Currently, members of the Poverty Solutions team, in partnership with Enterprise Community Partners, are working with the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, Michigan Department of Insurance and Financial Services, and the City of Detroit’s Working Group on Consumer Financial Protection to provide research that will inform legislative guardrails that protect land contract buyers. In addition, Poverty Solutions is creating a Land Contract Buyer Guide to share with community members.
In September 2021, the City of Detroit announced a new $30 million program, funded by the American Rescue Plan Act, to help low-income senior citizens and homeowners with disabilities get major home repairs. This program was informed by Poverty Solutions’ work with the Detroit Metro Area Communities Study to survey Detroit residents on home repair needs as well as its evaluation of home repair resources in Detroit and analysis of the UCHC Make It Home Repair Program.
In addition to using evidence to help inform and implement new programs, Poverty Solutions researchers also evaluate the impact of new programs and policies, building our collective knowledge about enhancing housing stability in Detroit.
Based on policy changes that were informed by Poverty Solutions research, there has been a significant increase in the number of Detroiters who applied for assistance through HPTAP. In 2019, 9,089 homeowners received tax exemptions through the program, which exceeds the 7,880 full and partial tax exemptions granted in 2018 and 5,836 exemptions in 2017.
And this work will only continue, as Poverty Solutions researchers seek to understand and improve upon programs and policies—around eviction prevention, land contracts, home repair, homeownership, code enforcement, and more—to build a more supportive housing ecosystem in Detroit. We will continue to listen, analyze the data, share our findings, work with policymakers and community groups to help design new programs and policies, and evaluate the impact of that work, in an effort to do our part to help all Detroit residents obtain safe, stable, and affordable housing.
Our collaboration with Poverty Solutions has been instrumental in building stakeholder consensus on land contract policies and has significantly improved the likelihood that the State will enact the recommended reforms. It is hard to convey how valuable I find my relationship with Poverty Solutions and its partners, but I can attest, they have my trust, and I look forward to collaborating on additional projects in the future.
—Sam Buchalter, special assistant for program development, Michigan State Housing Development Authority
Poverty Solutions Op-Eds & Features on Housing
Detroit News: Suspending the tax auction was long overdue. Let’s not bring it back.
New York Times: A progressive vision is possible if we spend money thoughtfully now.
Robert Gordon and Michele Jolin