Arc of Systems Change: At Home in Detroit

January 31, 2020

The arc of systems change starts with listening to community input to set a collective research agenda and then analyzing data and research help to identify policy gaps. Next, we identify possible solutions and propose evidence-based interventions. Finally, we support the implementation of new policies and practices and evaluate the outcome.

Research supported by Poverty Solutions is informing policy developments to help more Detroiters maintain safe, affordable housing. While each project supports an individual intervention, these efforts and others by community organizations, advocates, and practitioners can add up to shift the affordable housing system toward positive change. These efforts are necessary to counteract the legacy of historic segregation and exclusion.  

Listen: Property tax relief for low-income homeowners

With support from Poverty Solutions, Doctoral Candidate Alexa Eisenberg and Assistant Professor Roshanak Mehdipanah, both of the School of Public Health, partnered with the United Community Housing Coalition in Detroit to interview homeowners faxing tax foreclosure about their experiences applying for Detroit’s Homeowners Property Tax Assistance Program. 

By listening and learning from the experiences of homeowners, the researchers found many people who are eligible for the poverty tax exemption did not know about it. For those who were aware of the program, the complexity of the application process often prevented them from successfully receiving the tax break. The study outlined several ways to increase access to the poverty tax exemption. 

The City of Detroit made changes to streamline the application process in November 2018 and increased efforts to make people aware of the poverty tax exemption. In 2019, Detroit granted 7,601 property tax exemptions to qualifying homeowners through HPTAP, according to the Detroit News, which is up from about 6,500 exemptions in 2018 and 5,500 exemptions in 2017.

Related: Preventing owner-occupied property tax foreclosures in Detroit: Improving access to the poverty tax exemption

Analyze: Maintaining affordable housing 

In 2017, Poverty Solutions supported Professors Margaret Dewar and Lan Deng, of U-M’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, to work with the City of Detroit and a number of community development and housing advocacy organizations to analyze the stock of properties in Detroit developed through Low Income Housing Tax Credits.

The researchers identified all LIHTC properties whose affordability restrictions were set to expire between 2016 and 2022, compiled a host of information about the properties, and mapped them by neighborhood. This resource has been critical to city staff as they make plans to preserve affordable housing in developing neighborhoods, and the research also highlighted the central challenge of maintaining quality housing stock in weak-market neighborhoods.  

Identify solutions: Eviction and foreclosure prevention

A report led by U-M-Dearborn Assistant Professor Joshua Akers examined the long-term outcomes for homes bought through the Wayne County Tax Foreclosure Auction by property speculators. His research revealed a cycle of foreclosures and evictions that has destabilized neighborhoods. Based on those findings, Poverty Solutions staff Patrick Cooney and Amanda Nothaft highlighted several interventions from the paper to stop that cycle, including a retroactive poverty tax exemption for low-income homeowners and guaranteed legal counsel for low-income tenants in eviction court. 

A retroactive poverty tax exemption also was recommended in Eisenberg and Mehdipanah’s research on foreclosure prevention. 

Related: Stopping the Eviction Machine in Detroit

Implement: Resources for home repairs

Detroit’s Affordable Housing Policy Fellow Karen Otzen, who is supported by a partnership between the city and Poverty Solutions, led an evaluation of the city’s three main home repair programs. She found a number of potential areas for reform, including the creation of a single-stream application for all home repair programs in the city, and she’s now leading the development of that application. 

In addition, Poverty Solutions Graduate Intern Ryan Ruggiero spent the summer compiling a Detroit Home Repair Resource Guide. Demand for the guide has been extraordinary, which confirms our initial finding that home repair is a critical need in the city and demonstrates there’s much more we can do in this area.

Related: Detroit Home Repair Resource Guide

Evaluate: Outcomes for Right of First Refusal

Beginning in 2017, the City of Detroit, United Community Housing Coalition, and Quicken Loans partnered to divert qualifying occupied homes from the Wayne County Tax Foreclosure Auction so residents could buy back the property for a portion of the taxes owed.

Poverty Solutions supported U-M faculty in evaluating outcomes for the first year of the program, and they found the program was effective at preventing residents from being forced out of their houses. However, the research revealed a need for emergency home repairs in order to keep homeowners in the houses long-term. 

 In part as a result of these findings, in the second year of the program — now dubbed Make it Home — the Quicken Loans Community Fund offered $300,000 in grant and loan funds to a sample of Make it Home participants. In 2018, the program grew to over 500 participants.

 Poverty Solutions is supporting Eisenberg in evaluating the impact these loan funds have on residents’ perceived housing stability. If effective, the program could be a model for providing a low-cost pathway to homeownership for low-income Detroit households.