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Reinforcing Low-income Homeownership through Home Repair: Evaluation of the Make It Home Repair Program

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By Alexa Eisenberg, Connor Wakayama, and Patrick Cooney

Introduction

For most Detroit residents with low incomes, safe and affordable housing is far out of reach. An inadequate supply of subsidized housing units and vouchers, coupled with a recent history of mortgage and tax foreclosures, leaves a growing number of low-income households to seek shelter in an increasingly competitive private rental market. In 2019, housing costs were unaffordable for 73% of Detroit renters earning less than $35,000, with nearly half of these households spending at least 50% of their monthly incomes on rent. The majority of Detroit rental properties lack registration certifying code compliance; as a result, thousands of landlords operate their rental units in violation of health and safety codes. Substandard housing conditions are commonplace in Detroit’s aged housing stock, and landlords file for eviction against the equivalent of 1 in 5 renting households each year. Landlord disinvestment and foreclosures lead many tenants to endure prolonged periods of disrepair and the threat of displacement.

Faced with a rental housing system that fails to adequately or affordably house residents with low incomes, housing advocates and local officials in Detroit are pursuing programs that aim to promote housing stability for low-income households through homeownership. While the city’s abundance of low-cost housing makes these programs possible, poor housing conditions threaten their viability, as major home repair needs can undermine the safety and sustainability of homeownership. This brief evaluates how a flexible, low-cost strategy undertaken by the United Community Housing Coalition (UCHC) is being used to address the critical home repair needs of some homeowners with low incomes in Detroit, shedding light on how access to home repair assistance can impact homeowners’ perceptions of their housing safety and stability. Lessons from this evaluation can inform policy and program recommendations to reinforce low-income homeownership in Detroit through home repair.

Key Findings

  • Program participants faced multiple, major home repair needs that impacted the safety and livability of their homes. Program-eligible homeowners reported an average of three major repair needs related to their home’s structural elements or systems. The most common need related to roofing.
  • Small-sum repair grants addressed many of participants’ critical repair needs. A median of $6,000 per participant in monetary and in-kind grants enabled participating homeowners to address, on average, one of every two major repair needs.
  • Homeowners reported improvements to the safety of their housing and stability of their ownership as a result of the program. All participants reported that the program was “very important” or “important” for their household’s safety and ability to stay in the home; one-quarter reported that without the program, they would have had to leave the home permanently.
  • The program provided homeowners streamlined access to emergency repair funds that would likely have been unavailable otherwise, but gaps and challenges remain. All participants stated it would have been difficult to make repairs without the program; 75% were “not confident at all” that they would have accessed another grant or loan for assistance. Still, ongoing repair needs and high housing cost burdens remained a challenge for some participants.

Policy Recommendations

  • The City of Detroit, nonprofit entities, and their philanthropic partners should prioritize occupied housing for home repair investments and couple programs that convey foreclosed homes to their occupants with adequate resources for major home repairs.
  • State and local governments can help preserve low-income homeownership by providing streamlined access to small-sum emergency grants for health and safety repairs.
  • The City of Detroit can restructure its 0% Interest Home Repair Loan program to serve homeowners with very low incomes by offering deferred loans with no credit score requirement.
  • The City of Detroit should enforce its rental ordinance and strengthen tenant protections to improve conditions for renters and prevent further deterioration of Detroit’s affordable housing stock.
  • The federal government should invest substantially in home repair and new affordable housing, especially in cities harmed by a legacy of anti-Black structural racism and discrimination in the US housing system.

Download PDF of full policy brief