Losing Home: Housing Instability and Availability in Detroit

Back to Policy Briefs

May 2020

By Jennifer Erb-Downward and Safiya Merchant

Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan

Download printable version (Adobe PDF)


Housing stability is critical to the prosperity and well-being of cities and their residents. Without stable
housing, it has been widely shown that children are more likely to struggle in school, adults are more
likely to lose employment, and individuals — both young and old — are more likely to suffer from poor
health outcomes. While the negative consequences of housing instability are clear, what is harder to assess is the full extent of instability experienced by residents in communities. This is particularly true in
the City of Detroit, where multiple data sources point to high rates of foreclosure, eviction, and housing stock deterioration, but no single estimate exists of the cumulative impact of these factors on Detroit residents or overall housing availability.

This brief seeks to bring together data from the 2017 Detroit Metro Area Communities Study (DMACS) to estimate the population wide experience of housing instability in Detroit prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Data from the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force, the American Community Survey, and the Detroit’s Housing and Revitalization Department are then used to estimate the number of housing units in the city that are inhabitable, in an effort to get a more accurate picture of the city’s housing supply.

Key findings

Prior to the economic impact of COVID-19, maintaining stable housing was already a significant challenge for many Detroit residents. In 2017, 13% of residents reported being evicted or losing their housing in the past year. That is the equivalent of roughly 88,382 Detroiters losing their home in just one year alone.

Families with children under the age of 18 faced the greatest risk of losing their housing. 16% of households with children reported being evicted in the last year — the equivalent of over 12,000 families including more than 27,000 children.

There is insufficient habitable housing to meet the needs of Detroit’s low-income residents. The City of Detroit has an estimated 24,000 fewer units of habitable housing than the city’s population. This leaves 9% of all households in Detroit with no other options than to leave the city, live in blighted housing, or doubled up with other families.


IMMEDIATE ACTIONS to protect Detroit residents struggling with the economic impact of COVID-19

  • Extend Detroit’s Moratoria on Evictions. Detroit’s local moratorium on evictions should be
    extended to align with the CARES Act (July 25) or 30 days after stay at home orders end, whichever is later. This will provide Detroiters with an opportunity to return to work and will give the city the time it needs to fully implement assistance for residence through available CARES Act
  • Provide a Grace Period for the Payment of Back Rent and Prohibit Evictions or the Application of Late Fees During this Time. As a result of the statewide closure of all non-essential businesses, even more Detroiters are struggling financially. For many residents, paying rent due in April and May after being unable to work will be impossible. Implementing a grace period in Detroit as well as the ability to negotiate payment of back rent would stabilize residents while preventing a surge of eviction cases in the courts. Connecticut has already implemented this type of policy providing tenants with an automatic 60-day grace period to pay April rent and an additional 60-day grace period to pay May rent that can be requested. During these grace periods, landlords are not allowed to report late rent payments to credit agencies. Additionally, four states and the District of Columbia have implemented policies preventing late fees for unpaid rent during the state of emergency.
  • Increase Financial Assistance for Renters. Providing Detroiters with rental assistance now is a vital step to ensuring that the amount of rent owed by tenants does not reach amounts that make repayment impossible. This type of assistance would not only keep tenants in their homes but would also allow landlords to continue to pay their mortgages and other expenses. Local dollars allocated to Detroit through Emergency Solutions Grants, and Community Development Block Grants could be used to support this type of program.

MEDIUM-TERM RECOMMENDATIONS to increase housing stability in Detroit

  • Guarantee Residents Facing Eviction with a Right to Counsel. Another way for Detroit to
    reduce housing instability is to provide lowincome residents facing eviction with a right to legal counsel. This type of program has been implemented in several cities across the country — including New York City, San Francisco, Newark, Philadelphia, and Cleveland — and could provide alternative solutions to eviction for thousands of residents and landlords. Given the financial impact of COVID-19 on the City of Detroit, a program like this may now only be possible through the collaborative funding by philanthropies and potentially leveraging Community Development Block Grant dollars.
  • Amend MCR 4.201 to Require that all Tenants in Eviction Cases be Served with a Locally Developed Rights and Resource Page. When tenants are served with an eviction notice, they are often unaware of their rights or what resources may be available to help them remain in their home. Including a rights and resources page that is locally developed and tailored to the resources available in Detroit would help to ensure due process and equity for tenants and reduce unnecessary evictions. Such a resource could also include critical information for tenants who are evicted, such as how to access emergency shelter and, if the tenant has children, their rights to additional educational supports under the law.
  • Uphold Tenant Right to Withhold Rent. In Detroit’s rental ordinance, landlords must register their properties and obtain a certificate of occupancy, a process that requires property inspections and serves as a way to combat substandard rental housing stock. Although the ordinance allows tenants to place rent payments in escrow if landlords fail to earn a certificate of compliance, the 36th District Court does not always honor tenants’ right to withhold rent. As a part of efforts to reduce evictions, Detroit’s Housing, Planning and Development Office has announced that it will be revising Detroit’s rental ordinances to better support tenants. Evaluating the legal process to ensure the court upholds rights as outlined in the ordinance is a critical to the success of these efforts.

LONG-TERM RECOMMENDATION to boost housing supply

  • Expand Investments in Affordable Housing Development. The city’s commitment to preserve and build 12,000 affordable housing units by 2023 is an important first step to residential infrastructure development, but data here suggests that two times that number of residential units are needed just to address the current shortage. Without sufficient inhabitable housing stock, Detroit will continue to see high levels of housing instability. In order to achieve the scope of new construction needed, innovative financing strategies that ensure affordability for low-income renters and build on cross-sector partnerships between government, philanthropy, and business will be needed.

Please download the printable version for the full content of the policy brief