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This article is part of The Low-Rent Trap, a series about the city’s largest provider of affordable housing. Read other stories in the series here.
The most consistent complaint from Detroiters about the nearly $800 million in tax breaks and subsidies for District Detroit was that it wouldn’t create enough affordable housing to justify the money being spent. Residents often chimed in during public hearings to say the $1.5 billion project would displace downtown residents if it wasn’t balanced with affordable apartments.
Although a loan agreement with the Downtown Development Authority ultimately requires the developers to make 20% of the housing more affordable, outcry about housing in the city is common. Detroiters regularly plead with the city to build more affordable housing. But the Detroit Housing Commission (DHC), the largest provider of affordable housing in the city, has relatively little scrutiny.
Nearly 10,000 Detroit households rent units owned by the commission or use its vouchers to subsidize rent in other homes or apartments.
There are long waitlists for apartments and vouchers, and the DHC was in receivership for 10 years until 2015 due to its rundown housing, poor accounting practices and chronic mismanagement.
Through a series of articles over the next month, Outlier Media will take a closer look at how the DHC performs its main task of providing safe, affordable housing to Detroiters. The commission hasn’t been particularly transparent or accessible, making it difficult to understand its processes.
Here are some of the most important facts about one of the city’s largest landlords.
How much of Detroit’s affordable housing is owned by the DHC?
The DHC — created in 1933 — is by far the largest provider of affordable housing in the city and potentially its largest landlord. Dan Austin, director of communications with the planning and housing departments for the city, said there are 13,500 affordable apartments or homes in Detroit required to rent to people who make 50% or less of the area median income ($44,750 for a family of four). This number does not include the DHC’s properties.
Mark Lane, DHC spokesperson and senior director of 98Forward, said the commission owns or runs more than 3,400 units, which is about 25% of the city’s regulated affordable housing stock.
About 6,000 people live in DHC properties, Lane said. The commission is the sole owner of 1,500 units in 15 different properties. Through partnerships with private investors, it has an ownership stake in another 27 properties containing 1,900 units.
How do voucher programs work?
The DHC manages two voucher programs that let low-income residents and older Detroiters use DHC funds to pay for rent in private apartments or homes. In both cases, the tenant pays 30% of their income on rent and utilities, and the DHC pays the rest.
Holders of Section 8 vouchers, also called tenant-based vouchers, find housing on their own. If the landlord is willing to accept a voucher, the DHC must inspect the property to make sure it meets certain basic standards before a tenant can move in.
Private developers can also contract with the DHC for the Project Based Voucher Program. These vouchers are attached to a specific property, and potential tenants apply through the DHC to live there.
Both programs are funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Tell me more about the DHC’s properties.
The DHC owns properties in every corner of the city, from Cass Corridor and Woodbridge, to the far eastside near Morningside, to Warrendale on the far westside and in many other neighborhoods further north.
Most of the DHC’s properties are multi-family buildings or townhomes built decades ago. The oldest development in the commission’s portfolio is Sojourner Truth Homes, built in the 1940s, and the newest is Brewster Homes, built in the 1990s. Five of its buildings are reserved for people over the age of 55.
Townhomes or low-rise apartments are most common in DHC developments. The DHC also owns 207 single-family homes scattered all over the city.
The commission’s most iconic property and one of Detroit’s first and most storied public housing complexes — known best as the Brewster-Douglass Housing Project (where Diana Ross and the Supremes grew up) — was demolished by 2014.
Who calls these DHC properties home?
The DHC exists to provide homes to Detroiters who otherwise could not afford them. To make sure the housing stays affordable, tenants don’t pay more than 30% of their income on rent.
About one-third of Detroiters make do with an income under the federal poverty line. The proportion of DHC tenants with an income under the poverty line is 80%, according to HUD data collected by ProPublica in 2019. Almost one-third of all DHC residents are older than 62.
Does the DHC provide enough housing for the people who need it?
The waitlist for DHC properties is immense, and people often stay on the list for years. At the same time, there are empty DHC apartments and houses.
Lane, the DHC spokesperson, said 80,000 people (more than 12% of the city’s population) are on waitlists across all their properties.
At the same time, about 750 of the DHC’s 3,409 units, nearly 22%, are vacant despite the incredible demand. The DHC is intentionally keeping some of these homes vacant in order to rehab them, but HUD spokesperson Monica Smith told Outlier the DHC is still well below its goal of 96% occupancy.
The waitlist for the DHC’s voucher programs is also long. Lane said 6,459 Detroiters have Section 8 vouchers as of April they can use anywhere in Michigan. But only 5,009 are successfully using them because finding a suitable home whose owner accepts vouchers can be challenging. Another 4,200 people are on the Section 8 waitlist and can expect to wait anywhere between two to five years.
People normally apply for the waitlist through the DHC’s website to get in line. At the moment, waitlists for all of its buildings and for the voucher program are closed. The DHC also has a calculator on its website to help residents determine whether they’ll be eligible as well as estimated rent.
Can the DHC evict or ban people from its properties?
In both cases, yes.
The DHC can evict tenants for nonpayment of rent or for violating leases. Hundreds of DHC tenants have fallen months or years behind on rent since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Lane said it has only evicted 25 households in the last 12 months.
Private developers that work with the commission have more leeway to evict. Gardenview Estates and Woodbridge Estates, properties where DHC owns the land but does not manage the buildings, have been two of the top 10 evictors in the city since 2019. The properties regularly file termination of tenancy cases, meaning they refuse to renew a tenant’s lease, even if that tenant has paid rent.
Residents can be banned from DHC housing if they’ve been previously evicted from any public housing for certain behavior like using or selling illegal drugs, violent crimes, sex crimes or robbery.
Who runs the DHC?
The Detroit Housing Commission is overseen by the federal government but locally managed as a Public Housing Authority.
The commission reports to HUD and its Detroit Field Office. HUD is responsible for regularly inspecting all DHC properties, grading its management of the Section 8 program and auditing its spending.
The mayor appoints all members of DHC’s five-member Board of Commissioners. The board meets monthly and approves all major decisions made by the DHC around contracts, property acquisitions and finances.
The DHC is run day-to-day by CEO Sandra Henriquez, who was hired in 2019. She previously served as administrator and CEO of the Boston Housing Authority and as assistant secretary for the Office of Public and Indian Housing for HUD under President Barack Obama.
If you’re in a DHC property and have a problem, how does it get fixed?
Residents of homes managed by the DHC can call its offices or use the online resident portal to submit a repair request. The commission conducts annual inspections at most of its units and before move-ins. High scoring properties are inspected less frequently.
Four of the properties it owns and all of its mixed-financed properties are managed by third parties and have their own way of processing work orders. Only the units fully subsidized by HUD are subject to regular inspections.
Those inspections are currently being done for the first time since the start of the pandemic. Six properties received failing scores when they were last conducted in late 2019 and early 2020, and several more nearly failed.
This article has been updated to clarify the number of affordable units counted by the city and the Detroit Housing Commission’s proportion of affordable units.
Detroit Housing Commission (DHC) by the numbers
- Nearly 10,000 Detroit households rent in units owned by the DHC or have vouchers it supplies
- The DHC owns about 25% of the city’s regulated affordable housing stock
- The DHC has an ownership stake in 42 different developments, including 207 single-family homes
- 80,000 people (more than 12% of the city’s population) are on waitlists across all DHC properties
- 750 of the DHC’s 3,409 units (nearly 22%) are vacant
- 4,200 people are on the Section 8 waitlist with an expected wait time of two to five years
- Six DHC properties received failing scores when inspections were last conducted for HUD in 2019