Sandra Henriquez, the CEO of the Detroit Housing Commission (DHC), knew earlier this year that her organization was falling short of her expectations, federal standards and goals set by its Board of Commissioners. The commission has failed property inspections for years, is leaving 20% of its units vacant, is severely understaffed and has waitlists that stretch for years.

Back in May, Henriquez acknowledged many of these issues when Outlier Media published an investigative series on the DHC’s failures. At the time, she was confident she could turn around the commission by the end of the year.

“I want to see how much we can accomplish in the next six or seven months moving forward,” she told Outlier then. 

“It won’t all be pretty. It won’t all be fixed. … But will we have the fundamentals about property management and service delivery and customer service?” she asked. “I believe we will.”

But the situation at the DHC has remained almost unchanged in the six months since Henriquez pledged change. Its vacancy rate is still well above federal standards, hundreds of vouchers continue to go unused, and staffing problems have persisted. 

Those who oversee the authority have not meted out any additional accountability or consequences even as they acknowledge the situation. 

“We’ve been nosediving for three years,” DHC Board of Commissioners President Richard Hosey said at the most recent board meeting in October, referring to the DHC’s poor management of the Section 8 program. Commissioner Achsah Williams called the commission’s performance “unacceptable.”

Despite the sharper words at recent meetings, the board has enacted no reforms. 

“The board believes that the best problem solving is based on frank discussion and analysis of the current situation and open scrutiny of potential remedies vs. past attempted remedies,” Hosey said by email. 

 “If we had full staff and if they knew what they were doing, then maybe we could get it done. But that’s as likely to line up at the same time as Jupiter, Mars and peace on Earth.”

A Detroit Housing Commission staffer, speaking about delays in tenant recertifications

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) oversees the DHC and has encouraged it to reduce the number of units it manages, but little else. The city continues to work with the DHC without tying additional units to improved performance.

The DHC through a spokesperson preemptively declined to answer any questions from Outlier about its performance. The DHC has also declined to publish one key metric used to judge improvement, inspection reports, this year.

HUD did not respond to Outlier’s request for comment in time for publication. 

Shortages and delays

The DHC houses the majority of its clients through its Section 8 voucher program. Voucher holders get to use this subsidy with any landlord in southeast Michigan that will accept it, and then pay no more than 30% of their income on rent. 

The DHC has more than 6,400 vouchers provided by HUD. According to HUD’s voucher data, 1,401 of these vouchers, or about 20%, aren’t being used by the commission — a rate that has barely budged in months. DHC spending for its Section 8 program is already projected to exceed the budget this year. This means the DHC has no capacity to get those unused vouchers out the door. 

The agency’s primary problem continues to be staffing. The DHC hasn’t been able to retain or hire enough workers to process paperwork so the voucher program functions like it should. 

Back in June, the DHC only had 12 housing specialists to process paperwork for 5,000 renters. A current staffer told Outlier then it needed at least twice as many specialists, and since then, other current and former staffers who spoke with Outlier agreed. 

The DHC declined to tell Outlier how many specialists it had on staff today. But a DHC employee told Outlier that staff shortages continue to be a problem. The employee, who requested anonymity because they feared losing their job, said they had heard four more people quit in the last two weeks alone, but Outlier could not verify this number. They said pay is low for the volume of work they’re expected to do. 

Staff shortages cause delays in the commission’s capacity to verify tenants’ income and then set a subsidy amount, both requirements before landlords start to collect rent.

The DHC continues to be so far behind in verification that landlords regularly don’t get their first payment until six months to a year after the renter moves in. The delays are causing landlords to refuse DHC vouchers in favor of those issued by other housing commissions more reliable with payments. 

One landlord, who did not want to be identified because they feared reprisal from the DHC, said that earlier this year it took them six months and emailing every person on the executive staff to get reimbursed. 

“I’ll no longer take any vouchers from the DHC unless I’m truly desperate,” they told Outlier earlier this week. 

“We fell off a cliff and can’t catch up”

Once tenants live in DHC housing or use a DHC voucher, they need to be “recertified” every year, a process that includes checking income and adjusting subsidies when necessary. Without this process running smoothly, the agency can end up spending too much on households that, compared to other DHC clients, may not need as much help. 

The DHC Board of Commissioners has focused on improving recertifications by hiring outside help. The DHC spent $562,500 in June to hire a third-party contractor called Hummingbird Management and Compliance Group LLC who would support the work for three months. It ended up renewing that contract and paying Hummingbird through the end of the year. 

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
  • 32,000 people are on waitlists across all DHC properties
  • 807 of the DHC’s 3,409 units (23%) are vacant, a rate high enough to warrant “more intense monitoring” from HUD
  • 4,200 people are on the Section 8 waitlist with an expected wait time of two to five years 
  • 13 of 15 DHC properties received failing scores when inspections were last made public in 2021

Numbers current as of November

At its October meeting, the board struggled to understand why even that spending didn’t seem to help.

In April, before the contractor was hired, the DHC completed just 221 out of 1,960 recertifications, including those from previous months. In September, the rate of recertification has barely budged. Just 298 out of 2,060 recertifications were completed that month.

“(I’m trying to understand) why we fell off a cliff and can’t catch up,” Hosey said at the October board meeting. 

Felicia Burris, DHC’s Housing Choice Voucher program manager, said it was taking more time than expected to onboard Hummingbird and called out staffing as an issue. 

“We have been working with deficient staff for quite some time,” Burris said. 

Commissioner Aaron Seybert said the DHC needed to do around 700 recertifications a month — double to triple the current pace — over the next six months to catch up. He asked Burris if she thought the agency could get there with Hummingbird’s support. 

“I think it is possible, yes,” Burris said. 

The anonymous DHC staffer that spoke with Outlier vehemently disagreed with Burris’ assessment. 

“It’s not gonna happen. Period,” they said. “If we had full staff and if they knew what they were doing, then maybe we could get it done. But that’s as likely to line up at the same time as Jupiter, Mars and peace on Earth.”

The board is still optimistic the DHC will get current on recertifications. 

“We will continue to diligently evaluate both the problem and potential solutions to return DHC to its pre-pandemic performance and then excel from there,” Hosey said. “We disagree with any staff who believes that past performance cannot be achieved again.”

Units sitting empty

The DHC has made some improvements in using vouchers largely reserved for disabled or older adults. But the people and agencies that rely on the DHC remain frustrated, saying it’s not good enough. They also have few, if any, other options. 

“We still haven’t seen much improvement,” said Presbyterian Villages of Michigan (PVM) President and CEO Roger Myers. PVM is a Southfield-based nonprofit provider of senior housing that owns three properties in Detroit accepting “project-based” vouchers from the DHC

“I hate to even say there’s been slight improvement because it’s nowhere near what it should be,” he added.

In May, the DHC’s mismanagement caused 189 of 792 project-based vouchers — almost 24% — to go unused. According to the city, that number has now improved to 106 of 775 vouchers, or about 14%. That number is still higher than the rest of the U.S. and Michigan, which both sit at around 9%.

Back in May, PVM said it would consistently have 10-15 vacant apartments because the DHC couldn’t process paperwork in a timely manner. Today, vacancies are between seven and 12 across their three buildings. 

Myers said none of the other housing commissions PVM works with have anywhere near the issues the DHC does. 

While units sit vacant and vouchers go unused, there is incredible demand building up. In May, the DHC said there were 14,000 people on the waitlist across all the properties that take these vouchers. 

“To have people living in substandard conditions in this city when there are perfectly good units available that are vacant just doesn’t make sense,” Myers said. 

Despite the lack of improvement at the DHC, the City of Detroit is putting more on its plate. The city has requested hundreds more project-based vouchers from HUD it wants to use in new developments as part of Mayor Mike Duggan’s affordable housing strategy

“We agree that given the acute need for housing at this income level, (the number of unused vouchers) is too high,” Donald Rencher, group executive of Housing, Planning and Development with the city, told Outlier by email.

He said the city continues to work with the DHC anyway. 

“The city must continue to coordinate with DHC to ensure that low income units are being made available to Detroit residents,” he said. 

The next DHC Board of Commissioners meeting is Nov. 16 at 10 a.m.

Aaron (he/him) believes in telling true stories about real people. He doesn’t think there’s anything better than a crisp fall afternoon at the Detroit Jazz Fest.