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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.
In August 2021, Rukiya Colvin attended a public meeting of the Detroit Housing Commission (DHC). That was the event that started Outlier Media’s multipart investigation into the agency, the city’s largest provider of affordable housing.
Colvin was taking notes at the DHC’s Board of Commissioners meeting. It was one of their first assignments for Detroit Documenters, Outlier’s program to train and pay people to attend public meetings and take notes. Colvin, a freelance reporter and community organizer, got curious after hearing the DHC’s plans to acquire a troubled property, renovate it and make it livable again for its residents.
Instead of finding the DHC eager to talk about its plans for the Villages at Parkside, Colvin encountered anxious residents and an uncooperative agency. Colvin wrote about the DHC’s unclear plans for the Villages at Parkside and started to pore over inspection reports, which culminated in our investigation into the poor conditions at the commission’s properties.
We spoke to Colvin about what kept them interested in learning more about the DHC over almost two years, and what they learned from reporting these stories.
This article has been edited for length and clarity.
Outlier Media: What drew you to learning more about the Detroit Housing Commission?
Rukiya Colvin: It started for me back in August 2021. It was one of my very first assignments for Detroit Documenters. I chose to document the DHC Board of Commissioners meeting because I was still in grad school and housing was my main focus. During public comment for this particular meeting, there was a tenant from the Villages at Parkside that mentioned some really alarming things about the property’s condition, like serious roof and safety issues. It kind of raised my alarm bells. I started to get a little nosy and see what was happening.
What did you expect to find? What did you find?
This was a year into COVID. So I expected to find some sort explanation or reports on why there was a delay in the DHC fixing up this property. I drove past the development, and I noticed how deserted it was and how many units were boarded up, and just how bad it looked. I wasn’t expecting to find that. After seeing the physical condition of the property, I looked at board packets and saw how many units were vacant, how low the inspection score was. And that was really alarming for me and definitely something I wasn’t expecting to find.
I also didn’t realize prior to looking into it that it was a completely, privately owned housing development. So when I learned that they were taking over the property, I was curious to know why it took so long. It had been in rough shape for about a decade.
How cooperative was the housing commission in telling you about its plans and keeping residents informed?
“I think a lot about what accountability looks like because it doesn’t seem like there’s much of it in this case.”
They weren’t very cooperative with me at all. Throughout my time researching this story, I was unable to directly speak with someone from the housing commission. I sent emails and called a number of staff and never got a response. I went to their office and wasn’t even let inside, but was given a phone number to call.
Finally, at the very last minute as my story was about to be published, I heard back. They said that they didn’t have any available times to speak with me. I had to rely on FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests of board packets and conversations with the head of a community association who gave me some leads.
This could have been just a single instance of the commission not doing its job adequately and not indicative of broader issues. What clues led you to keep digging?
There was one particular board packet that listed out in detail the inspection scores for all of its properties. There were a couple that had really alarmingly low scores.
We saw what those scores were like in person. What does it mean when a development gets a 16 out of 100 in real life, as was the case with the Diggs Homes?
Going to the physical properties and seeing how those low scores manifested was really alarming. You have leaky ceilings and a roof that clearly needs some repair. You have flooded basements and horrible odors. You have rodent and roach problems. People are forced to live in these conditions for years at a time.
And people said the DHC told them, “We’ll get to your issues when we can.” Or they would say that (the DHC) came out and fixed the issue, but they just put a Band-Aid on the problem. Those low scores basically translate as almost-unlivable conditions.
You’ve been in the weeds of the Detroit Housing Commission for almost two years. We’ve just published this really long, investigative piece. What is it like for you to put this project out into the world? How has it shaped your understanding of housing in Detroit?
It feels really good to get this story out because I’m also an organizer. I’m really big on challenging the status quo and agitating where necessary.
Activism in Detroit often has a lot to do with problematic landlords or folks who are fighting for property tax justice and home repairs. You hardly ever hear anyone talking about what’s going on with the tenants who have to live in units that are owned by the housing commission. It just felt like it was my responsibility to get this out and bring attention to what these folks are going through, especially as someone who is really passionate and interested in the fight for housing for all people.
But I also don’t want to be like, “okay, this is out,” and that’s it. Unfortunately, the issue is so pervasive that it needs continuous research.
Why don’t you think anyone has held the DHC accountable yet?
What does it mean to truly hold them (accountable) when it seems like there’s no real oversight for them? There’s a board appointed by the mayor, but the city isn’t watching the DHC or holding it accountable. It doesn’t seem like the local HUD field office is doing much. I think a lot about what accountability looks like because it doesn’t seem like there’s much of it in this case.
The housing commission has to submit reports to the board. They’re aware of the situation. They see problematic things. But now what? How do they help them to change conditions?
CEO Sandra Henriquez told us that changes are coming by the end of the year. OK. If change doesn’t come, then what? Who holds her to that?