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.
Agencies and individuals responsible for oversight of the Detroit Housing Commission (DHC) have so far been reluctant to commit to reforms, despite acknowledging serious problems at the commission over the last several months.
A series of investigations by Outlier Media have revealed the DHC has failed property inspections for years, has extremely high vacancy rates, is severely understaffed and is many months behind payments to landlords in its Section 8 program.
These failures mean hundreds of DHC tenants are living in units with basements that regularly flood, roofs that leak, no hot water and pests like roaches or mice. Thirteen of 15 properties owned outright by the DHC failed inspections in 2021, the last year they were inspected. One property, the Diggs, scored a 16.01 out of 100 on its inspection.
Thousands of Detroiters are desperate to get into these units, despite poor conditions, because they are deeply affordable. DHC tenants pay no more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities. But vacancy rates for the DHC’s own buildings and the privately owned units it subsidizes far exceed national averages and standards set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Detroit Housing Commission CEO Sandra Henriquez told Outlier she’s given herself until the end of this year to fix many of the issues described in our reporting.
“Will we have the fundamentals about property management and service delivery and customer service (fixed by then)? I believe we will,” she said.
Still waiting on assistance
Over the past year, Outlier has spoken to dozens of people that interact with the DHC: tenants, landlords, developers and people who work directly for the DHC. The problems they believe the DHC is responsible for fixing have yet to be addressed.
Starreatha James has lived in a home with water damage, carpenter ants eating away at the walls and no working shower for months. DHC maintenance came by to inventory issues at her home shortly after Outlier’s article was published on May 10. No work has begun on her home.
“The DHC still hasn’t come out (to fix things), and they don’t call you back,” James told Outlier last week.
James is unemployed and lives with her disabled mother and teenage son. The family has been looking for a new home for the past two months, but it’s been difficult because of their low income.
Kea Mathis, a community organizer with Detroit People’s Platform, has been advocating for residents of the Sheridan apartments for the past several months. A flood in December caused significant damage to many of the hallways and units on the building’s first eight floors.
Mathis said work has finally begun on the hallways, but tenants have not been given a timeline for repairs or told when their units will be fixed. Lack of communication from the DHC has been a common complaint among residents.
“We call, we email, but their voicemail box is full, and they never write back or respond,” Mathis said. “They’re clearly understaffed. And the staff they do have isn’t going through things fast. They don’t act with any urgency.”
Mathis said the residents are hoping to meet with the new property management company at the Sheridan to get more clarity on the repair schedule.
A landlord who spoke to us in June under condition of anonymity complained then about the DHC taking more than five months to change a rental amount for their Section 8 renter. The DHC finally approved the rent change, but has still not reimbursed them for the $5,000 they said they’re owed in back rent.
This week, Outlier Media reached out to both of the agencies responsible for directly overseeing the DHC, its Board of Commissioners and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Neither made a commitment to instituting reforms.
HUD previously told Outlier that the DHC does not warrant more direct intervention.
“At HUD, we take our oversight responsibilities seriously in order to create and maintain affordable housing options for Detroit residents,” a HUD spokesperson told Outlier by email this week. “HUD has always been, and continues to be, committed to implementing its oversight responsibilities of the DHC as prescribed by regulation or internal policies and procedures.”
The DHC Board of Commissioners did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. They also declined to make any members available for an interview over the last two months.
The mayor is responsible for appointing members to the DHC’s board. The city is also partnering with the commission as part of its $203 million affordable housing plan and is looking to sell the DHC as many as 12 multifamily properties to rehab and rent to low-income tenants.
“To effectively address these challenges, it is crucial that the DHC executes its responsibilities proficiently, utilizing the resources at its disposal,” Donald Rencher, group executive of Housing, Planning and Development with the City of Detroit, said by email this week.
“With the recent addition of two board members appointed by the City, I have confidence that the DHC will implement necessary improvements to enhance housing conditions and establish a voucher system process that aligns with the expectations our residents rightfully deserve.”
Outlier reporters and Detroit Documenters have listened to multiple DHC board meetings over the last year. At the June meeting, openly frustrated commissioners approved a contract for a third-party contractor to help the DHC’s enormous backlog of tenants whose income hadn’t been verified.
“Because we’ve got this backlog, because we’re having to do this catch-up, we’re taking away valuable resources that could be put into use to generate more income for us,” commissioner Keona Cowan said.
DHC tenants who have questions or issues can attend one of the board’s monthly meetings and give public comment via Zoom.
U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, said action is needed to improve outcomes at the DHC. She told Outlier it’s “unacceptable that our most vulnerable residents are living in terrible conditions” and that she’s reached out to the DHC for a meeting to better understand the challenges it and its residents face.
“I would also like to hear from HUD what they’re doing to exercise their oversight role and respond to deteriorating conditions, vacancies, staffing shortages, payment delays, and other issues impacting DHC’s effectiveness,” Tlaib said by email. “As I dive deeper into these issues, I won’t hesitate to hold responsible parties accountable.”
If your complaints to the DHC are going unanswered, reach out to Aaron Mondry by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.