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.

Janise Pritchard worries about how much she’ll have to pay in rent more than almost anything else about a potential home. Small things like what kind of stove is in the kitchen or when the bathroom was last redone and even more important factors, like location, matter much less.

Pritchard has been able to afford her apartment at the Diggs Homes on East Canfield Street near I-75 because her landlord is the Detroit Housing Commission (DHC), the largest provider of affordable housing in the city

However, in exchange for rent that won’t go above 30% of her income, Pritchard has to put up with a basement that has been flooding for more than a year each time she does the laundry. On a visit to her home in February, the acrid stench of stagnant water from the basement hit Outlier Media reporters’ nostrils the moment we stepped through the front door.

“My house smells like a sewer,” Pritchard said. “It’s horrible. It’s really horrible.” 

Hundreds of Detroiters could be living in conditions similar to Pritchard’s. When the 15 properties owned by the DHC were last inspected in 2021, 13 failed. The DHC’s entire 42-development portfolio, which contains properties it co-owns with private developers, was last inspected in 2019. Properties fully controlled by the DHC performed far worse that year. 

The Diggs has failed each of its last three inspections. 

Pritchard says she’s complained about her situation to the DHC many times without success and that she can’t afford to move. If she did, the troubled unit would then go to one of the 80,000 other people on the waitlist for affordable DHC homes. Nearly two-thirds of Detroit residents are rent-burdened, spending more than 30% of their income on rent.

A five-member, mayor-appointed Board of Commissioners is responsible for overseeing the DHC. The board responded to questions about property conditions and inspections by email through spokesperson Mark Lane of 98Forward, who is also a spokesperson for the DHC. Lane said the board is aware of the failing inspection scores and cited a variety of causes: underfunding, a decline in rent collections during the pandemic and staff turnover. Yet the board did not commit to taking any actions.

“A significant number of our projects do not generate enough revenue to cover operating costs and deferred maintenance,” the board said. “We can and certainly do try to improve the quality of our housing for our residents with the resources we have, but public housing nationally is so dramatically underfunded that it is extremely difficult to achieve the standard our residents deserve.”

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
Multifamily housing unit with dark burn marks around its windows. First-floor windows and door boarded up, second floor has missing windows and vinyl siding. Neighboring homes have no damage.
Extensive damage at a unit in the Diggs Homes, which is owned by the Detroit Housing Commission and failed its last three inspections. Photo credit: Nick Hagen

At one time, Pritchard considered herself lucky to be living in one of the DHC’s apartments. She’s lived at the Diggs Homes with her five children since 2018. 

Now, she is frustrated by a lack of action on the conditions across the complex and in her own apartment. Pritchard is still waiting for DHC maintenance to unclog her basement drain.

“I’ve called and asked them to snake it, but they’ve never come out,” she said. 

Despite the DHC’s admitted challenges maintaining the properties in its portfolio, the city is pushing the commission to take on more responsibility. Mayor Mike Duggan named the DHC a partner in his $203 million affordable housing plan. The city is in the process of selling the commission at least three multifamily properties and wants to sell it nine more. 

Scoring a 16 out of 100

“The Diggs is plagued by grave unit disrepair within the occupied units,” read a note sent with the 2021 inspection numbers to the DHC’s Board of Commissioners. Outlier obtained the note through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) conducts inspections of all publicly funded units at DHC properties. HUD is also responsible for overseeing the DHC. Anything below a 60 out of 100 points on a HUD inspection is considered failing. In 2018 and 2019, the Diggs failed. After HUD skipped inspections in 2020 due to the pandemic, the DHC sent out third-party inspectors in 2021 who also used a 100 point scale. In that inspection, the Diggs scored only 16.01 points.

The Diggs is hardly the only DHC development in disrepair. Of the 15 properties inspected in 2021, 13 failed. The average score on those inspections was approximately 47.01 points.

Sandra Henriquez is the chief executive officer of the DHC and acknowledged there are “probably problems at every one of our developments.” But she said the DHC has fixed a number of specific issues in units and things like tripping hazards and potholes in parking lots. 

“We’re aware of what the scores were,” Henriquez said. “Each time those scores came back, work orders were created for each property and work was done.”

Lane, the DHC spokesperson, clarified that the work specifically addressed “health and safety issues in each unit.”

All DHC properties are currently being inspected again for HUD, but results have not yet been made public.

The work done after the last failed inspection did not address several issues at the Diggs. The 104 townhomes look fairly unremarkable from the outside; only a few clues indicate the poor conditions pervasive throughout the complex. Siding peels off from several buildings. White sheets of metal cover up windows and doors at a couple dozen townhomes that appear vacant. A unit destroyed by fire who knows how long ago is left charred and exposed. 

Lane said there are 26 vacant units at Diggs and all are being addressed, but did not provide a timeline.

The situation is even more grim on the inside of the units. Outlier obtained a copy of the 2021 inspection report for the Diggs and several other properties through a FOIA request. Of the possible 51.87 points inspectors could give the interiors of the Diggs units, they gave a total of 0 points. 

Hundreds of problems big and small are listed on the 82 page report, including 47 instances of clogged or malfunctioning plumbing; 18 showers with no hot water or missing knobs; 17 hot water heater problems; 125 missing or out-of-order smoke detectors; and 76 windows that were broken, missing screens or didn’t open.

Pests — including roaches, bed bugs and mice — appeared in the inspection report 11 times.

Pritchard took complaints about her basement flooding directly to the DHC. At first she called the main office to ask for its maintenance staff to unclog her basement drain. When months went by and nothing happened, she gave up. Now, she says she is just “dealing with it.”

Pritchard and other residents interviewed by Outlier said they feel stuck, reluctant to leave because of the subsidized rent they receive from the DHC. The 2,700 households who live in DHC units pay no more than 30% of their income on rent. Around 80% of DHC residents don’t earn enough to move them above the poverty line. Pritchard says she pays $91 a month in rent.

“The rent is very affordable, so I can’t move to be honest,” Pritchard said. “Finding a house, coming up with the money: It’s just hard.”

Henriquez said the DHC doesn’t have enough money to make more significant repairs, either. She estimates the DHC’s capital needs exceed its budget by hundreds of millions of dollars. 

“We’re maintaining the best we can while figuring out what’s the best strategy and how we are going to move forward,” Henriquez said. 

‘It’s like you’re constantly uncomfortable’

The DHC has an ownership stake in 42 developments across the city, including 207 single-family homes that are inspected in three separate “bundles.” Each bundle failed its 2021 inspection with an average score of 44. 

Starreatha James has lived in one of these homes with her mother and teenage son since 2018. She says she was on the waitlist for nine years before the DHC said they had a house available for her.

Her family has dealt with a near constant string of issues with the home, which sits on the westside near the Warrendale neighborhood.

The roof caved in a few years ago, and James says falling plaster almost hit her and her son in her bedroom. James says she had been telling the DHC the basement drain wasn’t draining properly since she moved in. The basement flooded in 2021, destroying some of her possessions. Leaks caused by faulty gutters mean her walls became mottled with water damage. Carpenter ants started eating away at the walls. 

“There’s been so much stuff that we’ve had to deal with over the years,” James said. “It’s like you’re constantly uncomfortable.”

The DHC fixed some of these issues. Workers cleaned up after the flood and remediated the water damage on the walls on the first floor. But James says the commission has neglected others that have made living in the house difficult. 

James said it took the DHC more than a month to patch the roof over her bedroom during which time she slept on the living room couch. She kept a bucket under the hole in her ceiling to catch the constant drip of water. Small leaks in basement pipes continuously add moisture and black mold is growing on the brick walls. The family’s shower hasn’t been working correctly for five months. 

“They don’t care about their residents,” James said of the DHC. “They don’t care about maintaining their property. I shouldn’t have to keep telling you over and over about these issues that you’re not fixing.”

Henriquez said she hears from residents that there are occasionally issues resolving work orders and it’s a problem whenever complaints about repairs hit her desk.

“I should never hear about it,” she said. “That’s not how the system is supposed to work. We need to do a whole lot better.”

An open secret

The conditions of DHC buildings aren’t a secret. HUD inspections are conducted annually and ahead of move-ins, and are required for all but the highest performing properties. Results of these inspections are sent to the DHC board and to HUD.

The DHC performed poorly across the board in the 2019 inspections. Six developments received failing scores and five more were “near-failing” with scores between 60 and 71. 

Henriquez is confident this year’s scores will show improvement.

“I think that the 2023 scores are going to be better,” she said. “We are and have been training people and holding people more accountable, and we will see the difference in both improved productivity and work being performed.”

Between February and April this year, Outlier Media visited and conducted interviews with residents at the Diggs Homes, Brewster Homes, the Villages at Parkside and dozens of single-family homes. Some were in good or fair condition. Others were not. Reporters saw many blighted exteriors, boarded up units and even worse conditions on the inside of units when residents let us see their homes.

There are around 3,300 public housing authorities in the country. Because these authorities finance, manage and count the properties in their portfolios differently from each other, it is difficult to determine an “average” score to compare inspection results against.

Even so, conditions in DHC properties based on descriptions provided by Outlier was a concern for national expert Susan Popkin, director of the Urban Institute’s Housing Opportunities and Services Together Initiative.

“What’s happening at the DHC sounds like bad property management,” Popkin said. “They’re supposed to be fixing health and safety issues in a timely manner — like any other landlord.”

Popkin added that oversight is crucial to an effective housing authority.

“They’re enormously complex organizations. There are some very good housing managers and there are others who aren’t so great,” she said. “But if nobody is keeping an eye on them, you can have problems.”

Henriquez has been at the helm of the DHC since 2019. Overseeing her work and that of the agency is the Board of Commissioners. Richard Hosey, Aaron Seybert, Penny Bailer, Achsah Williams and Keona Cowan are the current board members, appointed by the mayor. Hosey, a developer who chairs the board, is also on the board of the Detroit Land Bank Authority and the Downtown Development Authority. 

The board was provided with the most recent inspection scores in 2021 that showed 13 of 15 properties failing. In an admission of the poor performance, a note on the board packet put together by the DHC staff reads, “The results were substandard.” 

In its email response to Outlier, the board blamed many of the DHC’s issues on funding and understaffing, but not its CEO.

“The board has full confidence in Sandra’s leadership,” it said.

HUD also has the authority to intervene when public housing authorities underperform and can deem the authority “troubled.” They can then enter into a cooperation agreement with the local authority to improve property conditions.

In 2005, HUD put the DHC in receivership for nearly a decade because of poor property conditions and mismanagement of funds. 

HUD said it “takes its oversight responsibility seriously” and gets more involved with local authorities in cases of “underperformance.” 

“The DHC has not reached this criteria,” said Michael Polsinelli, director of HUD’s Detroit Field Office, through a spokesperson by email. 

Is there a plan? 

Widespread acknowledgement of poor conditions across DHC properties does not appear to be encouraging any additional action by city officials.

“Failing inspections are a concern,” said Donald Rencher, the city’s group executive for Housing, Planning and Development, by email. “I believe DHC has been working on a capital plan for their public housing units which will address many of the issues.”

Henriquez said lack of funding limits her ability to do much beyond plug holes. The DHC is currently finishing a capital needs assessment to determine exactly how much money it would require to fix up its properties, but she estimated the necessary funding will be in the “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

The DHC only has about $12 million a year to spend on capital improvements, Henriquez said.

Public housing authorities across the country are facing funding shortfalls as HUD decreases the amount of money it allocates to support public housing. But the DHC has not taken advantage of HUD programs that could close funding gaps and improve conditions in its buildings.

HUD is encouraging public housing authorities to convert properties to something called a Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD). The tool allows public housing authorities to access different forms of financing like loans or funds from partnering with private investors instead of relying entirely on HUD grants, which can mean more money for fixing up properties. The San Francisco Housing Authority, for example, has converted 29 projects housing nearly 3,500 units to RAD.

RAD could play a big part in closing DHC’s funding gaps, but to date it hasn’t completed a single conversion. The commission is likely years away from completing conversions of its worst performing buildings.

Henriquez said no action had been taken towards RAD by the time she started at DHC, even though it had by then been an option for seven years. After being set back a year by COVID-19, Henriquez says the DHC is giving its consent to convert 308 public units at Gardenview Estates, which it doesn’t own, to this kind of project. 

“We’re trying to make up for lost time,” she said. 

Despite the poor performance on inspections and conversions to RAD, Mayor Mike Duggan has made the DHC an essential plank in his affordable housing plan. The city plans to sell 12 multi-family buildings to the DHC, which will spend $20 million rehabbing them for low-income residents.

Rencher said it’s important the DHC continue to create more affordability in neighborhoods.

“The DHC needs to have two strategies when developing and managing affordable housing,” Rencher said. “One for improving the affordable housing stock it owns and another for creating opportunities for new affordable housing units. The DHC needs to do both in order to meet the needs of Detroit residents.”

Henriquez believes it will be capable of handling the additional management responsibilities. 

“I do agree that we haven’t learned to crawl yet, so why would you try to run and add more to the portfolio?” she said. “I think by the time these units come on board, when we get this all done, we will be at a point that our property management skills will have improved significantly. It will make sense to fold these into our portfolio.”

At her DHC-managed home on the city’s westside, Starreatha James thinks it’s possible the commission may now start addressing some of her long-standing issues. After Outlier presented the DHC with a list of issues and questions about James’ house, she said maintenance reached out and were visiting soon to inspect and potentially fix the problems. 

It might be too late. James’ family has reached the limit of what they’re willing to endure. She says they’re looking for a new place to live, even if it’s more difficult to afford a home on the open market.

“I don’t want to deal with the DHC anymore,” she said.

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.

Rukiya (they/them) is an organizer, writer, budding gardener and mother. As an agent of change, they believe in the importance of centering the voices of those who often go unheard or misrepresented. Rukiya practices this belief through journalism and can be found in Riverwise Magazine, Planet Detroit,...