Outlier Media documented appalling conditions at properties owned by Detroit’s largest affordable housing provider, the Detroit Housing Commission (DHC), earlier this year. The commission’s CEO Sandra Henriquez promised improvement, saying “the 2023 scores are going to be better.” 

But neither the DHC nor the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the federal agency that oversees all public housing in the country, has made their most recent inspections public. 

Nearly every property owned by the DHC failed inspections the last time it made scores public. That was more than two years ago. The lack of concrete inspection scores has left a large hole in the public’s knowledge of the quality of the DHC’s housing. 

The most recent indications are troubling. 

An inspection conducted by a third-party contractor hired by the DHC in 2021 determined that 13 of the 15 properties owned exclusively by the DHC were failing. The DHC’s most troubled property, The Diggs, scored a 16.01 out of a possible 100 points on the last inspections.

The Sheridan apartments’ two towers received scores of 53.65 and 29.68 in its 2021 inspection. Anything below 60 is considered failing. Since then, conditions have worsened. In December last year, a series of floods caused extensive damage to units and hallways on eight floors in one tower, and a large piece of a tower’s wall collapsed in July.

Shannon Durant has lived in the Sheridan apartments for several years. Her apartment wasn’t affected by the flooding, but she said conditions there have become unbearable nonetheless. She said residents have had to endure broken elevators, irregular heat in the winter, squatters in vacant units and various pests, including rats, roaches and bed bugs. 

“It’s affected my whole psychological outlook,” Durant said. “I used to be a happy person before I lived here.”

The DHC began repairs to the flooding in June after months of inaction and resident outrage. Matthew Lents, capital asset director for the DHC, told the board in its October meeting that 21 of the 73 units damaged by flooding had been restored. He said the commission was on pace to complete repairs by the end of the year. 

The DHC and its Board of Commissioners declined to answer any of Outlier’s questions about the conditions of its properties. 

Nothing scheduled

The DHC conducts inspections at all of its units annually and when tenants move out, but it is not required to release the results. Outlier Media submitted a Freedom of Information Act Request to obtain copies of the most recent reports, but reporters were told it would cost $7,503.14. 

HUD inspection results are public, but the implementation of new inspection protocols has resulted in delays of those inspections.

We reached out weeks ago to inform the DHC we were again looking into conditions of its properties and to ask about the results of inspections. The commission preemptively said it would not answer any questions. 

“DHC respectfully is declining your request for interviews and responses to additional questions,” said Mark Lane, DHC spokesperson Mark Lane and senior director of 98Forward.

The last time the public saw a full accounting of conditions at homes and apartments in the DHC’s portfolio was in 2020 as part of HUD-mandated inspections. HUD has inspected only one property since then due to delays caused by the pandemic and the new protocols. No inspections are currently scheduled, according to HUD spokesperson Ashlee Strong. 

Public housing expert Susan Popkin, a fellow at the Urban Institute, said public housing authorities often take units “offline,” or make them unavailable to rent when they can’t afford to fix them up. It’s the result of a decades-long financial crisis in public housing that’s resulted in steadily deteriorating property conditions in many cities.

DHC Chief Operating Officer Irene Tucker told the DHC board in October that it plans on taking units offline as a way to decrease its vacancy rate. The DHC has had a persistently high vacancy rate since at least 2021, according to HUD occupancy data. Today, 560 units — or almost 18% of DHC’s units — have not been leased. Anything above a 10% vacancy rate requires “more intense monitoring” from HUD, which Strong said includes the DHC taking units offline and hiring more property management companies to oversee certain projects. 

“Without additional government funding, cities lose their public housing,” Popkin said. “The more hopeful scenario is that the state or city decides this is really important, (that) they need housing for their lowest income tenants, and that they’re going to step in and help.”

Read more: The Low-Rent Trap

A closer look at the Detroit Housing Commission

Trying to leave

Residents of DHC properties with failing scores who spoke with Outlier said they wanted to move out because the units were in such bad shape. 

Durant is looking to move out of the Sheridan apartments despite her low rent of $230 a month. She’s on a fixed income, and leaving public housing will stress her finances, but she’s willing to try to pay more for better quality housing. 

Laurise Barber has put up with substandard conditions at her DHC homes for years. In 2020, while living at Brewster Homes near Mack Avenue and I-75, her leg went through a hole in her second-floor bathroom. She says the accident resulted in nerve damage on her right leg, and she hasn’t worked since. 

“I’m sitting here trying to figure out how I’m gonna make it through after this, how I’m gonna live with what I’ve got going on and still take care of my family,” said Barber, a single mother of five children. 

She said the DHC put a tile over the hole, but she doesn’t think maintenance staff fixed the structural problems with the floor. 

That was the most dangerous problem with her unit, but far from the only one. Barber showed Outlier photographs of broken stair steps, a broken screen door, a loose door frame, an unsecure bathroom sink and detached handrails. She said multiple homes on the block including hers were infested with roaches. 

“They just don’t seem to care,” she said. “That’s why it was falling apart in my home and everyone else’s (in Brewster Homes).”

Barber said she called the DHC dozens of times about these issues over the years and that the DHC conducted annual inspections, but nothing changed. 

“I thought the inspections were to fix up everything,” she said. “So I don’t know what they’re for because they were coming in, seeing all the damage in my apartment and didn’t do anything.” 

Brewster Homes received a score of 30.81 out of 100 during the 2021 inspections. 

In 2022, she called the city’s Detroit’s Buildings, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department (BSEED), which resulted in an inspection report detailing many of the same issues. 

The city did not respond to questions asking what happens to DHC units cited by BSEED. 

After she had been requesting relocation for years, the DHC moved her family to a house in the Fitzgerald neighborhood last month. She continues to have problems. Some parts of her home are missing functional electrical outlets. Her furnace wasn’t working when she moved in and now only delivers heat to the first floor. 

She also says she should be getting more financial assistance, which means she might be able to pay for some of these repairs on her own, but the DHC hasn’t updated her income since she lost her job. She works in child care and collects child support. It’s not enough to stay above water. 

“I was a different person before this. I used to be calmer,” Barber said. “I’m always on the edge now.”

Barber feels like she’s on her own and doesn’t know who to turn to improve the conditions of her home. Outlier wanted to help her find out. Nobody at the DHC, members of its board or at the city would respond to questions. 

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.