Patreice Massey died suddenly and in her sleep at home on Detroit’s east side in December 2020. She was 37 years old. The three children she left behind were then aged 3, 8 and 15. For the year and a half since, her children and widower, James Massey, have been navigating their grief — along with a complicated and unresponsive financial safety net they unexpectedly need. 

“I explained that you’ll never stop missing your mom, you’ll never stop grieving,” James Massey, 38, told his kids. “I don’t make it seem like it’s something that you will get over.”

The grief is easing up, he said. But economic stress has become a constant.

In 2020, a record amount of financial help flowed into and within Michigan to help blunt hardships due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That disease didn’t kill Patreice Massey, who died of cardiovascular disease, but the pandemic did make her family’s financial recovery incredibly difficult. Patreice worked as managing editor of the Michigan Chronicle until 2019 and then as a freelance writer and had started her own media company. James Massey became the sole breadwinner after her death but also needed to stay home from work to be with his children during remote learning due to COVID-related school closures. 

Patreice Massey and her children in 2019. Courtesy photo.

The flow of relief dollars, more than $58 billion to Michigan alone, has now slowed or is stopping altogether. Yet many families, the Masseys among them, still need assistance but have been unable to access any beyond stimulus payments and the child tax credit. 

Massey’s utility bills are his largest debts. He has applied for emergency assistance from the state, but his applications have been denied. His biggest frustration has been that help for utility bills and housing costs he does qualify for — federal COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) money — is taking months to process. He applied for CERA in February when he learned about the program, and the online tracker showing his application status has not budged since. CERA applicants in Wayne County, in particular, have faced long delays for relief. The program is ending today and is no longer accepting new applications.

Courtney Hierlihy, who runs the CERA program for Wayne Metro, a local social service agency, said they have assigned more than 3,000 cases in the last two months to make progress on the backlog and that applications that came in during February should be assigned soon. The program has given out about $159 million to 19,000 Detroit families for help with rent and utilities since the beginning of the pandemic.

“I can say I’ve never been in this predicament before,” Massey said. “My wife and I, you know, we always were able to make ends meet. Make it happen.”

Families like the Masseys are under severe economic pressure. Stagnant wages and inflation are making it difficult to afford the basics, and debt incurred during the pandemic still must be paid off. These two realities threaten to push the Massey family, who entered the pandemic financially stable and feeling upwardly mobile economically, into longer-term economic insecurity. Massey’s family is in a precarious middle ground. The household’s income is almost double Detroit’s median income of $32,498. Massey is ineligible for most of the income-based programs that serve the state’s neediest families, but he is not financially stable enough to bounce back from almost two years of sporadic employment. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s ”living wage calculator” puts the actual cost of living for a family with one adult and three children in the Detroit-Warren-Dearborn area at $90,398 without childcare. 

“I’m just trying to just make extra money to knock down the DTE bill and [the] water bill. Those two bills are just really haunting me right now.”

James Massey

It wasn’t only the cost of childcare that pushed Massey to work fewer hours in order to be home with his children during the past year and a half, but the emotional support he thought they needed.

“I’ve dealt with losing my mother,” said Massey, whose mother passed away when he was 26. “For me to be able to build my children back up, I need to keep them right here.”

He left his job at an AT&T store in the summer of 2020 and began working to get into the carpenters’ union. But training started at 7 a.m, which made it a non-starter as a single parent because the childcare Massey would need would be expensive and difficult for the kids. 

“To be at work at 7 o’clock and drop the kids off somewhere before, that’s a long day for a child,” he said. 

The Massey family with their dogs
James Massey with his children and their dog on Detroit’s east side. Photo credit: Nick Hagen

Instead, Massey dusted off his old barbers license from many years ago and is cutting hair at a barbershop, Celebrity Cutz, where his hours can be more flexible. And although his earnings have taken a hit, there has been no letup in the basic expenses it takes to run a household.

“I have a ton of stuff to pay for,” he said.

Pandemic utility debt and rising costs

A recent University of Michigan study found the economic impact of COVID may have reinforced the economic advantages and disadvantages Detroiters experienced before the pandemic. 

“The pandemic safety net really assisted a lot of families, especially those living in poverty.” said Lydia Wileden, one of the researchers on the study. “But the pandemic hit everyone in a way that not a lot of economic shocks really do.” 

And the recovery from that economic shock has been uneven. Statewide, wages have gone up since the worst of the pandemic, but more than 63% of those increases are being enjoyed by people who already earn at least 150% above the statewide median wage

The biggest bills Massey is dealing with and can’t get ahead of are unavoidable; they are gas and electric service, water and housing. He owes more than $3,000 to DTE Energy, the gas and electric company. His service has been shut off twice since the pandemic began, but more recently the company put his account on a shutoff hold as he waits for his CERA application to be processed. DTE declined to comment for this story.

Massey also owes the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department more than $3,000, but a citywide moratorium on shutoffs means his service has not been interrupted.

DWSD spokesperson Bryan Peckinpaugh said, “We need to inform more residents that an unprecedented amount of assistance is available for them now as some of these programs expire once the funding is exhausted or they have a set end date.” 

Wileden’s research showed 27% of Detroit households with children had experienced one or more utility shut off in the last year.

Do you need help accessing assistance for utility or housing costs? Text DETROIT to 67485 to get help or speak with an Outlier Media reporter.

Massey’s utility debt has been slowly building over the past few years. He didn’t make any headway on either his DTE or water bills when money was especially tight during the worst of the pandemic; instead, he prioritized housing, food and high school tuition for his oldest son. Unexpected repairs required after last summer’s floods around the city took out all the appliances in his basement also set him back.

Massey’s DTE bill is routinely more than $600 a month, and he often needs to use space heaters in the winter and window air conditioning units in the summer, making the bills more expensive. 

“I’m just trying to just make extra money to knock down the DTE bill and [the] water bill,” he said. “Those two bills are just really haunting me right now.”

A lifeline that hasn’t materialized

The CERA program was designed to help with rent and utility expenses, and Massey was hopeful he would be able to receive funds to pay down some of what he owed.

His utility debt and the high cost of food in particular is keeping Massey from being confident he’ll be able to get financing or find the cash to pay off a balloon payment on the land contract for his home. Massey was renting the two-story brick home on a tree-lined block for about eight years before signing a land contract more than three years ago. His payment history has been good, but a balance of about $30,000 is due in order for Massey to own the home outright. 

The Massey family in front of their home. After 11 years, Massey is close to owning the home on a land contract, but his debt is keeping him from being able to get financing or make the balloon payment he needs. Photo credit: Nick Hagen

So far, the land contract holder has been understanding and willing to give Massey the time he needs. Bob Cluck, who manages the property, says the “whole point” of the contract is to keep Massey in the house but that the seller can’t wait forever and “just wants to get paid out somehow.” Massey knows time and patience are running out. 

“I know if I get these bills down that can save me some money to where I can put that towards my home to try to secure this for the children,” he said. “The house makes them feel closer to their mom.” 

Being new to navigating benefit programs has made it difficult for Massey to know what resources might be able to help him, he said. However, the preschool program his youngest child attends at Matrix Human Services has been a lifeline for information. Securing help has been a different story.

“It gets discouraging, because it’s like, every time I go to the state for something, I get denied,” he said. “And so I was like, man, I’m just gonna tough it out.”

Massey says Social Security has been the one government program that has come through for his family. His children began receiving survivors benefits after the death of his wife, and it has kept the family afloat. But that extra income did push the family above the income limit for emergency utility help from the state and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which would provide much needed food assistance. This catch-22 has made Massey a little cynical about benefits programs.  

Despite how tough the past few years have been, Massey is incredibly proud of his children and thinks prioritizing spending time with them despite the economic sacrifice was the right choice. He says their bond is stronger than ever. 

“Sometimes, I’ll just sit here by myself and I’ll just just come to tears,” he said. “They’re not getting in trouble in school. My daughter has a 4.0 [grade point average]. The boys are just so honorable. The people at their schools, they always talk about how it’s a pleasure to have them around. It just pumps me up.”

Massey’s oldest son is about to enter his senior year at a Catholic school in the suburbs, where he plays football. It’s a drain on the budget, but Massey didn’t want to disrupt his son’s social and support networks.

“It’s a great opportunity, and it helps him keep his faith,” said Massey. “He loves the team, and they love him.” 

Massey’s son should be getting his driver’s license soon, which will allow the teen to help get his younger siblings to school and ease some of the pressure on the family. Massey can then get back into an apprenticeship program with the carpenters’ union and on track to getting back to well-paying work.

“My son has been one of the biggest parts of my support system,” he said. 

Massey is thankful his children are doing so well, and he says he can see the grieving process easing up on them. His most urgent need is for a decision on his CERA application and getting financing for the house. His uphill climb out of the debt and tragedy of the past few years has been frustrating, but he knows he’s not alone.

“Everybody is going through it right now — because of COVID,” Massey said. “And gas prices are sky-high, and that makes everything go up. I’m just tightening my belt. God has to have something in store for me.”

Sarah (she/her) believes the best local reporting is a service, responds directly to community needs and reduces harm. Her favorite place in Detroit is her backyard on a summer evening.