In a city where scores of people lost their homes to tax foreclosure, the Make It Home program has been a rare bright spot. The program, run by the United Community Housing Coalition (UCHC), helps renters and low-income owners of tax foreclosed homes in Detroit become homeowners. Since launching in 2017, it’s successfully converted 1,157 of these occupants into homeowners, with another 223 on track to become owners this year.
A new report from two University of Michigan professors — Margaret Dewar, professor emerita of urban and regional planning at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and Roshanak Mehdipanah, an associate professor of health behavior and health education at the School of Public Health — outlines the success of the program by tracking participants in that initial 2017 cohort. It found that 85% continued to own their home four years after they got the deed from the county.
But the report also showed the challenges the homeowners faced. The vast majority made less than 60% of the area median income, and many nearly did or did lose the home again to tax foreclosure, struggled to pay for home repairs and didn’t purchase homeowners insurance.
We spoke with Dewar and Mehdipanah to learn more about what makes the Make It Home program effective, but also how it could be improved and strengthened.
Note: This article has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Outlier Media: How successful has Make It Home been at converting renters into owners?
Margaret Dewar: Make It Home has evolved since it’s started, and we looked only at the first year, 2017. And in 2017, it was a big rush. It was the first time, and UCHC didn’t hear about the opportunity until about a week before the deadline. And so then they rushed to find people who fit the program criteria — they had to be renters in tax foreclosed properties, and they had to have $500 on hand. That was not the ideal way to do this. I think lessons from other programs across the country would say there needs to be a lot more to be really successful. So one of the big surprises to us is that so many people sustained homeownership for so long, despite that unsteady start.
Roshanak Mehdipanah: I agree. Despite 2017 being a rushed cohort, we saw a large percentage of people sustaining their homes. These people were pretty motivated — they were able to get their stuff together quickly and were able to keep their homes over the years. And UCHC over the years has implemented programs that have helped sustain homeownership for the future cohorts.
What are some of the refinements that have been made to Make It Home since 2017?
Dewar: The biggest one is home repair assistance. A lot of housing is in pretty bad condition. And people don’t have the resources to replace a roof or get a new hot water heater. The second thing is that UCHC continued to follow up with people about paying their taxes. While we were researching, we would be looking up who owed taxes and send UCHC lists, and then they would reach out to the owners. That mattered a lot because property tax delinquency is one of the big threats to continued ownership.
What changes or additions could be implemented to make the program more effective?
Dewar: Other programs offer or require initial homeowner orientation and training, and they weren’t offering that for the 2017 cohort. That really helps people become more informed homeowners and even to decide if they want to be homeowners in the first place. Offering financial counseling and education about things like savings, setting up checking accounts or ways to improve credit ratings. That helps people understand the finances of homeownership and prepare for that. They could also provide more information about the condition of the house up front.
Mehdipanah: They could also provide ongoing support post-purchase to help when people run into big crises that threaten their homeownership, like the breakup of a relationship or death in the family.
You did a lot of qualitative research, talking to people one-on-one. What kinds of things did you learn in those interviews? Were people pleased with the program overall and glad to be homeowners?
Mehdipanah: I think the interviews really shed light on what was going on inside the house and the complexities that go hand-in-hand with being a homeowner. We learned about some of the struggles people were going through after the pandemic hit and the instability it caused for these individuals. They really shed light into the threats to homeownership people experience that we often don’t take into account. It was really helpful to document some of that.
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The report says that, on the whole, homeownership is preferable to renting for Make It Home participants. But given the numerous expenses of homeownership and some of the challenges you’ve talked about, do you think this program is right for most of the people who are eligible?
Dewar: It’s a niche program. It can help some people, but it’s not going to help everyone who’s a very low-income renter. And we need other programs from federal, state and local government to complement this program. Things like repair programs or more assistance for housing choice voucher holders.
Mehdipanah: We can’t lose sight of the population that can’t be homeowners or out of choice don’t want to be homeowners. And so I think, it’s a very specific group that can use the program itself, but it provides the opportunity of homeownership for a group that would probably not qualify for a lot of the other programs out there.
Dewar: It definitely is a valuable program. It just won’t solve everybody’s problem.
If you could make one addition or change to the program, whether that’s from UCHC or the city or philanthropic sources, what would it be?
Dewar: I think it would be to loosen some of the requirements that participants need not be eligible. You have to be a renter whose landlord lost their house to tax foreclosure. I would expand it to include someone living elsewhere or in unsatisfactory housing — give them the opportunity to buy a different house through this program.
Mehdipanah: A lot of the participants didn’t have home insurance and that’s a common theme across Detroit. It is very expensive for the amount the houses are worth, and I do think it’s going to get even higher with climate change and other threats we’re going to see. Until we’re able to address that, home repair programs are going to be a kind of lifeline. But these programs require a lot of funding. To sustain that, or to alleviate some of that access, home insurance will be a big piece.
Former owners of tax foreclosed homes are now eligible to claim interest on the proceeds of the sale of the home. That makes some Make It Home properties too expensive for some would-be buyers. Do you think that puts Make It Home at risk?
Dewar: It is a threat. This year, it was less of a threat than it will be in the future. Quite a few properties sold for way over the initial starting price in the auction. And that means that more people will claim prior interest, which will then remove more people from the Make It Home.
Reach AARON MONDRY at firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-403-7221. This article appears in today’s issue of The Dig, Outlier Media’s weekly newsletter on housing and real estate. Click here to sign up to receive it.