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Hey everyone,

Tens of thousands of families are on waitlists for properties owned by the Detroit Housing Commission (DHC) or properties where tenants can have their rent subsidized by the agency. 

Despite this extraordinary need, more than 20% of these units are sitting empty. Many of these apartment buildings are run by nonprofits catering to disabled and older adults. 

In this week’s installment of our multipart series we’re taking a look at the DHC’s vacancy problem. 

As always, thanks for reading.

The Dirt

>>Housing clearinghouse: Residents of Detroit now have a number they can call to get help with their housing problems. Last week, the city helped launch the Detroit Housing Resource HelpLine, a hotline to connect homeowners and tenants to resources for a variety of issues, including tax or mortgage foreclosure, eviction, home repair and poor housing conditions. It’s funded with $10 million from the Gilbert Family Foundation and staffed by Wayne Metro. Many of the resources are made available through the Detroit Housing Network, a coalition of seven nonprofits operating throughout the city that support housing. The hotline will be open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The number is 866-313-2520. (Detroit Free Press)

>>Because reasons: Detroit City Council will soon take up an ordinance that would prevent landlords from evicting tenants without “just cause,” such as unpaid rent, property damage or other lease violations. Councilmember Coleman A. Young II, who will introduce the ordinance, said as many as one-third of evictions in Detroit don’t have a cause, but can still be filed because the lease is up. Other municipalities in the U.S. that have enacted just-cause renter ordinances have seen a drop in evictions. But the Detroit Tenants Association, a citywide group advocating for policy change on behalf of renters, said the ordinance doesn’t go far enough because it only includes leaseholders. Young agreed and said his proposal was a first step. City Council President Mary Sheffield is considering a “right to renew” ordinance that would have more protections around lease renewals. (Metro Times)

>>Development news roundup: A renovated apartment building on Hazelwood Street just opened offering 44 apartments for tenants who make less than 80% of the area median income; another two buildings also being renovated on the same street will bring a total of 136 new units with varying rates of affordability… Harper Woods-based American Community Developers bought the former Chung’s building on Cass Avenue and plans a $3 million renovation to house one or more food and beverage businesses… The grand opening of the Southwest Greenway connecting the Detroit River to Michigan Central Station takes place today… Bedrock Detroit may be close to filling three of its vacant storefronts downtown with an Apple store… The conversion of a former sports bar to a queer nightclub downtown has already been scrapped before it even opened. Staff say property owner Michael Higgins — who is facing a slew of legal problems related to other developments — was uncomfortable with the rebranding. (Detroit Free Press, Crain’s Detroit Business, Detroit RiverWalk Conservancy, Metro Times)

>>A port in a storm: The City of Detroit scuttled a deal that would have ended a 100-year contract between the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority and the Moroun family’s Ambassador Port Co. The Morouns were set to get the 34-acre Nicholson Terminal in exchange for nullifying the agreement, canceling a loan and demolishing the Boblo building. But the city said it still retains some ownership rights to the terminal and the port authority didn’t have the power to negotiate its sale. The port authority board agreed with the city’s assessment at its most recent meeting. (Detroit News, Detroit Documenters)

Aaron here: I have to admit, many details of this story confuse me. Is the Nicholson Terminal so lucrative that the Morouns, not known for their generosity, were willing to nullify an agreement with no downside? Why didn’t the port authority check with the city? Why didn’t the city speak up earlier? If you know what’s going on here, let me know — reply to this newsletter. 

>>An ugly story: A massive house-flipping company with nearly 1,150 franchises manipulated desperate and elderly homeowners into selling their property for far less than market value, a lengthy investigation by ProPublica found. HomeVestors of America touts itself as the “largest homebuyer in the United States” and promises to get people out of jams by buying their “ugly” house. But court documents, internal company materials and interviews with homeowners paint a different picture of a predatory company that lied to people about the true value of their house, clouded titles through legal action and aggressively pursued sales by threatening owners. One franchisee falsely told a woman with a hoarding problem the city would seize her house. HomeVestors has completed more than 71,400 property transactions since 2016, but the company said the instances in the reporting represent a small fraction of their business. (ProPublica)

Dig This

Detroit Housing Commission responsible for hundreds of empty apartments

Black woman with curly hair in a ponytail wearing University Meadows T-shirt sits on couch with throw pillows, plants and painting on the wall in brightly-lit apartment.
Laza Bruce sits in the living room of her apartment at the Village of University Meadows. Photo credit: Aaron Mondry

Project-based vouchers are a reliable way to house and provide services in a single property for low-income people who need them, like older or disabled adults.

Developers and landlords who rely in part on these Detroit Housing Commission vouchers say it is squandering quality units ready for some of the city’s neediest tenants. The DHC’s vacancy rate for these kinds of apartments is twice as high as the national average and three times higher than the state average. More than 30% of all unused vouchers of this kind in Michigan sit with the DHC.

Dig Deeper

Changes at the 36th District Court

The 36th District Court has instituted a couple of procedural changes in the last month that will have significant impacts on people with cases in housing court. 

The court, which handles landlord-tenant cases in Detroit, switched its case lookup system from an in-house search tool to one run by the state. The Michigan lookup tool provides less information about cases than the previous system. Melanie Barbaza, administrative assistant to the chief judge of the 36th District Court, told Outlier that Michigan’s Clean Slate Act required all courts to expunge certain kinds of convictions within its database, necessitating a temporary change in the lookup tool. She said the old system should be returning within the next couple weeks.

A longer-lasting change is the return of in-person hearings for cases in the landlord-tenant docket starting June 5. Chief Judge William McConico said in a statement that the “sizeable increase in filings” necessitates in-person hearings, which “allow our staff to process this documentation and distribute any necessary paperwork to the parties in real time.” He added that the court hopes to resume virtual hearings “at some point in the future.”

Virtual hearings simplify attending court hearings, as parties can simply join online. Default judgments, where a judge decides the case because a party didn’t show up to a hearing, declined by 40% during the pandemic, a University of Michigan study found. Default judgments disproportionately affected tenants.

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.