It’s been a big year for The Dig—and the newsletter is barely over a year old.

In 2021, Outlier Media became our publisher (which earned a mention in a New York Times article this year). I’ll be forever grateful to Detour Detroit, which launched The Dig last year. 

The newsletter’s move to Outlier has provided more resources and editorial support and allowed us to do some important journalism. We’ve covered a number of issues important to Detroiters, like riding the bus, accessing rental assistance, home-buying scams, home repair and more. 

As the year comes to a close, let’s look back on some of The Dig’s best stories.

Property values are rising. But these longtime Detroiters say they are missing out because of the Land Bank.

The Dig kicked off with Outlier in August with a piece about the residents of East Davison Village, a neighborhood near Hamtramck where only about 50% of the homes are occupied. 

The city looked to address this situation with a neighborhood plan for the area to catalyze growth. Finalized in 2019, the report recommended that the Detroit Land Bank—the largest property owner in the neighborhood—make it easy for residents and community groups to purchase land and vacant homes. But longtime residents said the Land Bank didn’t follow through, and they’ve missed out on appreciating property values as a result. 

The ‘fake landlord’ scam destroys lives in Detroit. But culprits rarely face consequences.

The most-read story in The Dig from last year was this piece on the “fake landlord” scam published in partnership with NBC News. The article made Apple News’ top five stories when it came out and racked up more than 1 million page views on NBC’s website. 

The four-month investigation involving scores of property records and dozens of interviews with victims, lawyers, prosecutors, experts and government officials found that as many as 1 in 10 tenants facing eviction bought or rented a property from someone who didn’t own it. Victims of the scam often have their lives upended when they find out. Some get kicked out of the house. Almost all lose money. 

There’s lots of follow-up content as well. I wrote a piece about why the scam often goes unpunished. My co-author, Erin Einhorn, was interviewed on Detroit Today, and we both had a lengthy discussion on the Authentically Detroit podcast. 

Is housing an environmental justice issue? In Detroit, yes.

The landlord scam story wasn’t the only collaborative piece I did this year. Outlier is all about forging partnerships with other media outlets.

Nina Ignaczak of Planet Detroit and I wrote about how the condition of housing in Detroit is an environmental justice issue. The city’s aging housing desperately needs repair, and the negative health effects of poor housing are felt primarily by people of color. 

Detroit home repair program proves helpful—for the few who qualify

One reason Detroit’s home repair needs are so dire is because there are few effective programs to unlock cheap financing. Detroit’s 0% Interest Home Repair Loan program was touted as an essential tool to combat this growing need when it launched in 2015. The program provides approved applicants with 0% interest loans of up to $25,000 to be paid back over 10 years. 

So far, just 600 homeowners have completed renovations. The vast majority of the applicants carried too much debt to qualify. In its six years, the program has barely made a dent in helping the estimated 32,000 Detroit homeowners with essential repair needs. 

COVID funding to get Michigan’s homeless into rental housing has reached fewer than 100 families. What’s the problem?

Since the federal eviction moratorium ended in August, the COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program has been the only broad-scale effort in Michigan to keep the pandemic from threatening people’s housing stability.

It’s disbursed hundreds of millions of dollars to renters across the state. As of October, fewer than 100 homeless households statewide had been helped through CERA. In our follow-up story this month, we discovered the state stopped tracking that number and had not updated its online application portal to allow non-leaseholders to apply.

We also learned Wayne County badly lagged behind all other counties in processing CERA applications. As of Dec. 14, the county accounted for one-third of all applications in the state but had processed just 41% of them. The delay has led to evictions.

Russell Industrial Center raising rent, skimping on repairs, tenants say

Quality and affordable artist studio space has become increasingly harder to find in Detroit. That’s why dozens continue to rent at the Russell Industrial Center, a sprawling former industrial building converted into studio spaces, despite its many issues. It’s owned by notorious property speculator Dennis Kefallinos.

In recent months, management has sharply raised rents while continuing to rack up blight tickets. Nearly all the tenants we spoke to said they feared eviction for complaining about maintenance issues and that the rent hikes jeopardize the largest collection of artists and craftspeople in the city. 

As wait times grow, DDOT leaves it to others to build bus shelters

I wrote a pair of stories in 2021 about riding the bus in Detroit. One was about the bus driver shortage leading to long wait times and buses that never arrive. 

Those delays make the status of bus shelters even more imperative. Unfortunately, just 234 of the approximately 5,400 stops—around 4.3%—along Detroit bus routes have shelters to protect riders from the elements. 

In response, individuals and community groups have come up with homegrown solutions and built these creative bus shelters around the city.

Honorable mention: The Detroit Home Mortgage program is winding down. Did it meet its lofty goals?

I also want to shout out one article from my time at Detour Detroit. Like the 0% Interest Home Repair Loan, the city developed another program to help with another homeownership issue in Detroit: the scarcity of traditional, bank-issued mortgages. 

The Detroit Home Mortgage program looked to address the “appraisal gap”—a common problem in Detroit where the offer is higher than its estimated value—by issuing a standard loan followed by a second loan to cover the gap. But as the program neared its end in March, it had only issued 232 loans. Because closing took much longer than other kinds of loans, sellers often found other buyers. 

Best photo: Patricia Cortner, 63, on the porch of her East Davison Village home. 

“There was a lot promised,” said Patricia Cortner of East Davison Village in Detroit. “Other people got their stuff, and we didn’t get anything.” Photo credit: Nick Hagen

This photo by Nick Hagen features the long-time East Davison Village resident and  perfectly captures the boldness and dignity of people upset with city and Land Bank policies in their neighborhood. 

Reach AARON MONDRY at aaron@outliermedia.org or 313-403-7221.

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