The Dig, a newsletter I write every week, has reached an exciting milestone: it’s two years old!
For those of you who don’t know, The Dig is a weekly newsletter on housing and real estate in Detroit, covering the issues that most matter to Detroiters about where they live. I want to take a step back on this anniversary and briefly reflect on everything that’s happened since it started — personally, professionally and in Detroit.
When our newsletter launched with Detour Detroit in August 2020, I really had no way to know how long this beat would last. I was looking for a new gig after being laid off from Curbed Detroit, and Detour came through with this exciting proposal.
Outlier Media — a Detroit-based service journalism organization — hired me a year ago, and we worked out a deal to take The Dig along. Then, in March this year, the old gang got back together again. Outlier merged with my Detour employers who helped launch the newsletter, Kate Abbey-Lambertz and Ashley Woods Branch. The marriage between these two principled startups has been shockingly seamless, and editorial support for The Dig has never been higher.
So much has happened professionally over the past two years, but even more has happened personally (I had a kid) and in the wider world.
Detroit has also undergone major change since the summer of 2020. The pandemic impacted people’s lives in countless ways and had a surprising effect on the built environment. I want to highlight just a few of the biggest trends in the built environment that I’ve noticed:
Curbing evictions would only take political will and money
The largest rental assistance experiment in this country’s history proved, at least in Detroit, that there are policies and programs available to officials to reduce evictions. First, there was an eviction moratorium. And then the $1.1 billion COVID Emergency Rental Assistance program, which stopped taking applications in July, showed the biggest game changer in evictions is tenants’ ability to access rent money. Evictions have been well below pre-pandemic levels since March 2020.
That program is unlikely to be replicated at the same scale. But other eviction diversion measures are and may be helping Detroit’s eviction numbers stay low.
Tenants facing an eviction had access to greater legal representation during the pandemic thanks to virtual hearings and grants to legal aid organizations. In theory, the Right to Counsel ordinance will guarantee the right to representation for low-income Detroiters facing housing issues in court — so long as it has enough funding.
On the flip side, an improving housing market is causing some landlords to sell properties and evict their tenants in the process. We’ve seen this in the rising number of termination of tenancy cases, where tenants have fewer options to prevent evictions so long as the city and courts don’t enforce the Rental Registry ordinance.
There were also no tax foreclosures of occupied homes in Wayne County for two years. New payment plans and a 2020 Michigan Supreme Court decision that reduces the economic incentives for counties to auction homes will hopefully keep the number of foreclosures substantially lower than pre-pandemic levels, which has a downstream effect of also lowering evictions.
The scope of home repair needs came into focus
Tax foreclosure and abandonment were the biggest drivers of Detroit blight over the last decade. To prevent blight from spreading and maintain living conditions for residents in older homes, the city’s key challenge will be to address deteriorating conditions prevalent in Detroit’s housing stock.
Several indicators show the home repair need in Detroit is severe. A University of Michigan survey estimated nearly 38,000 Detroit households were living in inadequate housing with some major plumbing, pest or structural problem. When Rocket Community Fund launched its $20 million home repair fund earlier this year, it received more than 121,000 calls from approximately 3,000 people in less than 24 hours.
Programs like Rocket’s and another from the city to replace roofs are in high demand. But they still fall well short of what’s needed in the city.
Rehabbing > Demolition
Mayor Mike Duggan has made reducing blight a signature policy initiative, and aggressive demolition has been his primary strategy. His administration has demolished a lot of homes (though not without controversy). There had already been 20,000 demos before an additional 8,000 were approved when voters approved Proposal N in 2020.
But what’s been made clear recently is that demolition doesn’t necessarily stabilize neighborhoods. Demolitions alone aren’t an effective way to reduce abandonment, which is one of the primary drivers of blight. In certain neighborhoods, the city couldn’t demolish homes as fast as people were leaving, meaning levels of abandonment stayed fairly consistent.
Only during the pandemic have we seen this trend reverse, thanks to widespread home rehabs. The housing market is finally healthy enough that it can be economically viable to buy a rundown house, rehab it, then sell or rent it out.
That’s not to say it’s easy to do a gut renovation of a dilapidated building. It still requires access to a lot of capital, and banks are largely unwilling to issue construction loans. But it does make you wonder what could have been if those resources that went to demolition went instead towards incentivizing home repair and rehab.
Development was mostly pandemic proof
Despite immense market pressures — COVID shut downs, remote work decimating a need for office space, supply chain issues and inflation ballooning the cost of construction — development projects continue to be announced and advanced.
Hudson’s continues to rise (more on that in a second) and multiple projects are underway in Corktown, the Riverfront, Midtown, Brush Park and Lafayette Park. Most of these are concentrated in the greater downtown footprint, but it’s still surprising to see the construction trend press on.
More pressure to pay taxes might be on the way
The very recent debate over whether or not Bedrock Detroit should be gifted $60 million in tax breaks for its Hudson’s site development is part of a larger conversation taking place in the city about when and how many public dollars should be allocated to private developers for profit making enterprises. Many of these projects will benefit residents to some degree, but the profits will also mostly go to extremely wealthy people. Dan Gilbert is Michigan’s wealthiest individual with an estimated worth of more than $20 billion. Some economists have also questioned the value of these subsidies.
Whether it’s members of the Detroit Library Commission speaking out against tax capture or vocal residents urging councilmembers to vote against tax breaks, it’s clear there’s less of an appetite to subsidize projects than in the past.
My favorite stories
Lastly, here are a few of my favorite stories that have appeared in The Dig. Hopefully, you’ll take the time to enjoy them once again or read one if you missed it the first time around.
- Put in hotels after eviction, these Detroiters now have nowhere to go
- If you’re sold a Land Bank home without water, who’s responsible? (Plus, the follow-up article)
- Development of beloved downtown Dearborn comes with complicated feelings
- Russell Industrial Center raising rent, skimping on repairs
- The lost houses of Clarkdale Street
Reach AARON MONDRY at firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-403-7221. This article appears in this week’s issue of The Dig, Outlier Media’s weekly newsletter on housing and real estate. Click here to sign up to receive it.