Jennifer Washington is still struggling to recover from the flooding that hit Detroit on June 25-26, 2021, filling her basement with six feet of water and damaging her furnace, washer, and dryer. And the roof of her house also needs professional repair.
“The water was coming in so bad; I should have just been sitting outside,” Washington said.
Although a neighborhood handyman helped patch up the roof and keep most of the water out, she can’t afford to fully address the problem or pay for expensive appliances with her monthly Social Security checks. She fears these issues could push her out of the house and the neighborhood where she has spent her entire life.
“I love this house, and I love the neighborhood and the people in the neighborhood,” she said of the Eden Gardens area. “We all look out for each other.”
Washington tried to get help with her roof through the Renew Detroit Home Repair Program. But the initial effort to fix 1,000 roofs received nearly 5,000 applications, and the city determined Washington hadn’t had the house in her name for long enough to qualify.
The MI Affordable Healthy Homes Proposal, put forward by the Resilient Homes Michigan coalition, could help fill in this gap between the home repair needs of residents like Washington and the currently available resources.
This effort would fund whole home retrofits, providing nearly a billion dollars to fix some of the problems that afflict Michigan’s aging housing stock. These upgrades will enable weatherization, which is also funded by the proposal, saving residents money on energy bills and reducing the nearly 18% of statewide emissions that come from the building sector.
“I really love this issue because it touches so many other things…and we know we can create really good paying jobs for Michiganders,” State Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) said during a recent webinar. Chang and Rep. Bill Sowerby (D-Clinton Township) introduced parallel appropriations bills last year to raise awareness about the issue and try and get home repair dollars included in the upcoming budget.
The holistic nature of the proposed funding would address what Conan Smith, president, and CEO of the Michigan Environmental Council, referred to as the problem with “walk-aways, “where structural issues or toxic building materials make housing units ineligible for weatherization. These upgrades, which could include installing new windows and exterior wall insulation, may also make homes more resilient in the face of climate-driven disasters like heatwaves and flooding. (Editor’s note: Michigan Environmental Council provides fiscal sponsorship for Planet Detroit. It does not influence our editorial decisions.)
Finding the money
According to a report from the University of Michigan Poverty Solutions, home repair is especially critical in Detroit, where aging housing stock and the transfer of properties to speculative landlords during the foreclosure crisis have left a number of houses in poor condition.
The report found over 24,000 homes “inadequate or severely inadequate,” often with problems like exterior water leaks, deficient heating, and weak foundations. And there aren’t usually cheap fixes for these problems.
“Housing is expensive,” Charlotte Jameson, chief policy officer for MEC, told Planet Detroit. “And you cannot come up with a solution that really starts to take on the challenge with smaller dollar numbers.”
The state’s budget surplus could grow to $9.2 billion by fall, but Jameson said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer didn’t include much of the funding needed for the proposal in her 2024 budget recommendations.
For example, Whitmer’s budget includes around $400 million for housing retrofits, while Resilient Homes is looking for more than $900 million for these upgrades. Jameson said the budget includes only $10 million for workforce training, but the Affordable Healthy Homes Proposal includes $50 million.
The budget won’t be completed until later this year, giving citizens and lawmakers an opportunity to influence the outcome.
Altogether, the MI Affordable, Healthy Homes proposal seeks roughly $1.5 billion in federal and state funds, which includes $300 million for new, affordable housing. According to data from MEC, these investments would:
- Fix roofs and plumbing and remediate lead and asbestos in 20,000 homes.
- Fix windows and install insulation in 24,000 homes, saving the average household $840 a year on utility bills.
- Electrify 10,000 homes, potentially reducing indoor air pollution from appliances like gas stoves.
- Allow 5,000 households to purchase rooftop solar.
- Provide gap funding for the completion of between 11,000 and 15,000 new, affordable single and multi-family homes.
Donna Givens Davidson, president and CEO of the nonprofit Eastside Community Network, supports the proposal’s emphasis on improving existing housing, saying it would make the money go further than building new homes.
In Michigan, it costs around $217,000 to build a new home on average, a number that doesn’t include the cost of land. In Detroit, Givens-Davidson said homes could often be purchased and rehabbed for as little as $120,000.
She also believes a state program should pay special attention to small landlords, who she said are less likely to evict tenants or have blight violations.
“To help support them bringing their homes into healthy conditions is a priority of ours. Because the lowest income Detroiters live there,” she said.
ECN also has specific needs when it comes to administering housing rehab programs. Givens-Davidson says cash flow can be an issue because contractors expect to be paid quickly, while federal programs often provide rebates for already completed work. She added that her organization needs certified contractors to do this work, although many repair workers in Detroit could fill these roles with additional qualifications.
The Affordable, Healthy Homes proposal anticipated this need for contractors by including $50 million for training, attracting, and retaining workers in the building industry and $45 to fund on-the-job training for new workers.
As for the cash flow issue, Jameson said the focus was currently on securing the funding. Still, if Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services receives it, they may have the flexibility to help groups like ECN pay contractors in a timely manner.
‘Housing is health”
For Washington in Eden Gardens, getting help with her home isn’t just about making needed repairs; it’s an ongoing problem that interacts with her health and quality of life. She has COPD, neuropathy and heart issues, problems that have made it difficult for her to do things like clean up her basement after it floods. The stress of all of this can add up.
Research shows that poor housing quality is linked to emotional and behavioral problems in children. And poor housing conditions are associated with anxiety, depression, and social isolation in adults.
Dr. Ijeoma Nnodim Opara, assistant professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at Wayne State University, stresses that housing is a public health issue that will become more critical as the climate crisis puts increasing stress on the area’s aging housing stock.
“Housing is health,” she said. “Everyone should have affordable, safe, quality housing.”
She said that a lack of healthy housing contributes to respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses and mental health and substance abuse problems. Those living in unhealthy homes with lead and asbestos can suffer similar impacts. And gas stoves, which the proposed funding could help replace by supporting building electrification, have been shown to be a significant driver of indoor air pollution, potentially contributing to issues like asthma and learning deficits in children.
Nnodim Opara said it was essential to have a diverse group of individuals contributing to the implementation of a housing plan, including healthcare workers and those working on climate health, which looks at issues like heat-related illness and respiratory problems that are likely to become more common as the climate crisis accelerates.
“How can we set (up) the city of Detroit to be a place for life that is future and forward-thinking,” she asked.
Nnodim-Opara added that creating healthier housing would have repercussions for the broader community, decreasing emergency room visits and increasing economic participation and productivity.
Givens-Davidson also said that increasing the funding for home repair would have positive impacts beyond benefits to individual households.
“Doing this will stabilize neighborhoods and also help stem the tide of population loss,” she said. “A lot of people are living in a level of grief because of the vacancy around them…People want people living on their blocks.”