Groups work to preserve affordable housing as development pressures grow in Detroit

The transformation of the Griswold Apartments senior housing complex into The Albert, a market-rate apartment targeted to young professionals, has become a bellwether in the local debate over gentrification.
A year after the apartment building's transition, which displaced 115 low-income seniors, the revival of Detroit's urban core is viewed by advocates of low-income housing as a threat to less affluent residents who are being dislocated. Others debate whether there's sufficient evidence that gentrification is actually under way in Detroit, even its hottest neighborhoods.
Now Detroit Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) has weighed in on the subject with a series of recommendations to create an integrated strategy for preserving low-income housing. In a study which has been under review by city officials and made public in June, LISC recommended five preservation goals that include: maximum long-term sustainability of federally assisted multifamily housing inventory; no economic displacement of current residents; ensuring assistance to owners who lack the technical or financial capacity to navigate complex preservation transactions; no net loss of affordable units within the city; and maximum leverage for any city or state funds used in preservation transactions with special emphasis on requesting rental subsidies to support projects for vulnerable demographics such as the disabled, veterans, and the homeless.
The recommendations were developed by the Detroit Recapitalization Task Force, which includes representatives from the city of Detroit Planning and Development Department, Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, Detroit Future City, and several other local and national agencies. According to Tahirih Ziegler, executive director of Detroit LISC, the group identified 20,000 low income housing properties in the city, representing as many as 100,000 residents.
"We want to make sure that these units stay affordable, but that they also stay available for those people who want to live in those units," says Ziegler, emphasizing the importance of affordable housing for a city that's struggling to retain and grow its population. That would include a strategy for identifying new funding to renovate and provide "green technologies" to "incentivize" building owners to keep the units affordable. A secondary option is to develop mixed-income properties.
The city supports the LISC recommendations, reinforcing Mayor Duggan's commitment to reserve 20 percent of every residential development on public land or using public support for affordable housing, and promoting "equitable growth" throughout the city, according to Arthur Jemison, director of Detroit's Housing and Rehabilitation Department.
With the likelihood of new development of affordable and low income housing slim, many are promoting a more pragmatic approach to preserving existing developments. The city's approach to preserving housing that is currently affordable -- such as several senior housing apartments -- is to create an "early warning system" that will identify properties which might not renew its rental assistance and instead go market rate, Jemison says. This would give the city, and its preservation allies, a chance to work out a deal to preserve an affordable arrangement.

The city is considering convening all owners of at-risk properties to allow the administration to articulate its interest in preservation and marshaling the resources available to make it attractive to building owners. A coalition of departments is forming within the Duggan administration to identify existing resources, such as the Housing Commission's Section 8 housing vouchers, and new funding that might entice property owners to remain at the affordable level.
This strategy is still in the formative stages, but it reflects the city's evolving development policy, which Jemison says is driven by the mayor's commitment to "equitable growth."
We need to make sure that we need to do both: projects in neighborhoods, and where growth is happening (Midtown/Downtown)," says Jemison. "We have to be sure that the growth is equitable and that affordable housing is included."
To that end, the city is warning developers, to be prepared to provide affordable housing alongside market-rate units. "Don't come in here with a project that doesn't have an affordability component, because that's critical to how we're going to grow," says Jemison. "We want all Detroiters to have a place where every kind of Detroiter can live." The city is also developing strategies for housing for the homeless, he says.
The definition of "affordable housing" is in flux, according to Ziegler. She uses the term "workforce housing" for people "making a living wage." These would include people with good paying jobs, but who are not affluent, such as police officers, teachers, and medical support professionals.
She envisions that much of the new housing for this sector will be in multiple-unit buildings, like loft apartments, not single family homes. "The single family housing that we have isn't ever going away, unless it's so blighted that it needs to be demolished," she says. "As young people move into the city...they'll be looking at different products."
The city, she says, needs to "look for opportunities for inclusionary housing to assure that that affordability piece isn't completely lost in certain neighborhoods" like Midtown. The poor, Ziegler says, should not be displaced. "If they're living currently in Downtown and Midtown we should ensure that they are able to stay in those areas," she says. She accepts that several buildings are likely to convert to market rate, but she believes that the city should ensure that those residents are able to remain in the core of the city.
"People become very connected to place," she says. "We need to make sure that people don't have to move out of neighborhoods that they have become accustomed to and have roots in."
"We have a big problem with senior housing in general," says Ziegler, referring specifically to the conversion of the Griswold Building. "There's not enough senior housing units within the city. That's even a bigger problem that becomes accelerated as buildings change their population demographics." The city, she says, needs to work with senior housing providers and senior service agencies to create a vision to create more senior housing.
"I don't want to cause a sense of panic. I just want to say that as people are aging, their incomes (reduce), so that affordability is very important; as important for seniors, as for young families just starting out."
Support for this feature was provided by Detroit Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC).

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based writer.

All photos by Marvin Shaouni.
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Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.