How can Detroit development avoid pushing out older adults?

There's a balancing act happening in the city of Detroit, between developers of high-end apartments and condominiums, and organizations trying to ensure that older adults have access and the opportunity to live in quality, safe, affordable housing.

While this particular struggle has been going on for years, the scales appear to be heavily weighted in favor of developers, says Claudia Sanford, Director, Tenant Organizing, Housing Placement and Relocation for the nonprofit United Community Housing Coalition. Sanford points to developers' ability to seize on the rapid growth and revitalization in Detroit that has been created by increasing numbers of higher-income individuals who seek the amenities available in a vibrant urban setting.

Though this influx of higher wage earners is creating a more prosperous Detroit, it also is leading to a shortage of multi-unit housing across the board, including low-income senior housing, according to leaders with Senior Housing Preservation Detroit (SHPD).

“When you think about this, you have to go back to the Detroit of that time period which was emerging from bankruptcy and hungry as a community to move forward and hungry to draw more residents,” says Dennis Archambault, a member of SHPD and Vice President, Public Affairs with Authority Health. 

“I was excited for young people to move in, but with every physical movement there’s a reaction and that’s when we began to see places where developers wanted to develop places that were already occupied by very vulnerable citizens."

Kamper Stevens apartment building is an independent senior living community designed for people above the age of 62. Photo: Nick Hagen.
The shortage of low-income senior housing in Detroit means older adults incur waiting lists as the population steadily increases, according to information on the SHPD website. “More than 2,000 seniors in over a dozen apartment buildings are at risk of being displaced from their homes and communities over the next decade,” the site claims. 

Archambault predicts that this shortage is likely to worsen as the conversion of apartment buildings serving low-income, older people in Detroit into market-rate housing continues.

In the 11 years she has been with UCHC, Sanford estimates she has worked on 10 to 15 projects that involved residents of various age levels, to find new housing after being displaced. Some of these efforts have involved up to 10 households in one project, with her largest being the Park Avenue Hotel. The hotel was being used as an apartment building and had 150 units, and Sanford dealt with approximately 115 tenants.

“I work on a lot of projects where the whole building has been sold so we negotiate with the owners for time and the people living there. We leverage money from the source to pay for the relocation which gives me time when there’s displacement going on,” she says. “If a person has underlying issues, that displacement and relocation time can take longer because it takes a lot of case management.”

This was the case with a 62-year-old woman who had been living in the stairwell of a building for 30 years. She told Sanford that her daughter had offered her a house, an offer she declined because she says she was not ready to make this move.

“I called the daughter and she said it had been over 30 years since her mother had been living in that stairwell,” Sanford says. “It was more than likely because of the mental health issues she’s had all her life and if you don’t have access, nothing will change.”

Among the challenges with people who have been living in one place for a long time is the lack of identification, including birth certificates. This is required documentation for anyone who wants to get into government-regulated housing.

Sanford says her work with UCHC is focused on older adults who fall into the extremely low-income category which is 30 percent or below the Average Median Income (AMI), which is $16,500 for a single household.

“Even with that number, probably about half of all seniors are living in that extremely low-income housing category which is more like 20 percent of the AMI,” Sanford says. “Based on our work with these people and surveys that we do at tenant meetings, people’s incomes are more like $10,000 a year. If someone is living off of $800 a month in income, their rent is based on that amount which makes that unit affordable for them.”

The AMI is $27,000 for a senior citizen living in Detroit and it is estimated that 55 percent of senior households earn less than $30,000 annually, according to the United States Census Bureau.

Senior housing units in Detroit specifically for extremely low-income populations are covered entirely by Section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937 which authorizes the payment of rental housing assistance to private landlords on behalf of low-income households in the United States. This assistance is in the form of vouchers.

The Housing Choice Voucher Program provides "tenant-based" rental assistance, so a tenant can move from one unit of at least minimum housing quality to another.  However, there has been no new project Section 8 Vouchers coming into the city from the Federal government, Sanford says.

“The Detroit Housing Commission has been issuing vouchers in different parts of the city and it's helping to ease some of the burden," she says. "The vouchers are mostly project-based vouchers that they’re offering. They do have some that are portable vouchers. I think it’s a mixture of both project-based and portable vouchers.”

She says the advantage of these vouchers is that recipients get to keep them for life, for use anywhere in the United States.

“The Tenant Protection vouchers allow seniors to move into any property that fits within the value of that voucher, so they could move into a small house or a flat,” Sanford says.

1214 Griswald, a former senior living facility located in Capitol Park, was purchased, redeveloped into higher-end apartments, and rebranded The Albert. Photo: Nick Hagen.

As an example of how these vouchers are used, Sanford cites the displacement in 2013 of 120 seniors who were living in apartments at 1214 Griswold St., which was re-developed into The Albert-Capitol Park, a higher-end apartment and condominium complex. This was a focus for SHPD, which worked with Sanford to find other housing for the tenants.

“After that property was purchased, tenants were given a year’s notice at the start of January, 2014, and were given Section 8 housing vouchers. We worked with all of the tenants to relocate them into senior housing,” Sanford says.

The Griswold conversion happened before the reality of gentrification set in for Archambault. His employer, Authority Health, became an SHPD partner because of concerns about the health implications on the tenants stemming from that displacement.

“We were concerned and we didn’t want that to happen with other senior populations living in 20 plus other buildings in the Midtown area,” Archambault says. “I became aware of these issues through the Hannan Foundation. They were organizing a coalition to prevent the conversion of other senior housing buildings in the downtown and midtown area.”

That coalition became the SHPD. In addition to Authority Health and UCHC, other members include Presbyterian Villages of Michigan and Wayne State University School of Social Work. Sanford, who initially started the coalition with two members of the Hannan Foundation, says the coalition has helped to raise the conversation about the need for more low-income senior housing in Detroit. 

“When I started seeing what was going on and was being contacted by social workers, we said 'we have to do something,'” she says. “I was working on the ground with tenants at 1214 Griswold and they had a lot of support. I realized that if we weren’t all working together, we could be working at cross purposes.”

What happened at Griswold eventually came to Mayor Mike Duggan’s attention and “we were really grateful for that,” Sanford says.

Following initial conversations with the mayor and his staff, Archambault says that Duggan announced that all new developments in the city would have to set aside and designate 20 percent of their units at affordable rent rates as part of his Affordable Housing Preservation strategy. UCHC and its SHPD partners were featured in a press release announcing the new initiative the formation of a new Preservation Partnership, which they called “a major step in the mayor’s commitment to preserve affordable housing in the city while also improving its quality and preventing displacement."

A primary goal of the new partnership will be to identify apartment buildings that have low rents – not because they are required to, but because of the current condition of the buildings – and to help them be redeveloped in a way that preserves the affordability and prevents displacement, according to the press release.

“As part of its Multifamily Affordable Housing Strategy, [the Housing and Revitalization Department] has established a goal of preserving 10,000 existing regulated affordable housing units in the city by 2023. This is in addition to the creation of new affordable housing in any new development that receives city funding or discounted land. Beyond that, there are thousands more low-income units that are not regulated and at risk of being gentrified, if the city does not intervene,” the press release said.

Strength in numbers

At the time of Authority Health’s initial involvement with the coalition, Archambault says they didn’t know the extent of senior housing in the urban core, and "we set out to understand the territory and nature of life for extremely low-income seniors which is different to that of the affordable senior population". 

"We were particularly concerned that no other senior building would be transitioned into market-rate units and we encourage developers where possible to think about that.”

When SHPD focused its efforts on the Griswold, Sanford says she began noticing that senior properties which had been accepting tenants who were 55 or older were now changing that baseline age to 62, which added to the housing shortage for older adults.

"A lot of people with disabilities, both mental and physical, were living off of [Social Security Income] in properties in Detroit called Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing (NOAH).”

The Park Avenue Hotel was an example of a NOAH property because it was always a hotel and never designated as an apartment building, but the owners were running it that way. Sanford says these NOAH properties were reasonably priced, with monthly rent between $350 and $450, and people felt comfortable living there.

“They liked the address and felt good about where they lived,” she says.  “Over the years, nothing was put into these properties and the owners just allowed them to deteriorate.”

These properties eventually were sold to developers who offered market-rate units starting at $1,200 a month. “If you’re a for-profit developer, you want the long game and want to get money out of your properties,” Sanford says.

The last time, she looked, Sanford says she counted about 6,500 Section 8 project-based units for seniors in the city.

“There’s a huge shortage and a huge need,” she says. “Whereas they could call and we could get someone into housing right away, now they have to wait and the wait time can be 30 to 90 days.” 

On its own, and as a part of SHPD, Sanford’s organization is working to keep the city’s senior housing need at the forefront through meetings with city, state, and national leaders and monthly gatherings with other members of the SHPD coalition.

In 2019, SHPD hosted a public Senior Appreciation Day event in Capital Park adjacent to The Albert (formerly the Griswold Building). Sanford says they had planned to do another one the following year, but the pandemic put the brakes on that and they will try to do another one in 2022.

“We wanted to have seniors demonstrate their vitality by being in Capital Park along with younger professionals who are there on a daily basis,” Archambault says. “We want to keep doing this so that city leaders and the media get the sense that there is this older population that should be able to live in a revitalized urban community.”

Along with efforts like this, UHC and other organizations focused on senior housing issues also are working to address substandard housing and the need for senior housing complexes to have emergency plans in senior housing establishments.

Sanford says when the pandemic began, the majority of low-income senior residences did not have any personal protection equipment available for residents, many of whom were forced to remain in a self-imposed lockdown. Making matters worse were management companies who decided to close their offices for several weeks which meant that necessary repair work was not being done.

“Elevators were breaking down, stranding people living on the top floors,” Sanford says. “When the pandemic hit and people became fearful there were properties where the management put up notices and said they’d be gone for two weeks.  They just abandoned the buildings and left the tenants there and many of them were at high risk of contracting the virus if they went outside their apartments. We have to train property managers and owners on what kind of things they should do and the supplies they should provide.”

This includes having nurse practitioners and social workers make regular visits to low-income senior living complexes with 300 or more units. UCHC has submitted a number of grant applications, the largest a $500,000 grant application to the Michigan Health Endowment Fund for monies that will be used to develop a pilot project aimed at improving the health and well-being of low-income senior tenants.

It is difficult and important work that must continue, Sanford says.

“A million frustrations can happen, but I don’t let that overwhelm me,” she says.  “If there’s a problem, we fix it. I say ‘let’s do what we can do to make this happen.’  I don’t let it get to me.”

This is part of the Block by Block series supported by FHLBank Indianapolis that follows minority-driven development in Detroit.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.