Help for Detroiters navigating the path to buying or renting a homeResilient Neighborhoods Feature

The home-buying process can be daunting. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out where to start and what you can afford. On Detroit’s East Side, the nonprofit U SNAP BAC (which stands for United Streets Networking And Planning: Building A Community) has been providing workshops and counseling to help people through this journey.

“There are generations of people who have been renters, generations of people who have been displaced and who have never been homeowners. They have no idea how to actually start the process,” says Shanin Green-Flowers, senior housing counselor at U SNAP BAC. “For a lot of people, that can be so nerve-wracking, in that it paralyzes them into where exactly they are. When they come to our program, we're open with them—we're honest with them.”

U SNAP BAC offers workshops on homebuying, understanding credit, building financial capability, and budgeting, plus one-on-one counseling. But recently they’ve noticed that housing needs are shifting for the low-income Detroiters U SNAP BAC serves. Now, there’s more interest in renting than before.

Part of the reason for this shift is that Detroit doesn’t have many affordable homes that are ready to be moved into, says Jawana Jackson, program manager at U SNAP BAC. Many of the homes that are available are through the Detroit Land Bank, but they require a lot of work, and it’s difficult to get funding to help pay for the necessary repairs—a mortgage typically won’t work in that situation, she explains.

“Also, you see more LLCs buying up the properties, fixing them up, and then renting them out, versus homeowners buying them,” and this has created more of a renter’s market, Jackson says.

People’s jobs have shifted, too, says Executive Director Linda Smith. More people are working on their own in nontraditional jobs, as “Uber drivers, whatever, you name it—they're being creative. But they can't show income in the traditional way,” she says. And this means they may have a harder time getting a mortgage.

Previously, U SNAP BAC focused mostly on homebuyers. “But through the years, we found that, unfortunately, people are not as prepared for homeownership as they expect to be,” says Green-Flowers. As such, the organization is revising its counseling program to address these needs. “Now we're trying to pivot to make sure that we're focusing more on the financial aspects, including more financial management courses, credit 101 courses, and assisting with one-on-one coaching.”

U SNAP BAC’s workshops and counseling help people figure out the best housing option for them and how to get there, including assistance with managing their finances. It’s about empowering people with the tools they need, Green-Flowers says. “They don't know what they don't know.”

Briana Mason lives in a house she bought after attending U SNAP BAC’s first-time homebuyer workshop in 2020. She says it helped her understand how much she could realistically afford. “I was preapproved for a certain amount, but I ended up buying my house lower than that preapproval, which worked out great, because I've seen an increase in my taxes and things like that, especially since the area's starting to improve. There's a lot of development going on,” she says. “Had I not had those honest conversations in the first-time homebuyer course, I probably wouldn't have thought about it like that,” and she may have gotten a bigger mortgage that she wouldn’t be as comfortable paying now.

U SNAP BAC offers its Home Buyer Education workshop twice a month. In 2023, 289 people participated in this workshop, and between 50 and 60 people also did counseling, Green-Flowers says.

As part of the Detroit Housing Network, U SNAP BAC also connects people to other resources that can be helpful along the way, such as internet and utility programs, Jackson says.

One-on-one counseling

While U SNAP BAC’s workshops educate people about homebuying and financial literacy in general, its counseling is tailored to the individual. For example, the counselor can give the person their credit report and advise them on how they can improve their credit.

“We will take a look at their debt-to-income ratio and see how we can assist them with an action plan to manage that debt,” as well as consider their spending habits, Green-Flowers says. Counselors “take a look at their actual checking accounts with them, so that we can get them on a manageable spending plan. If they have debt, or if they need to save money for a down payment, they'll be able to access the funds and cut back expenses in order to do so.”

The road to home ownership can be long. “In the beginning, it gets a little frustrating for someone who was expecting to come in and go straight to a lender and get a home within a month,” Green-Flowers says. “But after that, I've learned that people are empowered to change different areas of their lives as well. Some people get better employment, some people go back to school. Some people just simply change the way they think about money.”

And U SNAP BAC’s support doesn’t stop when someone gets a mortgage and moves in. It also includes assistance with repairs and property taxes. “We help people get a home, sustain their home, or maintain their home,” Jackson says.

“I appreciate U SNAP BAC's ability to kind of hit everybody from where they are currently,” whether you're renting, trying to buy a home, or falling behind on your mortgage, Mason says.

Mason has seen how U SNAP BAC has helped others. “A couple of my friends are interested in doing homeownership, but they're not in a place where their finances or their credit is together,” so the organization is helping them navigate that process, she says. “They're not giving up on their dream of becoming a homeowner.”

Housing is not U SNAP BAC’s only focus, but it’s vital. “Stability starts with a roof,” Jackson says. “If you don't have a stable place to call home, what do you really have?”

Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series examining how Detroit residents and community development organizations work together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It's made possible with funding from The Kresge Foundation.
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