Pivoting and Innovating in Detroit: How Motor City is Supporting Low-income Renters


Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the affordable housing and renter instability situation in the U.S. was bleak, an issue that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. The city of Detroit has been paying attention to housing instability for years, trying to assist residents during the 2008 financial crash, city bankruptcy, and years of dwindling housing stock. In 2018, city leaders conducted a study of multi-family housing units to investigate barriers to stable housing and strategize ways to better support residents in need of affordable rentals. 

According to Keegan Mahoney, Program Director at the Detroit Housing and Revitalization Department, the city identified intertwined challenges that had led to the affordable housing crisis during the late 2010s. One of the issues was the way that the federal government determined affordable housing pricing; the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) uses data from the surrounding Wayne County to set prices, which disadvantages city residents. Incomes in Detroit are much lower than the average in Wayne County, which means that the affordable rent budget in Detroit is lower than the actual affordable housing price levels. This pricing dynamic leads to financial instability and compounded housing instability, which has severe negative impacts on kids and families.


The second major issue is on the supply side; building and maintaining affordable housing is expensive, so increasing affordable housing and operating the current stock is difficult, with many rentals long overdue on deferred maintenance. Currently there are 24,000 units of affordable housing in Detroit, spread over a lot of different owners and financiers and with different levels of maintenance. “Over time, these intertwined challenges really had a destabilizing effect on affordable housing in the city,” said Mahoney.


In 2019, Detroit began working with theBehavioral Insights Team (BIT), an organization that assists cities with evidence-based behavioural insights and a partner in the Bloomberg Philanthropies' What Works Cities initiative, led by Results For America. The Detroit Housing and Revitalization Department decided to  develop and preserve only affordable housing while also using evidence-based methods to help city renters achieve greater financial and housing stability. With the assistance of BIT, and leveraging existing local funding sources, city leaders began a financial stability pilot program; the Housing and Revitalization Department established Financial Empowerment Centers (FECs) in 18 multi-unit affordable buildings, covering 1,200 units or about half of the city’s affordable stock.  


The financial counselling locations offered access to banking for unbanked residents, credit counseling to improve credit scores, and assistance with savings plans. This pilot aimed to provide downstream positive impacts through improved financial health. Renters who could pay rent on time and avoid eviction would also have improved mental health (particularly child psychological development) and better maternal/fetal health. And, although no one realized at the time, stable housing helped prevent the spread of COVID-19 come 2020.  


As Mahoney explained, the heart of the pilot was trying to establish a strong relationship between the city’s affordable housing renters and the FECs. The original pilot was supposed to include in-person counseling, on-site organizing, assigned staff for buildings, and a presence at tenant meetings. Property managers were also included in this work, helping with promotion and referring tenants to the FECs if they were at risk of eviction from non-payment.


However, the best laid plans of 2019 took a challenging turn in 2020. Despite the pre-pandemic enthusiasm from renters, building owners, and financiers, “a lot of things went awry” according to Mahoney. The on-site and in-person elements of the pilot had to be eliminated because of COVID-19. Property managers suddenly had intense cleaning and sanitation responsibilities to keep everyone safe. Renters simply stopped paying as they lost jobs and were unable to make rent in the early months of lockdowns. Eventually eviction moratoriums were put into place, helping renters during an extremely difficult time but scuttling the city’s pilot.  


Despite being unable to complete most of the counselling, data collection, and community engagement, the city still had other plans to turn to. Fortunately, the Housing and Revitalization Department was already dedicated to addressing this issue from multiple angles. Working with Kat Hartman, the director of Data Strategy and Analytics for Detroit, the team built a database of all affordable housing in Detroit. Hartman had previously worked on an extensive database, The Base Units, a dashboard and data visualization tool that mapped all addresses, buildings, and parcels in Detroit. Using this database, and working with groups like Data-Driven Detroit and the Housing Preservation Project, Mahoney’s team was able to identify the individual units and household levels of affordable housing units as distinct properties. This project meant that the Housing and Revitalization Department could now reach renters by mail with correct addresses, crucially important during the pandemic. It also meant they would now have a database of locations that can be referenced for things like maintenance and unit ownership.  


The Housing and Revitalization Department wanted the database information to be shared with renters. The team partnered with Google.org to make a resident-facing portal, where potential renters can look for information about the buildings/units, find landlords, filter for accessibility and number of bedrooms, search by income or rent, and check geographic location. In addition to providing the portal, the team is also doing community engagement to see what else residents might want. This community engagement was important for city leaders, and research from the Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies shows that having channels for residents to participate in decision making improves conditions and leads to more equitable affordable housing. Right now the rental application is separate, but the team hopes to include that in the future.


Now, as more residents are vaccinated and eviction moratoriums are coming to an end, Mahoney and his team are working with BIT and a local non-profit partner to do resident interviews. The Housing and Revitalization Department wants to know how things have shifted for renters during the pandemic, trying to understand if the concerns and priorities that were initially raised in 2019 are different. Additionally, the city has just implemented new programs to help renters facing eviction, including “free legal counsel for tenants in court, federal dollars for past-due rent and utilities and a chance to find a job through a city program.”


While the pilot that was planned in 2019 never fully came to fruition, this story isn’t one of failure. The flexibility to pivot, to provide multiple types of interventions, and to listen to residents are all positives for Detroit residents, and wins for advancing data-driven policymaking. 

About the Author

Betsy Gardner

Betsy Gardner is the editor of Data-Smart City Solutions and the producer of the Data-Smart City Pod. Prior to joining the Ash Center, Betsy worked in a variety of roles in higher education, focusing on deconstructing racial and gender inequality through research, writing, and facilitation. She also researched government spending and transparency at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Betsy holds a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern University, a bachelor’s degree in Art History from Boston University, and a graduate certificate in Digital Storytelling from the Harvard Extension School.