In News Releases

For Immediate Release
May 9, 2019

Alex Rossman

City’s residents face high housing-cost burden, modern policies continue legacy of racism and exclusion in African American homeownership 

LANSING—As Detroit continues to experience an economic comeback and a new development boom, the benefits have not reached all residents, with dramatically high housing costs as a share of income and the continued disenfranchisement of the city’s African American residents. A new report released by the Michigan League for Public Policy, Detroit: The evolution of a housing crisis, combines data and historical context to illustrate the past and ongoing hurdles to owning a home—and subsequently building wealth—that African Americans have faced. An executive summary of the report is also available.

“Detroit’s history and identity is so entwined with African American people and culture, but amidst the many points of pride, there is a history of harmful policies that have held residents of color back,” said Karen Holcomb-Merrill, Chief Operating Officer for the Michigan League for Public Policy. “This is especially true when it comes to housing, as Detroit has unfortunately become a stark example of how past racist housing policies are driving residential segregation, poor health and poverty today.”

The report examines the constant barriers to homeownership African Americans in Detroit have faced, from discriminatory deed restrictions and redlining to the subprime mortgage industry and illegal tax foreclosures. White migration to the suburbs sparked decades of disinvestment in the city, and now a resurgence of White residents are fueling big-ticket investments and inflated housing costs. As a result, African Americans have been relegated to substandard rental housing and neighborhoods that offer little in the way of health, education and employment.

Median income in the city of Detroit is $27,838 per year—roughly half of the state median income—and the poverty rate in the city is twice the state rate. Paired with rising housing costs, Detroiters are spending a larger share of their income on housing than people living in many other Michigan communities. This means they have less money in their budgets for other necessities like food, healthcare and transportation. Renters—now the majority of the city’s households—are particularly burdened, having to spend nearly half of their income on housing. In the larger metro area, affordable units are available for fewer than 1 in 3 renter families with extremely low incomes.

Unaffordable housing costs, dangerous building conditions and evictions lead to frequent moves and homelessness, with serious consequences for health and economic security. Low-income housing or rentals are less likely to be inspected or up to code, and poor housing conditions can contribute to Detroit’s exceptionally high rates of childhood lead poisoning, asthma, and infant and maternal mortality. The city’s water shutoffs are also part of the housing crisis, as outstanding water bill debts are rolled into unpaid property taxes and increase the risk of tax foreclosure.

Detroit kids are also adversely affected by unstable housing situations. In the 2015-16 school year, 58 percent of all Detroit students were enrolled in more than one school, compared to only 26 percent of their suburban peers. One in 3 of the city’s elementary students change schools every single year, constantly leaving friends, trusted teachers and other school staff and having to establish new relationships and routines in an unfamiliar environment. When children change schools, academic achievement suffers at both the individual and classroom levels, and the negative impact grows with each subsequent move, including a diminished likelihood of graduating high school on time and lifetime earnings as adults. Children experiencing multiple moves, homelessness and other forms of housing instability experience worse health, more hospitalizations and greater developmental risks than their counterparts with stable housing.

“The impact of low-quality housing options is pervasive and profound,” said Holcomb-Merrill. “Housing struggles affect economic standing, public health, education and more. Just as we have been saying about Michigan as a whole, economic recovery is only beneficial if it reaches all people, and there are many state and local policies that can help alleviate Detroit’s housing crisis and improve living options for African Americans.”

The League’s report hinges on two big, key ideas: Explicit and ongoing discussion of past racism is key to addressing it, and Detroit’s economic turnaround is the ideal time to make changes that distribute its benefits to all of the city’s residents. The report offers up several specific policy recommendations regarding improved housing affordability and reduced racial disparities:

  • Focus more affordable housing efforts on the households with the very lowest incomes.
  • Strengthen the community benefits ordinance to ensure that the Detroit residents subsidizing developers benefit from the ensuing economic development.
  • Establish water shutoff protections and income-based bills for households with low incomes to protect their health and help stabilize their housing situation.
  • Provide for eviction expungement so struggling families or those wronged by unethical landlords aren’t indefinitely blacklisted from rental housing.
  • Strengthen consumer protections in land contracts to ensure that unscrupulous sellers can’t cheat buyers out of the return on their investment.

Detroit: The evolution of a housing crisis, is part of the League’s Home, Health, Hope series on Michigan’s affordable housing crisis. Housing needs are also addressed in the League’s people-driven policy agenda, the Owner’s Manual for Michigan.


The Michigan League for Public Policy,, is a nonprofit policy institute focused on economic opportunity for all. It is the only state-level organization that addresses poverty in a comprehensive way.

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