Getting beyond 'the projects': How Metro Detroit is rethinking subsidized housing

Jamie Schriner recalls the shocked reactions she received when she gave a group a tour of the Lincoln Park Lofts, a new affordable housing development in Lincoln Park subsidized by federal and state dollars.


"They kind of took a step back and said, 'Wait. This is affordable housing? I would live here,'" says Schriner, who is the executive director of the Community Economic Development Association of Michigan (CEDAM). "I said, 'That's exactly the idea.'"


The Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency reopened the Lofts, a former movie theater, in 2015 as a mixed-use development including 38 residential units and retail space. The project was funded by a variety of sources including the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and income restrictions apply to those who take advantage of low rents ranging from $450 to $750.


The development is a visually attractive, historically sensitive, and innovative update of the original structure, and Schriner says it flies in the face of common perceptions (or misperceptions) about subsidized housing.


"Affordable housing isn't supposed to be what people thought of as 'the projects,'" she says. "Affordable housing should be no different from the housing that anyone else lives in. You shouldn't be ashamed to live in it. It should be housing that a community is proud to have in it."


"We're not just building housing"


The Lincoln Park Lofts isn't the only local project to rethink subsidized housing in a way that challenges both public and resident expectations of what such developments should look like, what they offer their residents, and how they interact with their communities.


Mary Tischler, the chief financial officer of Novi-based affordable housing developer Ginosko Development Company, says recession-era government programs helped to replace "this awful stuff that was built in the '40s and '50s and '60s" with more innovative developments.


Tischler credits Section 1602 of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which gave states funds to award grants instead of low-income housing tax credits, and HUD's Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) with injecting extra dollars that gave developers resources needed to create affordable homes for families.


She also praises HUD's Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, which has allowed local public housing authorities to convert units to private ownership through project-based Section 8 contracts while providing cash to make sorely needed renovations that Congress would not allocate funds for otherwise.

Mary Tischler at the Ginosko-built Renaissance Village Apartments, It Takes A Village Garden at Votrobeck Playground. Photo by Doug Coombe


Thanks to RAD, Ginosko recently closed a deal to completely demolish Ecorse's Wade H. McCree Plaza and Voisine Terraces Apartments, built between 1952 and 1962, and build with 200 new affordable apartment homes for 200 low-income families.


"It's a secret that shouldn't be a secret, how much improvement there has been to the subsidized housing that's out there because of these programs," Tischler says.


And those improvements go beyond merely updating housing and improving its cosmetic appearance.


Troy-based Community Housing Network (CHN) has developed several subsidized projects with an emphasis on fully integrating residents into their communities. Perhaps its highest-profile project is the NSP-funded Unity Park project in Pontiac, which currently consists of 67 houses, with another 11 in the works. Unity Park is a "scattered-site" development, meaning that its homes are spread throughout a neighborhood rather than being relegated to a single complex.


Unity Park's units are lease-to-own, with tenants being eligible for home ownership after 15 years. CHN has also created a community garden and a Little Free Library in the neighborhood.


"We're not just building housing," says Kirsten Elliott, CHN's vice president of development. "We're becoming your neighbor and we're making that investment. We're there for the long haul."


Thinking big by thinking tiny


In some cases, entirely new organizations are entering the housing sphere to create deeply affordable options that may not be subsidized in the traditional sense. Luke Forrest, director of civic innovations for the Michigan Municipal League, says that's a result of the way subsidies (like Michigan's Historic Preservation Tax Credits, which were cut in 2011) have dwindled in recent years.


"Frankly, the resources at the government level in a lot of cases aren't there like they used to be," he says. "Trying to find philanthropic organizations or other social organizations is one innovative approach to filling that funding gap to supplement what's out there."

Luke Forrest. Photo by Doug Coombe


One such organization is Detroit nonprofit Cass Community Social Services (CCSS), which in 2015 took the unprecedented step of using philanthropic grant funding to develop 25 "tiny homes" for poor residents. CCSS has now built seven homes ranging from 250 to 400 square feet adjacent its campus in northwest Detroit, and six more are currently under construction. Residents pay $1 per square foot per month, and they own their homes in seven years as long as they make their rent payments, volunteer eight hours per month, and attend a monthly homeownership group.


"As far as we know, it's the first time in the United States that home ownership and affordable housing have been married for extremely poor people," says CCSS executive director Faith Fowler. "People making $8,000, $9,000, $10,000 a year can qualify."
Faith Fowler and Cass Community Social Services' tiny houses. Photo by Doug Coombe.

Fowler says the project felt like a natural extension of CCSS' mission to support the poor, and countless people and organizations worldwide have shown interest in following in CCSS' footsteps; videos about the project have collectively received 75 million views. She estimates that she receives 100 emails a day containing questions about the project, and inquiries have come from 40 U.S. states and 10 other countries.


"I thought there'd be some attention," she says. "I had no idea about 75 million people."


Challenges ahead


The troublesome funding situation that Forrest describes is just one of several challenges for those attempting to develop subsidized affordable housing in any form, let alone innovate in that area. Tischler says construction costs have also risen since the recession, partly because subcontractors who either left the state or went out of business still haven't come back. At the same time, land values have risen as well in recent years.


Jamie Schriner.As a result of that "double whammy," Tischler says, "it's tough to get a deal put together in the outer-ring suburbs. You're not going to see it happening in Birmingham or Troy or Rochester or even Royal Oak."


And those additional financial challenges create more obstacles to developers creating housing that truly raises the bar.


"Often, if you're innovative with a project, it can cost a little more," Schriner says. "It's tough to be innovative and pay for it."


Elliott worries that the financial picture could get even tougher as Trump administration tax policy takes its toll on federal subsidies. As a result, she says CHN and other affordable housing developers may have to start diversifying their portfolios to offer higher-rent options for residents making 80-120 percent of their area median income.


At the same time, she says, affordable housing is becoming "so scarce" for all income levels in metro Detroit – with the options that do exist concentrated primarily in the city and inner-ring suburbs.


"If we want to have more economic strength in our region, we need to have more income inclusion across the board and not have it segregated out," Elliott says. "That would be my wish."


Read more articles by Patrick Dunn.

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere
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