In Detroit, a tiny house is generating a lot of controversy

In Detroit, a tiny house is generating a lot of controversy

On Detroit's west side, near a commercial strip lined with vacant lots, empty stores, storefront churches and motorcycle clubs, stands a cluster of relatively new downsized homes — 225 to 470 square feet — residences that look more like seasonal cottages in a resort town.

The tiny homes, as they're known, were built by a nonprofit group and feature marble shower stalls, granite kitchen countertops and solar panels. It is intended for low-income residents who pay a monthly rent of $1 per square foot, plus electricity, with the option to own the home outright after seven years.

So far, there are 25 homes in a three-block area, inhabited by residents that include seniors, homeless people and formerly incarcerated people who earn at least $7,000 a year. The first group opened in 2017, and construction is scheduled to begin this fall on a half-dozen or so homes on an empty lot nearby. The project, owned and operated by Cass Community Social Services in Detroit, was built by raising money from foundations and private donors, including rocker Jon Bon Jovi.

It's a heart-touching story: From the scars of the July 1967 uprising, a community arose where people who never thought they would become homeowners had a chance to build some wealth.

But in early April, the first-ever eviction of a Tiny Homes resident highlighted what has become a hot-button issue of affordable housing in places like Detroit, one of the nation's poorest big cities. It pitted well-meaning community activists against an established philanthropist. It was also a reminder that charitable programs for low-income people often come with rules and restrictions that can lead to ugly conflicts and disputes. In this case, the program's founder, who is white, was accused of racism.

As television cameras filmed, more than two dozen community activists from a group called Detroit Eviction Defense defended the resident, Tora Brown, 45, locked arms, set up barricades of discarded tires, chicken wire and barrels, and barred the front door of her home. House on Monterey Street, near the John C. Lodge Highway.

The group was trying to prevent court bailiffs from executing the final eviction order removing Ms. Brown from the home.

While fighting eviction, Ms. Brown, who is black, repeatedly publicly referred to the Rev. Faith Fowler, who is white and runs the program, as a “poverty pimp,” and displayed a sign attacking Ms. Fowler in front of her. yard.

Ms. Fowler asserts that the reason for the eviction is that Ms. Brown lives elsewhere more than 50 percent of the time, which is inconsistent with the goal of the program, which requires tenants to make the homes their primary residence. Ms Fowler said the new residents, including Ms Brown, signed agreements in December 2020 that the homes would be their primary residence.

“I'm not against Miss Brown,” she said, later adding: “I just want someone to live at home full time, that's all.”

Ms. Brown's name was on the lease for her boyfriend's $2,000-a-month apartment on the Detroit riverfront, the agency said. Cass Community Social Services initially did not renew its annual lease, but refused to move, so the nonprofit moved to evict. Ms. Brown offered to pay the rent, but the agency refused, telling her they wanted her moved out to make room for someone to make her her primary residence.

Ms. Brown said in an interview that the eviction was retaliatory after she began speaking out on behalf of residents about her concerns, such as slow repairs, and because she was critical of the program and Ms. Fowler.

She said she lived on disability and worked part-time at her boyfriend's engineering consulting firm out of his apartment. She said she did not live with him, and only wrote her name on his lease so she could have easy access to the secure building and its amenities, which include a swimming pool. She said she never paid him rent and spent most of her time at Tiny Homes.

After seven years, Tiny Homes renters can own their homes outright and pay only utilities, maintenance and property taxes. Once they acquire the property, they are free to sell it at market price, use it as collateral for a loan, or leave it as an inheritance.

So far, four residents besides Ms. Brown are no longer part of the program. One died of disease, another was killed. Another moved to Memphis to be closer to family and another moved to her deceased husband's house. The agency renewed everyone's annual lease from the beginning, except for Mrs. Brown.

Over the course of seven years, Ms. Brown had paid $26,628 in rent for the 317-square-foot house before taking ownership. Zillow, the real estate website, currently values ​​the home at about $90,000.

Ms Brown was one of 122 people to apply for the homes in 2016, while the first home was being built. Over the next five years or so, the agency used those orders to fill homes as they became available. In 2022, the agency received an additional 36 applications for five homes.

In September 2024, three residents expect to be the first to take ownership, including Caroline Hobbs, 72.

“I didn't think I would ever own a home,” Ms. Hobbs said. “It's really a comprehensive program. They help you with work or clothing and try to help you get back on your feet.”

“It was sad that that happened,” she said of Ms. Brown's eviction.

“Affordable housing” is a broad term, but it basically refers to what families can afford and still have money left over for food, health care and transportation. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines it as paying no more than 30 percent of a household's income to cover housing costs, including utilities.

The needs are significant in a country where more than 11 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to a 2022 U.S. Census report. In Detroit, on any given night, about 1,280 people are homeless, according to the latest 2023 numbers from the Detroit Domestic Work Network.

The state's supply of affordable housing “has declined so much that it has driven up the cost of housing in Michigan and made housing unaffordable for a much larger percentage of our population,” said Amy Hovey, executive director of the Michigan Housing Development Authority. population.”

“We are in a crisis that is quickly turning into an emergency,” Ms. Hovey said.

Ms. Fowler, 64, was born in Detroit and grew up there and in suburban Royal Oak. Her father was a teacher in the Detroit Public Schools, and her mother held various jobs, most recently as a cashier at a grocery chain where she became a union representative. In 1994, Ms. Fowler, who earned a master's degree in divinity from Boston University, became affiliated with Cass Community United Methodist Church in Detroit's Cass Corridor, which provided assistance to the elderly, developmentally disabled and homeless. In 2002, it created a separate nonprofit agency, Cass Community Social Services, to expand its programs, and Ms. Fowler became executive director.

In 2013, Ms Fowler's mother died, leaving her an inheritance, including a house – an experience that led to the creation of Tiny Homes as she looked for a way to enable her Low-income people to get some wealth out of poverty.

She said she has raised more than $2 million from foundations and private donors for the initial 25 homes, including the house at 1553 Monterey Street where Ms. Brown lives. Each house costs about $100,000.

Ms. Brown moved into her tiny house in January of 2020. She worked for a property management company and lived in a two-bedroom apartment in the Detroit suburb of Ecorse Downriver. But she said that her health is deteriorating as a result of her suffering from polycystic kidney disease, which is a hereditary disease that causes the kidneys to enlarge, which gradually causes them to lose their function. She eventually became disabled and required dialysis. (I underwent a kidney transplant on May 8 of this year.)

At a meeting in December 2020, Ms. Fowler said Ms. Brown and other residents signed an agreement that their homes would be their primary residence.

She said other residents came to her to complain about Ms. Brown's absence. Ms Brown responded by emailing Ms Fowler questioning why security staff were checking her comings and goings. Shortly after, Ms. Fowler said the agency decided not to renew its annual lease. Ms Brown was given a March deadline to move, which was later extended until August. Ms. Brown continued to fight her case in court, slowing down her eviction process.

Both Ms. Brown and Ms. Fowler have their defenders.

Tristan Taylor, co-founder of Detroit Will Breathe, which emerged during the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, is also part of Detroit's eviction advocacy and was there blocking the door on Brown's eviction day.

“The main charge that Cass Community Social Services brought against her was that she did not live at home long enough,” Mr. Taylor said in a phone interview. “I've never heard of this where the person who pays the rent and maintains a house gets evicted because they don't live long enough.”

Ms. Brown currently divides her time between her boyfriend's apartment and her sister's, and said she is considering her options to continue fighting eviction.

Cass painted, cleaned and renovated Ms. Brown's former home and a new tenant moved in on August 15.

Nisha Smith, president of the neighbourhood's Webb Street Association, said she could not talk about the attacks on Ms Fowler “without tearing up her eyes”.

“It's nothing but positive,” said Ms. Smith, 54, the third generation to live in the neighborhood and the director of a chemical company. “For someone to say it’s racist; are you kidding me?”

Philip Watson, 66, who lived across the street from Ms. Brown, speaks highly of Ms. Fowler and the program. Standing on his front porch, he was reluctant to say much about the eviction, but said only: “I'm glad it's over. It makes the neighborhood look bad.”

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