Paul Horton is a Detroit-based freelance writer.
I’ve lived in Detroit for 33 years and while I’ve had brief periods of sleeping on couches, I’m lucky to never have been homeless. With cheap rent, I was able to survive on a meager income while pursuing something creative, either from a personal talent or being involved in a community arts center, which was more important to me than generating a larger income.
Seven years ago, my life changed after a distracted driver ran a red light and struck the car I was driving, shattering my collarbone in three places, making my long-term degenerative disc disease much worse. That left me disabled and unable to work regular jobs.
For 19 years, I’ve stitched enough income together to live in the city’s Corktown neighborhood. But rent is rising so steadily that it’s almost doubled in the past two years and is 2½ times the $325 I paid when I moved into my apartment in 2000. I get some help from my mother and since May, I’ve been on Social Security. But the $771 monthly payment leaves me with little after paying the rent.
The situation over the past two years has become critical, as rising rents citywide increasingly threaten to displace longtime residents. It doesn’t have to be that way. With some innovative programs, Detroit could become a pioneer in helping to combat a major negative impact when it comes to gentrification, pushing out the struggling artists, musicians and other creatives.
Why not create a program similar to Section 8 vouchers, using funds from foundations and philanthropists to cover the amount of the increase in rent within the past few years as well as future increases?
Last year, the city announced the development of the Affordable Housing Leverage Fund as a division under the Local Initiatives Support Corp. Perhaps a portion of the city’s $250 million of the funding target goal could be used for such a supplemental rent program.
If only I had to cover $400 of my rent, I would be able to live semi-comfortably and have a bit of money to live a little and attend some events, go out to eat or grab take-out on a regular basis, which would contribute to the economy. I also wouldn’t be so worried about my future and be able to focus better on the current nonprofit social venture I’m working on.
There are a number of innovative programs to help combat homelessness, with the most prominent being the small home village concept that gained traction nationwide, including in Detroit. But there are few models to help support low- to moderate-income residents stay in their homes because of rent increases. New York has a program but it only targets the disabled, the Disability Rent Increase Exemption (DRIE), which exempts disabled tenants living in rent-stabilized, rent-controlled from future rent increases. Landlords that participate receive tax credits to make up the difference in frozen rent.
A report this year about the effects of gentrification by the University of Chicago and Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank offered a suggestion for low-income housing subsidies, suggesting that “targeting subsidies” help the needy “stay in neighborhoods that are improving around them.”
While the concept of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has garnered a lot of attention in recent years, a comparable concept is Universal Basic Services, or UBS, of which providing free housing to those in need is a major component. It may be many years before we see large-scale efforts establishing a UBI or providing UBS in the United States, and we should look at all options to help those who are struggling.
With the need for affordable housing far outpacing the supply, any concept that can serve as a bridge to help keep people in their homes should be considered, and a supplemental housing fund for those experiencing major rent increases, is worthy of implementation.