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  • Nancy Combs

“Home, sweet home” repair costs challenge low-income seniors - First in a three-part series

Updated: Mar 29, 2021

“Home is the nicest word there is,” reflected early 20th century American author Laura Ingalls Wilder. While in these COVID times many have grown weary of home, there’s no arguing the seminal importance of having one. A home that’s safe and warm is a basic human need, not to mention an emotional bedrock in times of trouble - and the best possible repository for memories.

But for many of Detroit’s older homeowners on limited incomes, the houses they raised their kids in and lovingly maintained over decades can quickly spiral into the biggest challenge of their lives. Without financial assistance, a leaky roof or faulty furnace could make home inhabitable. This could necessitate moving – living with a family member, in an apartment, assisted living facility, or even a nursing home.

“It’s a great need – mind-boggling, actually,” said Phyllis Edwards, executive director of Bridging Communities, a Southwest-Detroit-based grassroots organization that enhances quality of life for seniors by coordinating resources and support. Edwards is also a member of Agencies United for Healthy Seniors.

“You reach an age where you are supposed to be living your best life. Instead, so many of our seniors are living in inadequate housing,” Edwards said. “The basement is backing up with water. People have holes in their roofs they can’t afford to fix, broken windows. Not to mention hazards from out-of-code electricity, cords and other slip-and-fall risks.”

Just one of these issues can spark a cascade of related problems. A homeowner may face the impossible choice of paying for a roof repair, or paying their property tax – buying that new furnace, or paying their car insurance.

“A lot of seniors are living silently under cover,” said Jeanine Hatcher, executive director of GenesisHOPE Community Development Corporation on Detroit’s east side. “They can’t maintain their homes, but it’s not financially beneficial for them to leave.” Meanwhile, Hatcher added, these same folks have long been anchors of their neighborhoods, the first to volunteer to deliver meals, plan a block party, or participate in advocacy training.

A number of programs provide grants or zero-interest loans to help qualifying homeowners pay for necessary home repairs. But these programs are often siloed, without a central contact or unified application process. And some require long lead times due to the sheer number of requests.

In Detroit and Wayne County, “the needs unfortunately exceed the available resources,” said Karen MacDonald, executive director of community and economic development at Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency. “But we continue to seek these resources for our clients, and we continue to advocate for their needs,” she said.

Just as important, MacDonald added, “we document, to share data with the state and other communication action agencies on what works.”

In Part Two of this series continues conversations with civic and community leaders who are aligning resources and building partnerships around “what works.”

Key among them is Nicole Wyse,associate director for the City of Detroit’s Housing and Revitalization Department. “Seniors and households with children under 6 are our main demographic when it comes to Home Repair Programs,” she said. “We

especially want our seniors to be able to age in place and stay Detroiters.”

Wyse reviewed programs the city is offering – including a Senior Emergency Home Repair Program, with a substantial waiting list, and the Zero Percent Interest Home Repair Loan Program to which homeowners can get almost immediate access.

“Thanks to the mayor and city council, funding for the Senior Emergency

Home Repair program has increased from $500,000 in 2016, to $5 million in

2020, but the need is still greater,” she said. Through HRD, Detroit is hoping to

launch Housing Resource Centers in mid-2021. This new program will be a

collaboration of city agencies and nonprofit organizations to help provide

easier access to housing resources, such as the home

Contact information for state and local agencies offering assistance:

City of Detroit

City of Detroit Home Repair Resource Guide, from University of Michigan Poverty Solutions

Home Repair and Weatherization: Resources

Housing and Revitalization Department

0% Interest Home Repair Loan Program

10-year, interest-free loans from $5,000 to $25,000 to help Detroit homeowners invest in and repair their homes. Forms and Intake Centers on website.

Detroit LeadSafe Housing Initiative

(313) 224-6380

To qualify: Must be a child under age 6 living or regularly visiting the home.

Senior Emergency Home Repair Program

Website states there is a waiting list more than a year long, so HRD is not able to assist with immediate needs. To be placed on waiting list, must be: Low-income homeowner over 62; or over 55 if also receiving Social Security Disability. Contact (313) 224-6380.

Michigan Department of Health & Human Services (MDHHS)

State Emergency Relief (SER)

Assists with home repairs to correct unsafe conditions and restore essential services. May include repair or replacement of a non-functioning furnace, hot water heater or septic system.

Bureau of Community Action and Economic Opportunity

Weatherization Assistance Program

Provides free home energy conservation services to low-income Michigan homeowners and renters. Services administered by local Community Action Agencies and nonprofits reduce energy use and lower utility bills.

Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA)

MSHDA’s Homeownership Division provides programs and products for both homebuyers and homeowners – those trying to purchase a home, improve a current property, or facing foreclosure.

Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency (Wayne Metro)

(313) 388-9799

Designated Weatherization Operator for MDHHS

See website for services in your region, including weatherization, electricity bill assistance, various other energy services and funding to assist with water bills.

CARES Recovery Program, including emergency home repair

United Way for Southeastern Michigan 2-1-1

Call 2-1-1 for referrals to assistance with food, housing, financial assistance, utility assistance and more.

Community-based organizations.

For neighborhood-specific services offered, see City of Detroit intake centers at

Bridging Communities (Southwest Detroit)

(313) 361-6377

GenesisHOPE Community Development Corporation

(313) 571-0937

Matrix Human Services

(313) 526-4000

Please contact us by March 1, 2021 with your feedback if you engage any of these resources. Write to, or call 313.204.5140. We hope to include your feedback in Part Three of this series, coming summer 2021.

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