In Islandview, older residents living in crumbling...

In Islandview, older residents living in crumbling homes look for lifeboats

As the east side Detroit neighborhood changes, longtime residents deliver food to their neighbors, raise money for roof repairs, organize a protest over substandard housing and want the city to know: “We’re still here.”

Islandview resident Daisy Jackson outside her home on Field Street in Islandview. Jackson counts herself lucky to have received grants to fix up her home, unlike some of her neighbors. Credit: Cybelle Codish

Jennine Spencer would often bring boxes filled with milk and chicken to older residents’ Islandview homes this year. As the specter of illness, hospitalizations and death from COVID-19 persisted, some residents feared venturing beyond their doorsteps, leaving them hungry and isolated.

Spencer, 51 and the president of the Field Street Block Club Association, answered their calls for help. Since early 2020, the vigilant caretaker has been making weekly rounds to more than 100 older adults across the neighborhood’s three and a half square miles, delivering food boxes packed by GenesisHOPE, Church of the Messiah and Butzel Family Recreation Center. 

The homes shielded older residents from the surging coronavirus. But when she dropped off those food boxes, Spencer often found recipients living with other hazards. Black mold. Lead. Asbestos. Rainwater leaking from holes in their roofs. 

Many older residents in Islandview, a neighborhood on Detroit’s lower east side experiencing an influx of investment and development, have endured living in these crumbling homes year after year. 

“They’re still here to try to have a sustainable life,” Spencer said. “How can they?” 

Her acts of service bring on chronic worries: How could older adults age gracefully into their golden years without the basics that make a home healthy and safe? How do they pass down their homes to their children if their homes were falling apart? Would they get forgotten in a neighborhood going through the growing pains of transformation? 

In July, the block club launched a GoFundMe campaign with a public plea for aid to benefit all neighbors needing home repairs. But older, longtime residents were especially in need. So far, they’ve raised close to $12,000. “We need help sooner than later,” the block club wrote. 

Jennine Spencer at her home in Islandview. Credit: Cybelle Codish

A neighborhood changing around them 

When older folks in Islandview talk about their neighborhood, they tell you what’s gone. They’re nostalgic for the once-thriving corridors on the main drags like Vernor or Lafayette. They long for more basic amenities like grocery stores selling fresh fruits and vegetables or active and speedy bus service. They miss seeing more children around.

Islandview, with about 6,700 residents, is mostly Black, mostly low-income, and has a sizable older population, according to data from the American Community Survey analyzed by researcher Amanda Nothaft. She is the senior data and evaluation manager for the Poverty Solutions initiative at the University of Michigan. 

About 74% of Islandview residents are Black, 22% are white and the median income is $22,755, compared to $30,894 in Detroit as a whole. About 23% or 1,500 residents are 65 and older. Residents 65 and older make up about 14% of all Detroit. Roughly 37% of Islandview residents 65 and older live in poverty, compared to 20% citywide.

Islandview is one of several areas targeted for economic growth, affordable housing and development through the Strategic Neighborhood Fund initiative. The city’s strategic plan for the neighborhood was published in July 2020 after a multi-year planning process that included resident feedback. 

As part of the plan, the city hopes to revive some of Islandview’s 1.1 million square feet of underused industrial space, known as the Beltline Corridor, along Mt. Elliott, Mack, Concord and East Jefferson streets. The vacancy rate is 6%, the same rate as the rest of the city. The aging quality of the buildings and loading infrastructure make it difficult to entice prospective commercial tenants. The city also plans to transform a decommissioned rail line between Beaufait and Bellevue Streets into the Beltline Greenway, connecting the neighborhood to the RiverWalk, though progress has stalled.

New businesses have recently sprouted up, and a spate of developers have launched various projects. One is rehabilitating an unused multi-unit complex. A strip of luxury condos has already hit the market. Community institutions have made changes too, like installing outdoor solar-powered charging stations that let residents charge their phones during power outages and offering tech classes and a business incubation program.

More white people are moving in. Between 2010 and 2019, Islandview saw its white population more than triple to about 1,500 residents. During the same period, the neighborhood lost nearly 1,800 Black residents. 

Some longtime residents do welcome the changes in an area that’s experienced disinvestment and remains pocketed with blight. But some worry that the health and safety crises festering under broken roofs are being ignored for the promise of the new. As new townhomes rise, so do fears of increasing rents and property taxes, as well as longtime residents getting displaced.

“Give the money for home repairs. Have them fix the houses. Then get new people here,” said M.D. Slappy, 60, who lives on Helen Street. To the soft-spoken retired city accountant, real help for Islandview residents doesn’t look like building more bike lanes. “When you look at our homes, they look terrible,” she said. 

‘I don’t think they can survive another winter’

As the fall sun’s rays pierced through a cloudless sky one Friday morning in mid-September, bees kept disrupting the peace on Daisy Jackson’s glistening front lawn. So the 66-year-old pulled out her garden hose and sprayed the resilient intruders.

Jackson is the matriarch of her household on Field street, living with her 11-year-old granddaughter and the child’s mother. She’s also part of Field Street Block Club and serves as vice president. She’s been fortunate enough to get a mix of private and city grants to pay for a porch renovation and lead removal.

“I want to be able to pass down this home to my children,” Jackson said. The second-generation homeowner knows home repair grants haven’t reached some older neighbors, who’ve languished for years on waiting lists, or what she calls them, lottery lines.

“Some seniors don’t get that blessing,” she said.

As she settled in a chair on her porch, Jackson could point out at least four roofs needing replacement on her street. One local roofing company estimated the cost of a total replacement for a neighbor’s home would be at least $15,000. That was the cheapest one the block club found.

Jackson loves her neighborhood and its deep community bonds. Proof of that joy and togetherness flourished at a recent block party, where Jackson’s family members and neighbors gathered on a yard near Vernor till nearly midnight, boogying down to Silk Sonic and “The Cha Cha Slide.” 

But she is angry about the scale of financial, housing and health hardships that are endured here. Some of her neighbors were overtaxed by the city and were forced out of their homes. A few doors down, an older couple braved the last three winters by running space heaters. The block club is trying to help them, but they are protective of their privacy.

“I don’t think they can survive another winter,” Jackson said.

Daisy Jackson. Credit: Cybelle Codish

A crisis decades in the making — and new urgency to fix it 

The home repair crisis is intertwined with the legacy of racist redlining policies that still reverberate in Detroit today, where most of the housing stock is more than 60 years old, lenders are reluctant to write loans and Black applicants are more likely to be denied mortgages.

“It creates this overall kind of recipe for this inability to make repairs on so many homes in the city,” said Patrick Cooney, assistant director of policy impact with Poverty Solutions. He is one of the authors of a 2020 report on the state of the home repair ecosystem in Detroit.

Remedying the home repair crisis could be a crucial step in helping Detroiters secure a path toward safe and low-cost housing, build generational wealth and free up more space to explore other economic goals, Cooney said. The U of M report conservatively estimates that at least 24,000 Detroit homes need critical repairs. Among the city’s Black-owned homes, researchers estimate about 8% are inadequate, which could mean a lack of electricity, broken heating equipment and other housing issues.  

The urgency to solve Detroit’s home repair crisis escalated this summer after city officials organized community meetings asking residents how to spend $826 million in federal coronavirus relief funds through the ​​​​American Rescue Plan Act.

The need to fix cracked ceilings, faulty sinks, toilets, kitchens and other damages emerged as a top community priority. It worsened in late June when a once-in-a-century flood destroyed basements and belongings across the city.

Soon after, Detroit City Council approved Mayor Mike Duggan’s ARPA relief spending plan, which included $30 million for home repairs. Last week, the city announced Renew Detroit, its ARPA-funded home repair program that will offer free repairs for 1,500 low-income older adults  and homeowners with disabilities. City officials estimated about 80% of all senior home repair requests involved roofs. 

“The most important thing we can do as a city is to make sure that longtime Detroiters are able to remain in their home, and a lot of times that depends on their ability to make major repairs,” Duggan said in a press release. The deadline to apply for the first phase, focused on roof repair, is Oct. 31.

The city also offers 0% interest loans of up to $25,000 to help cash-strapped homeowners pay for repairs. But older adults often struggled to access programs like these, the U of M home repair researchers note. Sometimes, they did not qualify or couldn’t afford to pay back their loans. They identified three other grant programs that aim to help older residents and people with disabilities, but applicants often languished on waiting lists or grants quickly ran out.

On Mack and Grand, the small but mighty team at community development corporation GenesisHOPE know the older adults here need more lifeboats, with needs ranging from rides to doctor’s appointments to food. GenesisHOPE Hope is also raising money for their own home repair fund, with about 200 people on their waiting list. All these scarcities trouble Jeanine Hatcher, 60, executive director of the organization.

“They’re just going without. Their homes are continuing to deteriorate. They’re living in unhealthy and unstable conditions,” Hatcher said. “For some, it’s impacting their physical health.”

For older residents, health and safety is on the line 

Living in damp, cold or toxic homes intensifies the likelihood of getting diseases like tuberculosis or lung cancer, according to the home repair report. Living in substandard housing can negatively impact mental health.

Residents 65 or older are also more likely to be homebound, and remain exposed to poor housing conditions longer, said Roshanak Mehdipanah, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health who focuses on urban health issues including housing. 

A growing body of research also shows the desire to live safely, independently and comfortably in their homes is a common preference for older adults, Mehdipanah added, and “allows [them] to stay close to their families and communities as they age.” 

To age with dignity and autonomy, older adults need to have safe and healthy homes. This means fixing roofs and installing electrical and cooling systems as well as making needed accessibility modifications, like installing a lift or making a home wheelchair accessible. Some modifications may be more costly than home repairs. 

The authors of the Poverty Solutions home repair report also point to policy options that could strengthen existing home repair programs, such as offering deferred loans, healthy home assessments and technical assistance to help navigate online applications.

‘We’re still here’

Months later, the city’s $30 million home repair allocation still stings some residents.

Those keeping their pulse on the city’s latest action, like Hatcher and Jackson, agreed the money isn’t enough, and believe the Renew Detroit program could exclude many Detroiters in need.

They had to find another way to push for more dollars and help save these homes.

So Hatcher organized a community meeting in mid-September on the side lawn outside a tiny, concrete building home to Genesis Lutheran Church. Pickup trucks whizzed by on Mack as sunset approached. A dozen or so Islandview residents, advocates and community leaders still dressed for summer trickled in and sat on metal chairs.

One of those leaders was Toyia Watts, president of the Charlevoix Village Association. The east side group has garnered a reputation for bold tactics fighting what they see as gentrification and was a vocal critic of the neighborhood strategic planning process. She sauntered up to the wooden podium planted in the shadow of the church.

Watts has lived here since the days when white mom-and-pop shops on Kercheval wouldn’t sell candy to her or other Black children. Generation after generation, city council after city council, she’s watched her neighbors’ old and inefficient homes decay.

“All they give us is bits and crumbs,” she said, her voice bellowing in the crisp fall air. “It is an insult to us.”

City officials didn’t immediately respond to questions about concerns over the new home repair program. 

For Hatcher, the quality of the home shouldn’t be used to measure the dignity of the “kind and loving human being” living inside it.

For Spencer, people didn’t understand the rich arcs of the lives that older adults are still fighting to live: “We would not be here today if it wasn’t for them,” she said. “They went through the struggle for us, and that’s what people don’t realize.”

Many of the gathered residents — and the neighbors they were fighting for — had braved the city’s hardships, from the 1967 rebellion to the 2013 bankruptcy. They were loyal citizens and city servants. Now some couldn’t work anymore. Now some barely got by on social security payments. Now their homes kept falling apart. Now the couple without heat would have to brace for another harsh winter.

“I want to stop and let them know we’re still here,” said Jackson, who stood by Watts and is also a CVA member.

CVA has organized an upcoming protest over longtime Detroiters’ housing needs, planning to demand energy efficient home repairs, reparations for overtaxation and affordable housing at a Woodward march on Friday. Jackson plans to be there, and is rallying her community to join her.

“There’s strength in numbers,” she said. “We can’t do this alone.” 

Reporting for this story was produced in partnership with the Detroit Equity Action Lab – Race and Justice Reporting Initiative, a program of The Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights.

Eleanore Catolico is a freelance journalist living in Detroit. Follow her on Twitter @e_catolico.