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Tragedy Highlights Detroit’s Worst Housing Emergency

On July 6 2018, Ca’Maya Davis drowned just weeks before her first birthday. While the death of any child is heartbreaking, young children drowning isn’t unheard of. In fact, drowning is the second leading cause of death for American kids under the age of 5. What makes Ca’Maya’s story so eye-opening and tragic is the unique circumstances. Ca’Maya drowned in a substantial amount of standing water and sewage in the basement of her Detroit home after falling through a hole in the floorboards of her own bedroom.

Ca’Maya’s mother Dasiah Jordan and Jordan’s friend Tonya Peterson have since each been arraigned on one count of involuntary manslaughter and one count of second-degree child abuse. Jordan was visiting friends at the time and left Ca’Maya in the care of Peterson, who also lived in the home. The child was reportedly unsupervised in her room when she fell through a “gaping” hole straight into the flooded basement.

Jordan tells authorities that she had been aware of the less-than-ideal condition of the home since they moved there in April, but chose to live there anyway because she had “nowhere else to go.”

While this story is heart-wrenching, there is hope that Ca’Maya’s death can shed some light on a seldom-acknowledged plight of Detroit. In the midst of a city working to grow again, its longest residents are left with few options and little help.

Trying to Rebuild

After its historic bankruptcy five years ago, Detroit has been busy attempting to revitalize and bring in new residents.

One example of Detroit’s efforts is the Fitz Forward project, centered in the Fitzgerald neighborhood. It’s estimated that about a third of the lots in this southwest section of Detroit currently sit vacant, including many lots occupied by empty homes. Residents have begun to use these lots for community projects like gardens and parks.

The Fitz neighborhood celebrated the opening of the Ella Fitzgerald Park early this August. The park was built on 19 consecutive vacant lots in the Fitzgerald neighborhood, and so far the feedback has been fairly positive. Still, large projects like this park need plenty of funding and volunteers to come to fruition, and the Fitz Forward project has had issues with keeping federal funding and staying on schedule. Part of the Fitz Forward plan is to help provide grants and loans to low- and middle-income home buyers for new and refurbished homes in the city, though some are skeptical about how well the plan will go considering its recent struggles.

There are plenty of other grassroots projects in place, such as the “Write A House” project currently centered in the Banglatown neighborhood north of Hamtramck. Two Brooklyn transplants are partnering with groups like Young Detroit Builders to refurbish small, derelict homes in the area and rent them inexpensively to hand-picked writers in the hope of cultivating the growing Detroit arts scene.

Are you seeing the trend? These projects are great for refurbishing existing unoccupied structures and drawing in new residents. They do very little to address the bleak realities faced by many existing residents like little Ca’Maya and her mother.

New Residents Versus Existing Residents

So what is the secret housing emergency in Detroit? The state of current resident’s homes. A majority of rebuilding efforts in the city focus on revitalizing downtown, building new homes and community fixtures like parks, and refurbishing unoccupied homes. They aim to bring in new residents who will boost the economy and support Detroit’s regrowth. But what about the Detroit residents who own or rent homes in the area and aren’t finding any resources to fix their existing home?

Home owning and renting is expensive. Detroit housing is arguably inexpensive of course, but that low cost is offset by lack of work and low incomes. There are other hidden costs to poverty, too. For example, residents frequently don’t have updated, safe piping, as it’s Detroit city regulation that piping and sewer service on a homeowner’s private property is their responsibility. This is standard for most cities, but as established, many residents simply don’t have the income or homeowning experience to take care of repairs and replacements.

Official city water quality reports show safe water at a municipal level, but many residents still opt for safer bottled water. This is another small expense that adds up, as the average cost of $1.22 for a gallon of bottled water in America is around 300 times more expensive than a gallon’s worth of tap water.

Some critics have asked, “why don’t these people just move?” There’s certainly no shortage of homes. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and H.U.D., an estimated 1,319,000 new homes were completed as of February 2018 in the U.S., and as we’ve seen, many new homes are being built solely in the Detroit area.

Nevermind the cost of a new home, moving is an expense in and of itself. On average, an interstate move costs around $4,300. Even an intrastate move can cost upwards of $2,300. Many can’t afford professional movers, and an alarming percentage of those who can’t afford movers also would have extreme difficulty moving all their belongings to a new home on their own.

Fast, small, cheap options like tiny house communities are being experimented with, but the cheap builds use basic materials like wood siding and asphalt shingles, which have a lifespan of 20 to 50 years at most. They’re temporary options.

What Now?

How can the city properly rebuild if the current residents can’t better the homes they currently live in? Do Detroit officials owe some kind of help to citizens who can’t afford to better the homes they own or rent? It’s difficult to say when money and planning is so tight.

Steps are being made in the right direction. After it was found that a shocking 70% of Detroit rental properties were not regularly inspected and often not even registered by landlords, in October 2017 the City Council voted unanimously to strengthen rental regulations. This includes mandatory lead inspections and even barring landlords from collecting rent if they don’t pass city inspections.

In a show of transparency, the mayor’s office has publicly admitted that some neighborhoods have been neglected in the wake of rebuilding. If residents continue to voice their concerns, there is hope yet that there will not be another avoidable tragedy like the story of baby Ca’Maya.

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