Senior shove 

Advocates for senior housing are criticizing the city of Detroit’s decision to pursue a high-priced condo development at the site of the former Rochdale Court Apartments. Located at the corner of Lafayette and Orleans, the building — which offered senior citizens affordable housing — was torn down in 2002 with the understanding that its replacement would serve the same kind of residents.

Now the city is reneging on that promise.

Few tears were shed when the place dubbed “Roachdale” was razed in 2002. By that time the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had already foreclosed on the property. Delinquent payments by owner Ferndale Cooperative Inc., poor living conditions, structural problems and a 35 percent vacancy rate all contributed to the decision to foreclose, HUD spokeswoman Anne Scherrieb says.

HUD sold the property to the city in 2002 for $10.

Included in the sales agreement was a requirement that the site continue to be used for affordable housing. The understanding among the advocates who pushed for that stipulation was that the site would be redeveloped for affordable senior housing.

“We were confident it was going to happen,” says Fred Wood, head of Cooperative Services Inc., a nonprofit that operates senior housing in Detroit. “There wasn’t any reason not to be.”

In 2002, the Rochdale property was sold to DuCharme LLC for the costs of demolition, estimated in 2002 at $349,800, says Henry Hagood, director of development activities for the city’s Planning and Development Department.

But instead of affordable senior housing, a high-priced condo development called DuCharme Place will be going up.

The company intends to invest $13.5 million to construct a 66-unit complex with condos priced from $189,000 to $249,000, according to a description of the project submitted to Detroit’s City Council.

That’s a far cry from the type of housing advocates thought would replace Rochdale.

That’s happening because HUD, at the city’s request, granted a waiver allowing the affordable housing requirement to be dropped. HUD’s decision was based, at least in part, on a city assessment contending that there is an abundance of senior housing within a one-mile radius of the project, Scherrieb says.

The city needs to attract people who can afford such market-rate housing, Hagood says.

Hagood also says that high vacancy rates at existing senior properties are evidence that the demand for housing, especially in the waterfront area, is being met. However, he was unable to back up that claim with any specific data.

Advocates say that determining the need for affordable senior housing isn’t as simple as looking at overall vacancy rates.

“When you look at affordable housing, you have to look at quality and location,” says Roger Meyers, CEO of Presbyterian Villages of Michigan, a nonprofit senior service organization.

Location is important when it comes to senior housing. Proximity to amenities like bus lines and shopping are key for low-income seniors.

Quality is no less important.

Some developments get a bad reputation in the senior community, says Tim Wintermute of the Hannan Foundation, a nonprofit that serves area seniors.

“Quality affordable senior housing is what’s needed. There is some senior housing that’s not great, and seniors don’t want to live there. That was the case with Rochdale,” Wintermute says.

Advocates Wood and Meyers say that at properties their organizations run in Detroit, waiting lists can number more than 100, with up to a four-year wait for an apartment.

“I think that for quality housing in the right location that’s subsidized, there’s not an oversupply, there’s a demand for it, absolutely,” Meyers says.

Dale Thomson of Wayne State University’s College of Urban, Labor and Metropolitan Affairs agrees that vacancy rates alone don’t tell the whole story.

“The data doesn’t account for the quality of housing,” Thomson says. “There are a lot of affordable units in Detroit that are in terrible condition or in bad areas. You can’t account for this through the data, but we know this to be true.”

When the Detroit Housing Commission’s five-year plan for 2000-2005 was written, the number of households on the waiting list for public housing was more than twice the number of units available in Detroit. In the last decade, according to the census, housing in Detroit disappeared almost at the same rate as residents. The five-year plan labeled “the lack of availability of adequate and affordable housing in safe neighborhoods” as “one of the most pervasive problems of the elderly residing in the city of Detroit.”

During former Mayor Dennis Archer’s administration, a task force comprising members of the city’s Planning Commission, the Housing Commission, HUD and a variety of nonprofits worked together on a strategy to prevent the loss of further senior housing units. One remedy, the task force concluded, was for the city to intervene before properties become uninhabitable, using mediators to step in and make sure deterioration is halted in time. The task force’s recommendations, say members, have been largely ignored by the Kilpatrick administration.

Hagood says he wasn’t aware of the task force’s conclusions.

Affordable senior housing that’s lost, Wintermute says, is more than likely gone forever. Detroit’s problem with affordable housing isn’t limited to the senior population, Thomson says, but there’s more of an impact among seniors. As of the 2000 Census, a good portion of Detroit’s senior population — close to 50 percent — was living in “cost-burdened” homes. That’s the term used to describe households paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent.

“For the seniors, addressing the availability through rehabilitation and construction is probably more critical because they tend to earn less income and don’t have potential to earn their way out of affordability problems,” Thomson says.

At the very least, Meyers, says, the site could have been developed as mixed-rate housing — part market-rate, part affordable senior housing. Doing so at the Rochdale site might have maximized the amount of taxes flowing into city coffers, Meyers says.

Under a special program, the state, rather than the owner, pays city taxes on senior housing projects receiving federal subsidies. Even if only a portion of the new project had included such subsidized housing, the state would have covered the property taxes for those units.

Instead, the city wants to offer a substantial tax break to condo owners at DuCharme by seeking to create a Neighborhood Enterprise Zone (NEZ). Such a zone is intended to attract homebuyers by offering them a 50 percent reduction on city property taxes for 12 years.

City Council held a hearing on the DuCharme NEZ, and will vote in September on whether to create a neighborhood enterprise zone for DuCharme.

Council President Maryann Mahaffey, an advocate for affordable housing, says she didn’t realize that the DuCharme project was the former Rochdale site.

Mahaffey says that reducing the city’s senior housing in favor of what she calls “gated communities for rich people” doesn’t make sense for Detroit in the long term.

“You want to repopulate the city, but you don’t want to forget that there are people who need,” Mahaffey says.

The city’s decision to go condo at Rochdale may be legal, advocates say, but it’s not keeping faith with its obligation to provide housing for low-income seniors at a time when that same housing stock is known to be dwindling.

“My guess is that it was determined there was a greater economic value of the property,” Meyers says. “And that this greater economic value, forget about the social value, had trumped the commitments made to keep it as affordable senior housing.”

Nancy Kaffer is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to nkaffer@metrotimes.com

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