Real Estate

In Detroit, a Tiny Home Generates a Big Controversy

On Detroit’s west side, near a commercial strip lined with vacant lots, empty shops, storefront churches and motorcycle clubs, sits a cluster of relatively new, micro-size houses — 225 to 470 square feet — residences that look more like seasonal cottages in a resort town.

The Tiny Homes, as they’re known, were built by a nonprofit group and have marble shower stalls, granite kitchen countertops and solar panels. They are intended for low-income residents who pay monthly rent of $1 per square foot, plus electricity, with the option to own the home outright after seven years.

To date, there are 25 in a three-block area, occupied by residents that include seniors and people formerly homeless and incarcerated, and who earn as little as $7,000 annually. The first set opened in 2017, and construction is slated to begin this fall on a half dozen or so houses on a patch of empty land nearby. The project, which is owned and operated by Cass Community Social Services of Detroit, has been built through fund-raising from foundations and private donors, including rocker Jon Bon Jovi.

It’s the kind of story that pulls at heartstrings: From the scars of the July 1967 uprising rose a community where people who never thought they would become homeowners now have a chance to build some wealth.

Construction is slated to begin on the site this fall on six or so more homes near the existing ones.Credit…Sarah Rice for The New York Times

But in early April, the first-ever eviction of a Tiny Homes resident underscored what a hot-button issue affordable housing has become in places like Detroit, one of the country’s poorest big cities. It pitted well-intentioned community activists against a well-established do-gooder. It also was a reminder that benevolent, low-income programs often come with rules and restrictions that can result in conflicts and ugly disputes. In this case, the founder of the program, who is white, was accused of racism.

With TV cameras rolling, more than two dozen community activists from a group called Detroit Eviction Defense defended the resident, Taura Brown, 45, locking arms, putting up barriers of discarded tires, chicken wire, and barrels, and blocking the front door of her house on Monterey Street, near the John C. Lodge Freeway.

The group was trying to prevent court bailiffs from carrying out the final eviction order to remove Ms. Brown from the house.

As she fought the eviction, Ms. Brown, who is Black, repeatedly referred publicly to the Rev. Faith Fowler, who is white and runs the program, as a “poverty pimp,” and displayed a sign attacking Ms. Fowler in her front yard.

Tiny Home resident Taura Brown was locked in a bitter eviction battle for 25 months. Cass Community Social Services said it wasn’t her primary home. Ms. Brown insisted it was.Credit…Sarah Rice for The New York Times

Ms. Fowler contends the eviction was triggered by Ms. Brown living elsewhere more than 50 percent of the time, contrary to the intent of the program, which requires tenants to make the homes their primary residence. Ms. Fowler said new residents, including Ms. Brown, signed agreements in December 2020 that the houses would be their primary residences.

“I’m not anti-Miss Brown,” she said, adding later,“I just want someone living in the house full time, that’s all.”

The agency said Ms. Brown’s name was on the lease at her boyfriend’s $2,000-plus a month apartment on the Detroit riverfront. Cass Community Social Services initially didn’t renew her annual lease, but she refused to move, so the nonprofit moved to evict. Ms. Brown offered to pay rent, but the agency declined, telling her they wanted her gone to make way for someone who would make it their primary residence.

Ms. Brown said in an interview that the eviction was in retaliation after she began speaking up on behalf of residents about her concerns, like slow repairs, and because she was critical of the program and Ms. Fowler.

She said she lives on disability and worked part-time for her boyfriend’s engineering consulting business out of his apartment. She said she did not live with him and had her name on his lease only so she’d have easy access to the secure building and its amenities, which include a swimming pool. She said she never paid him rent and spent the majority of her time at Tiny Homes.

Credit…Sarah Rice for The New York Times
Two of the Tiny Homes. The blue one on the right was where Ms. Brown lived.Credit…Sarah Rice for The New York Times

Laying a Foundation

After seven years, Tiny Homes renters can own their houses outright and pay only utilities, upkeep and property taxes. Once taking ownership, they are free to sell it at market rate, use it as collateral for a loan or leave it as an inheritance.

To date, four residents besides Ms. Brown are no longer part of the program. One died from illness, and another was murdered. Another moved to Memphis to be closer to family and one moved into her deceased husband’s house. The agency has renewed everyone else’s annual lease since the inception, except for Ms. Brown’s.

Over seven years, Ms. Brown would have paid $26,628 in rent for the 317-square-foot house before taking ownership. Zillow, the real estate website, currently values the house at about $90,000.

Ms. Brown was one of 122 people who filed an application for the homes in 2016, while the first one was being built. For about the next five years, the agency used those applications to fill the homes as they became available. In 2022, the agency took 36 more applications for five houses.

In September 2024, three residents expect to be the first to achieve ownership, including Carolyn Hobbs, 72.

“I didn’t think I would ever own a home,” Ms. Hobbs said. “It’s really a well-rounded program. They help you with a job or clothing and try to help get you on your feet.”

“It was kind of sad that it happened,” she said of Ms. Brown’s eviction.

Inside one of the tiny homes.Credit…Sarah Rice for The New York Times

Coming to Grips With‘Affordable”

“Affordable housing” is a broad term, but essentially refers to what households can afford to pay and still have money left over for food, health care and transportation. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines it as paying no more than 30 percent of household income for housing costs, including utilities.

The needs are great in a country in which more than 11 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to a 2022 U.S. Census report. In Detroit, on any given night, about 1,280 people are homeless, according to the latest 2023 figure from the Home Action Network of Detroit.

Amy Hovey, executive director of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, said the affordable housing supply in the state “has decreased so much that it has driven up the cost of housing in Michigan and really made housing not affordable for a much larger percentage of our population.”

“We’re in a crisis that is very quickly becoming an emergency,” Ms. Hovey said

The houses vary in size.Credit…Sarah Rice for The New York Times

Spreading the Wealth

Ms. Fowler, 64, was born in Detroit and grew up there and in suburban Royal Oak. Her father was a Detroit Public Schools teacher, her mother held different jobs, the last as a cashier at a grocery chain where she became a union representative. In 1994, Ms. Fowler, who has a master’s degree in theology from Boston University, became affiliated with Cass Community United Methodist Church in Detroit’s Cass Corridor, which provided help for seniors, developmentally disabled and homeless. In 2002, it established a separate nonprofit agency, Cass Community Social Services, to expand its programs, and Ms. Fowler became the executive director.

In 2013, Ms. Fowler’s mother died, leaving her an inheritance, including a house — an experience that led to the creation of the Tiny Homes project as she looked for a way to make it possible forpeople with low incomes to receive some infusion of wealth to move out of poverty.

She said she raised more than $2 million from foundations and private donors for the initial 25 homes, including the one at 1553 Monterey Street where Ms. Brown lived. Each home costs about $100,000.

A Mutual Lack of Trust

Ms. Brown moved into her Tiny Home in January of 2020. She had been working for a property management company and living in a two-bedroom apartment in the Detroit Downriver suburb of Ecorse. But she said her health was declining, the result of polycystic kidney disease, a hereditary illness that enlarges the kidney, which gradually loses function. She eventually went on disability and required dialysis. (She received a kidney transplant May 8 of this year.)

At a meeting in December of 2020, Ms. Brown and other residents signed an agreement that their homes would be their primary residences, Ms. Fowler said.

She said other residents came to her to complain about Ms. Brown’s absence. Ms. Brown countered by sending an email to Ms. Fowler questioning why the security staff was scrutinizing her comings and goings. Shortly after, Ms. Fowler said the agency decided not to renew her annual lease. Ms. Brown was given a March deadline to move, which was later extended to August. Ms. Brown continued to battle her case in court, slowing her eviction.

Differing Conclusions

Both Ms. Brown and Ms. Fowler have their defenders.

Tristan Taylor, one of the founders of Detroit Will Breathe, which emerged during the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, is also part of the Detroit Eviction Defense and was there blocking the door on the day of Brown’s eviction.

“The main charge that Cass Community Social Services has against her is that she didn’t live in the house enough,” Mr. Taylor said in a telephone interview. “I’ve never heard of this where a person who is paying rent and maintaining a house was ever kicked out for not living in it enough.”

Ms. Brown is currently dividing her time between her boyfriend’s apartment and her sister’s, and she said she is weighing her options to continue fighting the eviction.

The Cass Agency has painted, cleaned and repaired Ms. Brown’s former home and a new tenant moved in on Aug. 15.

Neisha Smith, president of the Webb Street Association in the neighborhood, said she couldn’t speak about the attacks on Ms. Fowler “without tearing up.”

“She’s nothing but positivity,” said Ms. Smith, 54, the third generation to live in the neighborhood, who is the manager of a chemical company. “For someone to say she’s racist; are you kidding me?”

Phillip Watson, 66, who lived across the street from Ms. Brown, praises Ms. Fowler and the program. While standing on his front porch, he’s reluctant to say much about the eviction, only that, “I’m glad it’s over. It makes the neighborhood look bad.”

Back to top button