Big dispute over Tiny Home

Tiny houses that are part of a non-profit’s project to provide low-income housing on Detroit’s west side. The programme, which rents homes to low-income residents and helps them build equity as homeowners, was rocked when one of the initial participants, — ©2023 The New York Times Company

ON the west side of Detroit, Michigan, near a commercial strip lined with vacant lots, empty shops, storefront churches and motorcycle clubs, sits a cluster of relatively new, micro-size houses – 21 sq m to 44 sq m – that look more like seasonal cottages in a resort town.

The Tiny Homes, as they’re known, were built by a non-profit group and have marble shower stalls, granite kitchen countertops and solar panels. They are intended for low-income residents who pay monthly rent of US$10 per square metre, along with 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 who include older adults and people formerly homeless and incarcerated, and who earn as little as US$7,000 annually. The first set opened in 2017, and construction is to begin this fall on a half dozen or so houses on a patch of land nearby.

The project, owned and operated by Cass Community Social Services of Detroit, has been built through fundraising 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.

But in early April, the first eviction of a Tiny Homes resident underscored what a hot-button issue affordable housing has become in places such as Detroit, one of the country’s poorest big cities.

It pitted well-intentioned community activists against a well-established altruist. It also was a reminder that benevolent, low-income programmes often come with rules and restrictions that can result in conflicts and ugly disputes. In this case, the founder of the programme, 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 tyres, chicken wire and barrels, blocking the front door of her house on Monterey Street.

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

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

Fowler contends the eviction was triggered by Brown’s living elsewhere more than 50% of the time, contrary to the intent of the programme, which requires tenants to make the homes their primary residence. She said new residents, including 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 Brown’s name was on the lease at her boyfriend’s US$2,000-plus-a-month apartment on the Detroit riverfront.

Cass Community Social Services initially didn’t renew her annual lease on the Tiny Home, but she refused to move, so the non-profit moved to evict. Brown offered to pay rent, but the agency declined, telling her it wanted her gone to make way for someone who would make it their primary residence.

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

She said she lived 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 that she would 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.

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 Brown are no longer part of the programme. One died from illness, and another was killed. Another moved to Memphis, Tennessee, to be closer to family, and one moved into her dead husband’s house. The agency has renewed everyone else’s annual lease since the inception, except for Brown’s.

Over seven years, Brown would have paid US$26,628 in rent for the 30 sq m house before taking ownership. Zillow, a real estate website, values the house at about US$90,000.

Brown was one of 122 people who applied 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.

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

“I didn’t think I would ever own a home,” Hobbs said. “It’s really a well-rounded programme. 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 Brown’s eviction.

Fowler, 64, who has a master’s degree in theology from Boston University, became affiliated in 1994 with Cass Community United Methodist Church, which provided help for seniors, the developmentally disabled and the homeless. In 2002, it established a separate non-profit agency, Cass Community Social Services, to expand its programmes, and Fowler became executive director.

In 2013, 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 for people with low incomes to receive some infusion of wealth to move out of poverty.

She said she raised more than US$2mil from foundations and private donors for the initial 25 homes, including the one where Brown lived. Each home costs about US$100,000.

Both Brown and Fowler have their defenders.

Tristan Taylor, a founder 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,” 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.”

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

“She’s nothing but positivity,” said Smith, 54, the third generation to live in the neighbourhood, who is the manager of a chemical company.

“For someone to say she’s racist; are you kidding me?” — ©2023 The New York Times Company

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