Detroit Resident Taura Brown is being threatened with eviction by her nonprofit landlord, Cass Community Social Services (CCSS), a major nonprofit with a $7 million dollar operating budget. A participant in CCSS’ rent-to-own Tiny Homes program, Ms. Brown is being evicted in retaliation for speaking out about exploitation within the program and advocating on behalf of her neighbors, tenants in the Tiny Homes and CCSS’ homeless shelter. Her situation highlights the effects of the housing crisis and real estate speculation, and the exploitation of nonprofits.
Demanding Fair Housing, Fighting Retaliatory Eviction
When Ms. Brown first enrolled in the Tiny Homes program, she lacked secure housing and was practically homeless. Ms. Brown was herself a former property manager but was unable to work due to a medical diagnosis that placed her on dialysis and in need of a replacement kidney. For Ms. Brown, the Tiny Homes rent-to-own “homeownership” program represented a chance to get her life on track and secure financial stability for herself and her son.
Excited to enter the program, Ms. Brown initially had no issues with the program or its director, Rev. Faith Fowler. Yet rent-to-own programs in Detroit have a troubled history. As tenants progress through the program, property owners often move the goalposts and rely on technicalities to prevent tenants from ever making it to homeownership. Ms. Brown sensed that these programs had problems based on the fact that it was hard to get details about them, and approached the Tiny Homes program with attentiveness to detail. When she started asking questions and spoke out against exploitative practices, program inconsistencies, mandatory volunteer hours, and an attempt to evict her neighbor, her relationship with Rev. Fowler soured. Rather than respond to the concerns raised by her advocacy, CCSS moved to evict Ms. Brown.
Ms. Brown attempted to fight the eviction in court, but recently lost her appeal. She and her supporters now seek to defend her home by any means necessary. On Saturday, Oct. 8, a rally in support of Ms. Brown and others being evicted in Detroit will take place at her house. The court system is not designed or intended to support tenants – it swings in favor of tenants in direct proportion to the strength of the movement in the streets and the ability of the tenants and their community to self-organize. The success of the home defense against CCSS rests on the strength of the community defense.
“Nonprofit” Doesn’t Mean “Nonexploitative”
Detroit, and most of the nation, are in the midst of another housing crisis. In Detroit, rent and evictions are increasing rapidly coupled with a serious shortage of accessible rental units, homes, and public housing. The crisis has had an outsized impact of Black working class Detroiters, easily observed in the large-scale displacement, segregation, and gentrification that has occurred over the last 20 years. Detroit, the State of Michigan, and community groups have sought to address the problem, in part, by promoting nonprofit housing schemes such as rent-to-own programs, church-run developments, and community land trusts. These programs fail to address the underlying causes of the housing crisis.
Ms. Brown’s eviction highlights how a nonprofit landlord is still a landlord. Privatization of housing via public-private partnerships and nonprofits only shifts the labels, not the underlying dynamics of housing. Nonprofits, including CCSS – which has an annual budget of $7 million – are dependent on philanthropy and government grants to exist. In line with broader neoliberal politics of austerity, nonprofits are kept in a precarious position, balanced on the edge of closing, and never receive enough funding to serve their community, pay employees, and keep the lights on. As a result, nonprofits must bend towards the funding priorities of wealthy, corporate, and government donors rather than designing programs around the real needs of their constituents. Further, due to the instability of grant-based funding, nonprofits are also under great pressure to find other revenue streams. For nonprofit landlords, like CCSS, that includes collecting rent from properties such as the Tiny Homes project. CCSS is incentivised not to follow through on its promise to transition Ms. Brown and the other residents to homeownership in no small part because the Tiny Homes are a valuable asset and a revenue source.
These structural pressures pit CCSS against its own constituents, leading them to prioritize control over the well-being of their constituents. This can be seen in the extraordinary efforts CCSS has taken to evict Ms. Brown, going so far as to hire a high-profile attorney and file a defamation lawsuit, which has been dismissed. Indeed, CCSS offered Ms. Brown an initial payout of $2,500 then increased it to $10,000 to leave rather than give her the opportunity to complete the program and own her home.
As part of the neoliberal approach of replacing governmental functions and services with public-private partnerships, large nonprofits such as CCSS function as an extension of the state. They often operate in tight coordination with government entities and funding agencies, but lack the accountability of elected (and recallable) leaders. In this way, nonprofit organizations can still be highly exploitative.
The current housing crisis is not the first one, nor will it be the last, while real estate remains a tool of speculation and capital accumulation. Instead of speculation, what we need is public housing controlled directly by the community. That means the elimination of real estate as a tool of financial investment and speculation. Instead, apartment buildings and housing collections like the Tiny Homes must be controlled and operated by the people that work and live in them.