YPSILANTI TOWNSHIP, MI — Courtney Vesey’s 30th birthday dinner was leftovers she pulled from the fridge and ate standing alone at the kitchen counter. There was no cake.
She spent the quiet mid-December evening with her boyfriend, Mike Ponds, and her four kids. Romeiro, 12, Marcquise, 11, and Ramone, 8, watched cartoons in the back bedroom and took turns flexing to see who had bigger muscles. Two-year-old Alaya toddled around the house with her mom’s phone.
Vesey had three weeks to move her family into a new house and didn’t know where they’d go. That worry overshadowed any birthday festivities.
“I just want to be accepted, for my voucher to be accepted,” she said, dressed up for her birthday, with shimmery eye shadow and gold dangly earrings.
Ramone “ReRe” (left) and Romeiro “RoRo” Buckner work out side-by-side inside their bedroom at their West Willow home, Friday, Dec. 14, 2018 in Ypsilanti Township. (Ben Allan Smith | MLive)
Ramone “ReRe” Buckner, 8, wrestles with his brothers (not pictured) while his sister Alaya, 2, sleeps on the couch at their West Willow home on their mother’s 30th birthday, Friday, Dec. 14, 2018, in Ypsilanti Township. (Ben Allan Smith | MLive)
Vesey is among 3,252 Washtenaw County residents who receive a Housing Choice Voucher, a federal subsidy created more than four decades ago to help the poor gain entry into better, safer neighborhoods.
However, the private housing market dictates where Section 8 housing vouchers are accepted. Washtenaw County largely pushes these folks into already low-income neighborhoods – some of which are riddled with violence and drug activity – according to an analysis of voucher data from 2016 and 2017 by MLive and The Ann Arbor News.
Tenant screening policies, fees and high security deposits keep voucher recipients out of more affluent areas with better job opportunities and schools like Ann Arbor, Saline, Dexter or Chelsea – even if they can make rent.
(Kate Howland | MLive)
Fifty percent of renters in Ypsilanti Township’s West Willow neighborhood use housing vouchers, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
About 200 voucher recipients live there – effectively making West Willow a subsidized housing complex, but without the support services traditionally offered by public housing.
Vesey was among those funneled into West Willow. After seven months, she was desperate to get out.
“I don’t want my kids to be a part of this culture,” she said in a December interview.
(Kate Howland | MLive)
Jo Ann McCollum, president of the New West Willow Neighborhood Association, poses for a portrait at the Community Resource Center on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018, in Ypsilanti Township. (Ben Allan Smith | MLive.com)
Death of an American dream
West Willow – full of single-family homes with fenced-in yards, churches, a park and an elementary school – sounds like an ideal place to raise a family.
“I have this vision of this neighborhood being affordable to live in, friendly, safe,” said Jo Ann McCollum, New West Willow Neighborhood Association president and a homeowner there with her husband since 1994.
“I want it to be sort of like a model neighborhood where you don’t have to have a lot of money, you don’t have to have a lot of education to live a high-quality life.”
In some ways, West Willow has fallen short of McCollum’s vision, as the ups and downs of the auto industry determined the fate of the neighborhood.
This undated photo of West Willow shows the neighborhood’s original houses, which were built in the late 1940s. (Courtesy of Ypsilanti Historical Society)
West Willow was built in the late 1940s as a subdivision for executives and managers at the nearby Willow Run Bomber Plant, which Ford had then recently sold to Kaiser-Frazer Corp.
General Motors bought the plant in 1953, which helped to stabilize the neighborhood even though GM offered fewer jobs than Kaiser-Frazer, said local historian Matt Siegfried.
“You see this ratcheting down of jobs since the end of World War II,” he said. “You can see how the starts and stops for the plant would lead to starts and stops in housing production.”
In 1960, the 770 homes in West Willow were occupied by white homeowners, according to Census data. The neighborhood nearly doubled in size by the mid-60s as more houses intended for factory workers were built, Siegfried said.
By the early ‘70s, after changes in federal law that theoretically prohibited race-based discrimination in home sales, a few black families had moved to West Willow.
Auto companies hired more black workers in the ’70s, and houses in West Willow were affordable for blue collar workers like Robert and Sandra Harrison, who both worked at Ford’s Rawsonville plant when they bought a house on Desoto Avenue in 1974.
“We moved in and we just never moved out,” said Robert Harrison, now 76. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re in a good neighborhood. It just needs a little tender, loving care.”
Workers build houses in West Willow in 1955. (The Ann Arbor News archives courtesy of Ann Arbor District Library)
The gradual influx of black families to West Willow prompted white families to move out, Siegfried said.
GM layoffs and a recession in the ‘80s raised unemployment and lowered property values in the triangular-shaped neighborhood bordered by U.S. 12 and I-94.
Gangs that cropped up in West Willow around that time brought a wave of violence and drug activity that continues to ripple through the neighborhood today. For decades, residents and police have tried to curb the criminal activity, with varying success.
However, some longtime residents say the accounts of gang activity in West Willow are exaggerated.
“West Willow became racialized,” Siegfried said. “The fact West Willow is black and working class makes it a ‘bad neighborhood’ compared to other areas around here.”
In 1992, GM closed its Willow Run transmission plant and moved thousands of jobs to Texas. The company maintained a powertrain plant at the Willow Run site, with fewer jobs available.
Black political power in southeast Michigan was largely tied to the United Automobile Workers, Siegfried said, so the downfall of the auto industry hurt the black community.
“We get a kind of bottoming out of living standards and political power and voice,” he said.
The offices of the New West Willow Neighborhood Association on Tyler Road, Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. (Ben Allan Smith | MLive)
Scenes from Ypsilanti Township’s West Willow neighborhood, Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. (Ben Allan Smith | MLive)
The Great Recession of 2007 brought a new layer of hardship.
In 2008, West Willow had the second highest foreclosure rate in Washtenaw County, with 12.5 percent of the neighborhood’s 1,089 mortgages in foreclosure, according to data collected for a federal grant.
At that time, 59 percent of mortgages in West Willow had higher-than-recommended interest rates and fees that made homeowners more vulnerable to foreclosure.
“Just that look of all these for sale signs on these homes changes things,” McCollum said. “It was like a mad rush. People lost their homes or were trying to sell them.”
GM – which had been Ypsilanti Township’s largest taxpayer – completely closed the Willow Run plant in 2010.
In 2012, Willow Run schools closed Kaiser Elementary in West Willow, and the following year the struggling school district itself disbanded.
Property values plummeted, and more renters moved in after investors bought up the inexpensive houses.
In 2005, 28 percent of houses in West Willow were rentals, and 71 percent had a market value between $90,000 and $113,000, according to Washtenaw County data.
Post-recession, in 2017, rentals made up 46 percent of West Willow houses, and 97 percent had a market value of $70,000 or less. At the same time, the racial makeup of the neighborhood shifted, and 75 percent of West Willow’s 3,180 residents in 2017 were black.
The graphic shows the change in owner-occupied versus renter-occupied houses in West Willow from 2005 to 2017. (Courtesy of Washtenaw County)
The graphic shows the change in state equalized value of property in West Willow from 2005 to 2017. The market value is approximately double the state equalized value. (Courtesy of Washtenaw County)
Alex Thomas, 49, a community activist who grew up in West Willow, was surprised by how much the neighborhood had changed when he moved back in 2016 after spending eight years living abroad.
There was more litter on the streets, fewer children playing outside and the closure of Willow Run schools took away a “focal point” of the neighborhood, he said. He didn’t know many of his neighbors anymore.
“It was just shocking seeing the decline in the neighborhood,” Thomas said.
In the struggling real estate market, housing vouchers brought steady rent checks.
The maximum voucher amount is based on a county-wide formula, so West Willow landlords accepting housing vouchers can charge more for rent than they otherwise could in a high-crime neighborhood in a low-performing school district.
“That was an incentive for some of the last holdouts to move and use their home as an investment property,” Thomas said.
Meanwhile, the area’s lower property values have hollowed out Ypsilanti Township’s tax base, making it more difficult to provide basic services and maintain infrastructure.
“That’s individual people’s property values, but that’s the community’s tax base, too,” said Teresa Gillotti, Washtenaw County’s Office for Community and Economic Development director.
“It’s just like kicking you while you’re down.”
Courtney Vesey (top left) poses for a family portrait alongside her boyfriend, Mike Ponds (top right) and her four children, Romeiro Buckner (top middle), Ramone Buckner (bottom left), Alaya Buckner (bottom middle) and Marcquise Buckner (bottom right), outside their West Willow home on Friday Dec. 14, 2018, in Ypsilanti Township. (Ben Allan Smith | MLive.com)
Courtney Vesey (right) locks the door to her mother’s apartment before leaving to drop off her children for their first day back to school following winter break on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, in Ypsilanti Township. (Ben Allan Smith | MLive)
The quest for a fresh start
Vesey was 16 and pregnant when she first considered applying for a housing voucher. She wanted a place of her own once her child was born and knew she’d need help paying rent.
She spent six years on the waiting list before receiving a voucher in 2012.
In that time, Vesey graduated from Belleville High School, welcomed three sons to her family and lived with relatives and her children’s father.
In 2016, Vesey lost her voucher after failing to disclose a change in her income. Pregnant with Alaya at the time, she moved in with her children’s father again. Their landlord ended their month-to-month lease, and they struggled to find a new place to live.
In February 2018, Vesey and her four children landed in a homeless shelter. Three months later, they moved into a house in West Willow thanks to the Rapid Rehousing program that provides temporary rent assistance for people who are homeless.
Two-year-old Alaya Buckner laughs while she plays on the stairs of her grandmother’s apartment on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, in Ypsilanti Township. (Ben Allan Smith | MLive.com)
Rapid Rehousing paid a decreasing amount of Vesey’s $1,200 rent each month, and she knew she could not afford the place on her $700 a month income.
Plus, Vesey wanted to move away from the drug deals she said she saw on the street outside her house, the threat of gun violence and the worries her sons would start smoking marijuana with other neighborhood kids.
“You’re raising your child different,” she said. “It’s hard to be different in an environment like that.”
Vesey received a new housing voucher in November and quickly ran through the list of properties recommended by the Ann Arbor Housing Commission and Section 8 website. There were no units available that could accommodate her family.
She and Ponds started calling any property in southeast Michigan and Ponds’ home state of South Carolina that seemed promising. They checked on about 275 rentals.
“When you realize (the apartments are) nice, you know not to call,” Vesey said. “You kind of look at the ones that are beat up a little bit and you shoot your shot with them.
“The odds are against you, so you’ve got to pick the worst place. But you’ve got to pick the best of the worst.”
(Kate Howland | MLive)
By law, landlords are not required to accept housing vouchers. Ann Arbor’s and Ypsilanti’s non-discrimination ordinances include source of income, so landlords cannot deny prospective tenants solely because they have a housing voucher.
However, apartment complexes can set a minimum credit score for tenants or charge high application fees or security deposits, which are not covered by housing vouchers.
Ann Arbor’s housing market lets landlords set rent higher than the voucher payment limit, so there’s little incentive for them to accept vouchers and reduce profits.
“You can’t get into Ann Arbor,” Vesey said. “They either tell you that they don’t accept Section 8, or they tell you that you have to meet their criteria. If I met the criteria, I wouldn’t need Section 8.”
Between 25 and 30 percent of people who receive Housing Choice Vouchers from the Ann Arbor Housing Commission don’t find a place to use them within the 60- to 90-day deadline, said Executive Director Jennifer Hall.
There’s a variety of reasons for that, said AAHC Voucher Program Manager Misty Hendershot, including the lack of affordable or satisfactory housing options, poor credit history or criminal record.
“With affordable housing being limited right now in Washtenaw County, even though we’re giving out all these vouchers to people, they’re having a hard time finding places to stay,” she said.
From left: Siblings Ramone “ReRe,” 8, Marcquise, 11, and Alaya, 2, play on an air mattress during Marcquise’s birthday party at their grandmother’s apartment on Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019 in Ypsilanti Township. Courtney Vesey and her four kids spent more than six weeks staying at Vesey’s mother house while waiting for paperwork to be processed for their new apartment.
Vesey found out on New Year’s Eve the apartment complex she had her eye on in Greenville, South Carolina, accepted Section 8 and had an apartment available.
While waiting for the paperwork to be processed, Vesey and her kids have spent more than six weeks sleeping on the floor at her mother’s apartment, their belongings packed in black garbage bags piled in the living room.
“I’m a little nervous – just about starting all over again,” Vesey said in early January as she planned a trip with her dad to go see the apartment.
As moving plans materialized, Vesey left the pharmacy technician job she’d had for less than three months.
The extra income could jeopardize her Social Security disability payments, Vesey said, and her pharmacy tech certification wouldn’t transfer to South Carolina.
Vesey’s housing voucher is the main source of income to pay $843 a month for the new three-bedroom apartment.
“The voucher itself is really a good stepping stone for a family who doesn’t have money to be able to afford housing on their own,” she said. “But all I can say is that it was very difficult for me, just very challenging. I got more ‘no’ to my Section 8 voucher than I got ‘yes.’”
This piece won second place for best public service from the Associated Press, second place for news enterprise reporting from the Michigan Press Association and second place for public service from MPA.