Residents of a Ferndale public housing building have decided to unionize after learning last month that the Ferndale Housing Commission is applying for the Rental Assistance Demonstration program.
RAD is a program run through the Department of Housing and Urban Development that allows public housing to get money for repairs through private investment. Under RAD, public housing units become Section 8 properties — privately owned, but still rent-subsidized by the government for those who qualify.
In late May, the Ferndale Housing Commission got the go-ahead to apply for RAD. They were given 60 days to complete the application, so they’re working on it now. Once they hear if they’ve been approved for the program, they’ll have a full year to develop a plan to repair their properties.
Because of the extended schedule ahead of them, the Housing Commission doesn’t have any specific plans laid out yet. But in an effort to be as transparent as possible, they’ve been meeting with residents since early June to discuss what will happen if the RAD distinction is approved.
For the residents of Ferndale’s Autumn House, this has caused mass confusion. They’ve been told that their house, a 55-unit building from the 1970s, may be knocked down and rebuilt if the RAD money comes through. The process could potentially take several years.
Mark Hopkins, who’s lived in the building since March, says residents are worried about what will happen to them during that possible construction period.
”The question is what will become of them during the time period that they have been displaced for the new building to be erected? And where are they gonna go?”
The residents also have questions about what happens after renovations. Will there still be a spot for them in the building? Will their rents go up?
Heather Van Poucken, executive director of the Ferndale Housing Commission, says she’s been doing her best to address these concerns through public meetings and informational packets. The RAD program stipulates that residents are guaranteed housing during and after renovations, and Van Poucken says her office will work with residents to develop a temporary relocation plan that works for them if they need to leave the building for construction. Furthermore, rent for almost all residents will stay the same after renovations.
But the plans are still vague and tentative. She doesn’t have specific answers yet as to where or when people might have to move. In fact, because the RAD application hasn’t been accepted yet, she doesn’t even know if people will actually have to move at all.
“For me to say we're going to pursue this program to hopefully put a lot of money into improving our properties but we don't know what that means and we don't know how that will affect you and we don’t know if you’ll have to move and if you’ll have to move, we don’t know how that will go -- that's just a really scary message to hear, and I don’t blame people one bit,” Van Poucken says.
Van Poucken says she hopes to organize a meet-up with people from other housing authorities who have undergone the RAD conversion so residents can hear first-hand what it was like. She’s reached out to organizations like Detroit Eviction Defense and Lakeshore Legal Aid to participate in the process as advocates for the tenants. And she plans on bringing a social worker on board at the Housing Commission to offer extra support to residents through the ordeal.
Still, Hopkins feels there might be some “ongoing tension” at Autumn House because there just isn’t enough information available for residents to make their own judgements about RAD.
He says the Autumn House residents voted to form a union a few weeks ago at the advice of a lawyer, and the measure passed unanimously. The tenants are hoping it’ll help them stay organized and in the loop as they navigate any changes that might occur.
“But we can’t really do anything because with each meeting, we get just a little bit more and a little bit more,” Hopkins says. “We don’t know everything that’s going on. Actually Heather, the director, doesn’t know everything that’s going on.”