Skip To Content

With Detroit Economy Sputtering, Federation Offers Housing Help

With the city’s population reeling from a battered economy and a plunging housing market, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit has begun offering housing assistance to Jewish families to help stave off the threat of foreclosure.

For the past month, the Jewish Housing Assistance Program has been providing loans, advice and negotiating assistance to community members who face the prospect of losing their homes. The program comes at a time when social service agencies report that Jews have been coming for assistance in ever greater numbers.

“I have men in business suits coming in here and crying,” said Mary Keane, executive director of Detroit’s Hebrew Free Loan Association, which is involved in running the Housing Assistance Program. “They used to be donors to this community; they have reputations. Physicians and medical offices are closing down a couple days a week and laying off 50% of their staff because people are not going to doctors unless they absolutely have to.”

Though the whole country has been hurt by a slowing economy and by the fallout from the collapse of subprime mortgages, no American metropolitan area has been hit harder than Detroit. The widely publicized woes of the automobile industry have rippled through the local economy, producing the highest unemployment rate in the country. The subprime crisis itself has hit Detroit particularly hard, causing one of the country’s highest foreclosure rates.

Detroit’s Jewish population has been shrinking for years, but it has remained prosperous and strongly affiliated. According to a 2005 study conducted by the Detroit federation and posted on the North American Jewish Data Bank, median family income among Detroit-area Jews was $85,000, the eighth highest in the country. Even this past year, despite the recession, the federation raised a total of $48 million, one of its largest campaigns to date.

The Jewish population, however, has been engulfed by one of the worst downturns in Detroit’s history. Detroit’s unemployment rate is 7.7%, and according to the National Association of Realtors, median housing prices in Detroit have dropped 7.3% over the past year, compared with a 2% drop nationally.

The result has been a double blow to local families, who face the risk of losing their jobs but cannot compensate by selling or refinancing their houses.

In response to the mounting crisis, an anonymous donor approached Robert Aronson, chief executive officer of the Jewish federation, last month and offered to put up the money to start a housing assistance program. Aronson quickly assembled federation board members and heads of Jewish social service agencies, and they began putting together a program on the fly. By the first day of Hanukkah, the Jewish Housing Assistance Program had been fitted with its own board and two full-time staffers, and it was accepting applicants.

Operating from the offices of Jewish Family Service of Metropolitan Detroit, the housing program is designed to address both emergencies and long-term housing problems. In the case of an emergency, the program will help pay for such basic costs as utilities, property taxes, and rent or mortgage payments. In the case of those who do not face such immediate crises, the program is designed to help restructure loans and make them more affordable over the long term.

Leaders of the Housing Assistance Program say they have been able to use the weak housing market as a negotiating tool with lenders.

“Frankly, lenders don’t want the houses back,” said Bob Pilcowitz, a veteran of the Detroit mortgage industry who chairs the board of the Housing Assistance Program. “The best house for the lenders is a house that’s occupied.”

The Housing Assistance Program uses its funds and the advice of real estate professionals such as Pilcowitz to renegotiate cheaper loans, often converting expensive subprime loans into more affordable, stable mortgages. The program also makes loans to homeowners.

In turn, the directors of the program expect the applicants to have a plan to get themselves back on their feet, whether by finding a new job or moving into a cheaper house.

To date, the organizers have not advertised the program beyond word-of-mouth, for fear that they will be swamped with applicants while they are still getting organized. So far, about 20 people have come in seeking help; half of them have been accepted into the program.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.