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Opinion | Michigan’s affordable housing problem has solutions

Skyrocketing rents, out-of-control prices for purchasing homes and increasing utility bills are threatening Michiganders’ ability to keep a roof over our heads.

Charlotte Jameson headshot
Charlotte Jameson is chief policy officer for the Michigan Environmental Council. (Courtesy photo)

We are paying more to rent, buy and live in our homes than ever. The good news is there is a way for our legislators to act to provide more residents with affordable and healthy homes.

We all know Michigan still has existing federal COVID-19 and infrastructure dollars available, along with a surplus of one-time, higher-than-anticipated state revenues. Resilient Homes Michigan, composed of businesses, housing, economic development, and low-income advocates, along with environmental organizations, proposes an investment of $1.6 billion to build new, affordable housing, renovate existing homes, and grow our building contractor workforce.

This funding could provide real solutions to Michiganders across the state. Across Michigan, the need for safe, affordable housing is real: Families in rural areas consistently say they need safe, affordable housing, which many areas lack. And in Detroit, affordable, safe housing was consistently one of the highest ranked priorities by city residents when they were surveyed for their thoughts on how the city should spend federal COVID relief dollars.

Under the Resilient Michigan proposal, the bulk of the money — $1 billion — would go toward a whole-home retrofit program. Updating Michigan’s houses is long overdue. Two out of five homes on a typical Michigan block were built before 1960. These homes need energy efficient upgrades, switching our fossil fuel appliances for clean, electric ones, roof repairs, and removal of toxins like lead and asbestos.

Unfortunately, a quarter of Michigan homes eligible right now for federal dollars to weatherize and make their homes more energy efficient can’t access funds for that purpose because the homes may have toxic chemicals and are structurally unsound; you can’t add insulation to an attic if the roof is leaking.

In Detroit, 75 percent of eligible homes can’t get weatherization because of these barriers. A University of Michigan report found that an estimated 37,630 Detroit households are living in housing with neglected and often dangerous maintenance issues.

Resilient Homes Michigan’s proposal can help Michigan resolve this Catch-22 by ensuring there is funding to tackle both the safety and structural issues in homes as well as do energy efficiency upgrades that will make homes more affordable in the long run. This statewide program will build off of the work being done in Detroit under the city’s affordable housing plan and the recently announced Detroit Home Repair fund by augmenting local dollars and taking a whole home approach statewide.

This investment would also address the shortage of available housing available for middle- and low-income families. According to an independent report, the fair market value for a two-bedroom rental in Michigan is $974, which means a Michigander making minimum wage would have to work two full-time jobs to afford it.

With a $300-million investment, Michigan can build thousands of new multi-family and single-family homes for low-income families. This idea builds off the Michigan State Housing Development Authority’s first statewide housing plan, which was just released and calls for Michigan to increase the supply of safe, affordable, and attainable housing — including small homes, duplexes and row homes that first-time homebuyers and middle-income families can afford.

While investing in homes will ensure more Michiganders can afford to keep a roof over their heads, these investments will also fight climate change and improve public health by reducing toxic air pollution. Our homes, schools and businesses shelter us from increasingly severe weather resulting from climate change. Outdated, inefficient buildings and dirty fossil fuel appliances also contribute to emissions that worsen climate change and expose our families to indoor air pollution.

Because of the age of Michigan’s housing stock, many homes lack exterior wall insulation and adequate attic insulation. Many have windows that leak, wasting energy and exposing us to weather and temperature swings. Now is our opportunity to retrofit buildings with better envelopes. We can upgrade appliances to be more energy efficient, running on electricity instead of gas. By seizing these opportunities, we can make homes and buildings across Michigan more affordable, efficient and healthier.

That is why a growing list of organizations has endorsed this proposal.

Lawmakers should listen to the concerns of residents from Traverse City to Detroit and seize this moment to transform Michigan’s housing stock and tackle the many challenges facing Michiganders as they seek a safe and comfortable home for their families.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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