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Opinion | Want affordable housing in Michigan? Allow developers to build it

Jonathan Pommerville is fighting for affordable housing. As he described in a recent interview with the Mackinac Center, he has scrimped and saved enough cash to buy and fix a broken-down home in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood. Now he’s spending nights and weekends fixing termite damage, replacing windows and making a once-unlivable home livable again. When he’s finished, he’ll put it up for rent, giving a family an affordable option in a part of town with too few choices.

Jarrett Skorup headshot
Jarrett Skorup is the vice president of marketing and communications at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market research and education institute in Midland. (Courtesy photo)

But he is just one person. He can’t singlehandedly end the housing affordability crisis that’s holding back Michiganders. Rent nationwide has increased by 40% since 2020, much higher than inflation and twice the rate of wage growth. The price of buying a home has soared by double digits, too, driven by sky-high base prices and historically high interest rates.

There’s only one way out of this crisis, and that’s up—literally. Michigan needs to build more homes and apartments, from the ground up. It’s the proven way to lower the cost of rent and mortgages. With more housing, families have more options and therefore more leverage over sellers and landlords. In the same way that competition between grocery stores keeps prices lower, competition between home-sellers and landlords pushes prices down, too.

Other states prove that building houses keeps costs down. Consider Minnesota. The city of Minneapolis, like metro Detroit, had skyrocketing housing costs until recently. In 2018, the Democratic-controlled city council passed reforms to allow more apartments to be built and single-family homes to be turned into multi-family units. The result? The number of houses in the city grew by 12% from 2017 to 2022, but rents grew by only 1%. In the rest of Minnesota, housing units grew only a third as much, yet rents increased 14 times faster.

Michigan leaders know we need more housing, fast. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Growing Michigan Together Council report notes that housing permits have plummeted over the past few decades, especially for multi-family units. The council urged state lawmakers to modernize zoning to allow smaller and multi-units, while eliminating the bias toward single-family homes on large lots. 

That’s a good plan, but lawmakers don’t seem to be listening. Instead, they’ve passed a slew of subsidies for certain housing developments. That’s a costly and minimal political gimmick, not a real solution. Instead of picking a limited number of winners and losers, lawmakers should make it easier for every developer to build houses. We can and should build more homes without spending a single dollar of taxpayer money.

Other bad ideas abound. Lawmakers have also introduced bills to eliminate the use of background and credit checks for renters, make it harder to evict bad tenants, re-establish rent control and more. None of these measures would help, and in fact, they would push affordable housing further out of reach. Fewer landlords would rent their properties, leading to less affordable housing, not more. Those who keep renting to tenants will cut back on improvements or let properties fall apart, because they can’t raise rents to cover the cost of maintenance. 

The solution to affordable housing isn’t worse housing. Nor is it making it harder to rent houses, throwing taxpayer money at special interests, or simply hoping that people like Pommerville can solve this crisis one renovation at a time. If we really want to give every Michigan family a house or apartment they can afford, we need to build more houses—now.

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