Michigan rents are rising, prompting debate about tenant protections
- Median rent in Michigan has jumped nearly 9 percent over the past year, the ninth highest among all states
- Since 1988, state law has banned local rent control policies.
- Advocates urge for more investments in public housing, establishment of tenants’ ‘Bill of Rights’
LANSING — Ty Lancaster says he slept in his pickup truck when he first moved from Florida to Michigan this summer.
Then the pickup truck broke down, Lancaster said, and he was truly without shelter. He said he had to sleep in a park near the Lansing Capitol lawn for weeks and walked to his $16-an-hour work downtown.
“I was looking on Facebook Marketplace, and I’m like, ‘Dude, I can’t afford any of this,’” Lancaster said. “Nothing.”
Lancaster now lives in a $600 a month studio apartment in Lansing. The apartment is the size of a white canopy tent, with just a wall separating the toilet and the kitchen, he said.
“I feel lucky for the place that I got,” he told Bridge Michigan on Tuesday. “But I … don’t feel like it’s $600’s worth.”
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Lancaster was one of roughly 200 attendees at the “Rent is Too Darn High” rally at the Capitol building Tuesday afternoon. One attendee held up a sign that read: “I PAY $1,314 A MONTH FOR Cockroaches & Blackmold.” Another sign said: “WHITMER Fix the DAMN Housing!”
The rally comes as the median rent in Michigan rose nearly 9 percent in the past year — the ninth-highest increase among all states, according to an August report by Rent.com, a nationwide apartment search engine owned by real estate company Redfin.
The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Michigan jumped by $251 from $1,116 in May 2020 to $1,367 in May 2023, MLive reported in July.
Rally organizers — a coalition of activist groups in Grand Rapids, Lansing and Detroit — want legislative reforms to protect tenants from rent increases. They plan to show up at every legislative committee hearing in the fall about housing, said organizer William Lawrence.
“This isn’t a one-day fight,” Lawrence told the crowd Tuesday.
Rising rents are pricing out low-income renters in Michigan, according to statistics from the Washington, D.C.-based National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Michigan had about 110,00 so-called affordable rental homes in 2021, according to the coalition said, and needs 191,000 for “extremely low-income households,” those who spend more than 30 percent of their wages on rent.
The Michigan State Housing Development Authority plans to add 75,000 housing units in the next five years as affordable rentals, market-rate units and homes for sale for low- and middle-income families, according to the Statewide Housing Plan.
By the national coalition’s measure, an average worker in Michigan must make at least $21.65 an hour — more than twice the state’s minimum wage rate of $10.1 an hour — to afford a two-bedroom apartment.
Even amid an increase in Michigan, the state’s rent is still far lower than the national median of $2,038, Jon Leckie, a researcher at Rent.com, told Bridge Michigan.
Rental demand soared as remote work became a sustained reality during the COVID-19 pandemic and people moved all over the country, Leckie said. Rents rose 17 percent nationally in August 2022 but cooled during the fall and winter months, Leckie told Bridge.
In Michigan, the rent has climbed since the pandemic started, he said. That’s because the Midwest is relatively affordable, and cheaper prices attract renters, he said.
“We've seen a lot of migration away from expensive metros in the Northeast and the West to metros in the Midwest,” Leckie said.
On Tuesday, rally attendees urged lawmakers to repeal the state’s ban on rent control — a 1988 law established by a Republican-controlled Legislature that prohibits local governments from capping rents or their rate of increase. The law was a response to local efforts — especially in Detroit — to pass rent control policies, Michigan Radio reported.
“Being a landlord is very, very profitable, but after a certain point, we just have to put a cap on how much money you can make off of this,” said Justin Yuan, an organizer with the McKinley Tenants Association and a renter in Washtenaw County.
Landlords have defended rents, pointing to profit margins that can be as low as 2 percent and saying they are still recovering from a federal moratorium on evictions that shrunk profits. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the moratorium in 2021, writing that it put “millions of landlords across the country at risk of irreparable harm.”
Jarrett Skorup, vice president for communications and marketing at the conservative think tank Mackinac Center for Public Policy, told The Detroit News increased regulations on landlords hurts housing availability, “kills investment and drives up rental cost.”
Rent control is illegal in Michigan as well as 32 other states, according to the National Apartment Association. States such as California, New York, New Jersey, Maine, Minnesota, Maryland and Oregon have rent control policies at the state or local levels, the association said.
Democratic lawmakers — such as Sen. Jeff Irwin of Ann Arbor who chairs the Senate Housing and Human Services Committee — have pushed for rent control since 2015. But no similar bill has been introduced this year, according to a Bridge search for bills mentioning rent control.
Rep. Carrie Rheingans, D-Ann Arbor, told The Detroit News that Democrats plan to introduce a package of bills in the fall.
Studies on the results of rent control policies are mixed. A 2018 essay by Rebecca Diamond, a professor of economics at Stanford University, showed that while the policy could provide tenants with short-term relief, it could speed up gentrification and decrease affordability.
Activists on Tuesday also called for a total $5 billion investment in the fiscal year 2025 state budget, including $4 billion for “social housing” — publicly financed and rent controlled housing options — and $1 billion to provide resources to the homeless community in Michigan.
Additionally, advocates urged state lawmakers to establish a “Renter’s Bill of Rights.” In January, the White House published a blueprint for renters’ Bill of Rights, which laid out non-legally binding principles that argued renters should have access to affordable housing and fair leases, be protected from evictions and have the right to organize, among other things.
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