Opening the Door to Affordable Housing Options

KeyA home is more than a physical location; it is a place that provides shelter, security, and a feeling of warmth. It can be a respite from a hectic outside world—a place where family connections and traditions can be nurtured and a sense of community can be forged. Where we live can be dictated by many factors—job availability, neighborhoods, transportation options, type of housing, quality of schools, amenities, etc. Sometimes, we simply can’t afford where we want to live. The appeal of suburban living, for several decades the gold standard dream, is starting to wane, as more and more people choose to move back to more urban areas and cities. We’ve seen significant progress in Michigan as communities continue to invest in their core downtowns to attract jobs and talent. But you can’t have a conversation about urban revitalization without talking about housing affordability.
Housing costs are shaped by a multitude of factors, and the remedies to provide affordable housing continue to be vigorously debated. There is no magic bullet. Communities can face myriad hurdles—land constrictions, height and density restrictions, and historic preservation regulations, to name a few. As revitalization occurs, the “G” word (gentrification) is bound to surface. It refers to people of lesser means being displaced as the cost of living goes up, resulting in housing needs being met for only a segment of the population. As investment in our core cities increases, prices rise and gentrification accelerates. It’s the market economy at work. As services and amenities grow and people are drawn to these places, development pressures and a hot real estate market ensues, driving the cost of everything up, including housing. Christopher Leinberger’s “WalkUP Wake-Up Call” report shows that this demand is real in cities across Michigan, small and large. The study indicates that in Michigan Metros, multifamily rental apartments are 28 percent higher, and for-sale residential prices are a whopping 50 percent higher.
So, what’s the answer? It’s complicated and multifaceted, and there are no silver bullets that will guarantee long-term solutions. Some ways to address this complex issue include relaxing zoning regulations, establishing policies that would allow for more infill building, building mixed-use, and allowing accessory dwelling units (ADU) or “granny flats,” as they are commonly known. If communities are going to truly thrive, the goal should be to offer a wide range of diverse housing options to accommodate a large span of socio-economic backgrounds as well as build for all ages. The federal government has been the bastion of housing regulations and funding for decades, but over the years their role and resources have diminished, placing more of the burden on State and local jurisdictions. Local governments are stepping up by turning to potential new funding mechanisms and innovative partnerships to rethink viable solutions. There are some great examples in this issue that illustrate some of the proactive work that Michigan communities are doing to help address housing affordability. A potential ordinance allowing ADUs is making its way through the process in Ann Arbor. Cass Community, a nonprofit in Detroit, is making national news with the building of their tiny house community,thereby making home ownership more attainable.
The City of Kalamazoo is also getting on the bandwagon with their first-ever tiny house. Additional strategies include allowing short-term rentals and fighting blight in order to improve existing affordable neighborhoods.
Reprinted from The Review, Nov-Dec 2017