My dad was a self-taught woodworker who could build anything—wonderful toys for my sister and me, custom furniture for our neighbors, and even a massive ark for a local synagogue. But of his countless projects, he always said what made him the proudest was our house. For months, he spent his days off from his job as a firefighter working alongside the builders to construct the happy home where my family would live for more than twenty years.
While working on the opening installment of Home, Health, Hope, the League’s new series on Michigan’s dire shortage of affordable housing, I’ve been thinking a lot about what a huge impact that house had on my entire life trajectory. I owe my well-being as an adult largely to growing up in a safe, healthy home and a neighborhood with lots of green space, good schools, virtually no crime or violence and strong bonds between longtime neighbors.
When I was in middle school, the local newspaper published a story about some children who were removed from their home because their family was living in an abandoned convenience store with no electricity or running water, a cockroach infestation and only a kerosene heater to keep warm. No names were used, but we all knew who the kids were: one of our classmates and her younger siblings.
Economic changes of the last few decades have left many families struggling to afford safe, healthy homes. Low-wage service jobs have replaced the well-paid unskilled manufacturing jobs that helped sustain Michigan’s middle class for so long and income inequality has grown. Housing costs may be especially crushing to renters and households with extremely low incomes.
The Great Recession hit Michiganders of color the hardest, and the unemployment and income disparitiesremaining in its aftermath continue historical patterns that leave African-American, Native American and Latinx families disproportionately burdened by unaffordable housing costs and low housing quality.
While incomes have stagnated or declined for much of the population, rents have been rising. Today, 40% of Michigan families cannot afford to give their children the basics that are critical to good health, academic success and opportunity for the future. Full-time work at the minimum wage isn’t enough to afford adequate housing for a family anywhere in the state.
Unaffordable housing costs force people to make budget trade-offs that are harmful to health and safety: cuts to spending on nutritious food and healthcare; low-quality homes where occupants are exposed to asthma triggers and toxins like lead; overcrowding; frequent moves; and homelessness. All of these things interfere with mental health, school and work attendance and productivity. The results are fewer children reaching their full potential, increased healthcare costs and a less competitive labor force.
Over the next few months, we’ll be taking a look at the different aspects of Michigan’s affordable housing crisis, what local communities are doing about it and potential policy solutions. Join us as we examine what’s happening in Detroit and Grand Rapids, how utility bills contribute to the housing cost burden, housing discrimination and the particular barriers different groups of people face in securing homes that foster health and well-being.
Quality housing is essential to a healthy population and a healthy economy. To ensure a bright future for Michigan, we must act to make sure it’s affordable and accessible to all.