By Anna Gustafson, Michigan Advance
From immigrant rights’ groups and affordable housing advocates in Detroit to students in Ann Arbor and community organizers in Lansing, there’s a phrase that is said time and again when talking about housing costs: “The rent is too high.”
There are variations of that – “damn” is often inserted in there, for example – but, no matter the presence of an expletive or not, the idea is the same: The climbing cost to rent a home in Michigan is, advocates said, destabilizing communities and leaving everyone from seniors to families with children and students living with roommates struggling to make ends meet.
“Rent is too high,” Scott Holiday, the political director of Detroit Action, a political advocacy group, said during a press conference in May. “Mortgages are too expensive. People aren’t able to afford to live in the communities they grew up in and serve.”
That sentiment was echoed during a four-hour-long meeting of the Ann Arbor City Council in August, when residents packed the legislative body’s chambers to describe the impact of mounting rental costs on their lives.
“This is not sustainable,” Kaleb Pifer Alge, a renter in Ann Arbor, told the City Council during its Aug. 7 meeting. “The price increases year-over-year are far outstripping inflation, and it’s making it harder and harder to make a life here in Ann Arbor.”
For years, advocacy groups, like Detroit Action, and residents across the state have called on state lawmakers to address rising rent costs. Now, with Democrats holding a slim majority in the Michigan House and Senate, advocates said they hope lawmakers will tackle housing prices – and one legislative priority being pushed is an end to the state ban on local municipalities being able to enact rent control and rent stabilization policies.
That, state Rep. Carrie Rheingans (D-Ann Arbor), is exactly what she plans on doing with a bill she expects to introduce as part of an upcoming “renters’ bills of rights” package. Rep. Emily Dievendorf (D-Lansing) told the Advance in a previous interview that they expect to introduce that package in the fall.
“In 1988, the Legislature banned local municipalities from doing anything around rent stabilization,” Rheingans said. “… The bill I have right now is a straight repeal of that 1988 law. It would enable local municipalities, if they choose, to enact rent stabilization.”
Adonis Flores, the organizing director of Michigan United, a nonprofit, said in an interview on Thursday that repealing the the 1988 law enacted by a Republican-led Legislature is especially crucial for immigrants and communities of color.
Michigan United is a statewide coalition of people from labor, business, social service and civil rights sectors that works to reform the country’s immigration system, protect the environment and end mass incarceration.
“One of the biggest concerns people have is the cost of housing,” Flores said. He added that following the subprime mortgage crisis that began in 2007, “a lot of people lost their homes. Banks repossessed these homes, and they’ve been selling them to corporations that now have a monopoly on rental properties. They can charge outrageous amounts for rent that are just inaccessible to the majority.”
Rheingans said she was inspired to begin working on the legislation to repeal the 1988 law after a meeting with members of the Ann Arbor City Council, who have made rent control and rent stabilization a priority in one of the state’s most expensive regions to rent property.
Repealing the 1988 law would not enact any kind of statewide rent policy but rather allow local municipalities the opportunity to enact their own rent initiatives – a concept which Rheingans hopes could help her enlist Republican support for her bill.
Flores emphasized that his group is not pushing for statewide rent control but for local governments to have the agency to address housing costs in their specific communities.
“The needs are different in each municipality,” Flores said. “It’s not the same in Grand Rapids as it is in Detroit or Traverse City or Marquette; it’s different in every part of the state. “The thing is we just need to give local governments more bandwidth to make the quality of life better for their citizens.”
While Rheingans emphasized that a repeal of the 1988 law won’t be the “silver bullet” that will fix all of the housing woes in Ann Arbor, or across the state, it will be one way to bring relief to her city, where about half of the population are renters.
“We have a lot of people who have to move every year or multiple times a year” because of rising rents, Rheingans said.
Rent has gone up an average of $251 in Michigan over the past three years, according to Rent.com.
The National Low Incoming Housing Coalition reported earlier this year that, on average, Michiganders would have to work 68 hours per week at minimum wage in order to afford a one-bedroom apartment. Those numbers vary depending on the area of the state, with, for example, an Ann Arbor resident having to earn $26.62 an hour in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment there. That number dips to $25.50 in Grand Rapids, $24.25 in Livingston County, $23.33 in Detroit, and $22.08 in the Holland-Grand Haven area. Michigan’s minimum wage is $10.10 per hour, which is higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
In a video posted to social media, the group said they expect hundreds of people to attend the event, during which they will call on lawmakers to allow local municipalities to enact rent control, boost funding for what’s known as “housing first” programs to assist Michiganders who are unhoused, and pass a “tenants’ bill of rights.”
As Michiganders call for help with rising rents, Rheingans said Democratic lawmakers hear their concerns.
“When we began to have a Democratic majority, housing has been at the top of our list of things to think about,” Rheingans said. “ … We really listen to our constituents about housing woes.”
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