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Affordable housing – or the lack thereof – in Michigan: A State of Opportunity special

Feb 11, 2016

Credit Public Domain / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

What defines affordable housing?

According to the federal government, affordable housing means not spending more than 30% of your income on housing. In a more colloquial context, however, affordable housing means more than just a percentage of your income. For many Michigan citizens, affordable housing means stability. For so many, affordable housing can change one’s life.

In the state of Michigan, however, affordable housing is particularly difficult to find. Communities throughout Michigan have difficulty creating housing that is both affordable and liveable for impoverished citizens and those of the working class. 

In this State of Opportunity special, Michigan Radio spoke with officials, developers, and citizens from all over the state – from Ann Arbor to Grand Rapids – to discuss what could make communities throughout Michigan more affordable. 

We enlisted experts Ruth Kelly, a Grand Rapids City Commissioner who helped to lead the Great Housing Strategies, and Jennifer Hall, the executive director of the Ann Arbor Housing Commission. They talked about why affordable housing is often so hard to define and looked at some models being used in Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids to try to provide their residents with more affordable housing.

We spoke with George Galster, a distinguished professor in the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning at Wayne State University, about affordable housing in Michigan. We also reached out to Melvin Parson, a current student of Eastern Michigan University's School of Social Work Program, who shares his personal experience with affordable housing.

Ours certainly isn’t the only state struggling with affordable housing, but according to Galster, Michigan is a special case. The discussion surrounding affordable housing often focuses on how high the cost of living has become in a particular area, but Galster argues that in Michigan the story is focused less on the housing market and more on the economy. Our affordable housing problem is “not because it costs so much to build or maintain housing in the state,” he said. “It’s really a problem of impoverishment.”

Michele Wildman is chief housing investment officer with the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. Wildman told us MSHDA works to provide affordable housing that meets the specific needs of people all over the state. According to a recent report, MSHDA plans to award nearly $12 million to affordable housing projects. She tells us more about MSHDA and how they find the money to continue their work.

Gwenyth Hayes is a social worker and professional musician who is a resident of low-income housing. Hayes used housing choice vouchers from MHSDA to move from her public housing unit to an affordable housing option within the general public. It was not until she made this switch that Hayes noticed the stigma that exists for those living in public housing.  


Inclusionary zoning, or IZ, is the practice of linking affordable housing with market-rate housing. Whether voluntary or mandatory, IZ provides housing developers with an incentive to build opportunities for affordable housing units. Although mandatory IZ is outlawed in the state of Michigan, the option of implementing IZ in our state is a growing part of conversation.

We enlisted the expertise of Brett Lenart, the interim director of Community and Economic Development for Washtenaw County, and Dennis Sturtevant, the long-time executive director of Dwelling Place, a Grand Rapids housing non-profit, to better understand this possible tool.

From a developer’s point of view, IZ can look deceptively simple on paper. But Mark McDaniel tells us that in practice, IZ is tough to get right. McDaniel is the president of the Michigan Housing Council and president and CEO of Cinnaire, a nonprofit housing corporation with offices in Lansing and Detroit as well as Indiana, Wisconsin and Illinois. He explains that IZ can be effective when utilized properly, but it’s a complicated practice that many people and developers don’t fully understand.

Listen to the full show below:

If you have thoughts and ideas on affordable housing, we'd love to hear from you. Find us on Facebook, Twitter and Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity page.