At first glance, the housing challenges in our two states couldn’t seem more different. California’s economy ranks as the world’s fifth largest and is home to several of the most expensive housing markets in the nation. Michigan, on the other hand, is often cited as the standard for rust belt decline. Its major cities and small towns are still recovering from the disruptions of the global economic shifts that led to deindustrialization and job loss.
Yet, when we look a little deeper, we find that our states are more alike than they are different. While it is true that housing costs in California are significantly higher than in the Great Lakes State, housing affordability is a major challenge in both places. And while the hard-hit cities of Michigan garner the most attention, many California communities are struggling to reinvent themselves, too. Large disparities in income levels plague both of our states and make housing challenges more difficult to address for community leaders.
So, while a small studio apartment in Santa Monica may cost you more than a 3-bedroom home in a Detroit suburb, we understand that there are common themes that confront our residents. These subjects show up again and again in conversation and any thoughtful housing strategy must deal with them head on or risk missing the mark altogether.
As members of the National League of Cities Task Force on Housing, we are inspired by the efforts of local officials across the nation. We learned first-hand from our colleagues on the task force about Seattle’s unique rental affordability programs, a public private partnership in Washington, D.C., aimed at housing homeless women and novel sustainability efforts in Miami. All these projects remind us that housing problems span the entire country, and we’re pleased to know that there are dedicated local officials out there to meet the challenges.
Homelessness remains a problem in our larger cities and is an increasing focus for small towns as well. The reasons for it go far beyond housing policy to mental health, public education, substance abuse and workforce development strategies. Local leaders are making Herculean efforts to provide temporary shelter and long-term solutions to the thousands of Americans who live on the streets.
In some cases, states are stepping up as strong partners to cities and counties. In California, with nearly 25 percent of the nation’s homeless, the governor recently signed a state budget that includes a historic $650 million investment to support cities and counties in the fight against homelessness. This, on top of last year’s state investment of $500 million to support local efforts, given the magnitude of the challenge, additional resources are needed from all of our state and federal partners to combat the problem on the scale that it demands.
Making Housing Affordable for All
Providing quality housing for people at all income levels remains a huge challenge. In many ways, this problem is getting worse, as income disparities increase and housing markets fluctuate. Young families, millennials entering the workforce and older home buyers struggle to find housing that matches their wallets and desired amenities and locations.
In both our states, building new units for moderate income levels is nearly impossible without significant subsidies, so housing developers push for more expensive housing where profit margins are higher. This has the dual impact of shrinking the available stock and increasing prices — both of which add to the affordability problem.
For their part, local leaders are employing strategies like live/work subsidies, inclusionary zoning and increases in density, with some success. We need our state and federal partners to do their part and provide an ongoing and sustainable source of funding to subsidize housing for our lowest income families.
Matching the ‘Macro’ and the ‘Micro’ Strategies
Federal, state and local housing strategies simply don’t sync as well as they should. The thoughtful local strategies that we referenced earlier must be supported by good national and state policies if they are to achieve optimal results. In a perfect world, a city opting to increase housing density to provide affordable units for lower income residents would be supported by strategic state infrastructure investments that offer better access to employment and a federal program that invests in training workers. Seldom do the three layers work in unison, and we’re kidding ourselves if we believe that one level of government can do it all alone. We must do better.
Attacks on Local Democracy
In recent years, this lack of synergy has been matched by an aggressive extension of state and federal dictates over local decision making. City leaders in both of our states are experiencing unwarranted attacks on home rule and local authority from state government leaders on a number of housing challenges. Some state officials in California favor a “one-size-fits-all” approach to zoning decisions, regardless of community input and local circumstances. In Michigan, home builders and other special interests continue to push state legislatures to supplant local decision making for building codes and planning decisions, robbing communities of autonomy.
In our experience, state preemptions of local decisions are often misguided and usually harmful. If state legislators are serious about confronting housing challenges, then they should work to solve the macro level problems that their own policies often create, rather than predetermine the outcomes of decisions that are better made at neighborhood levels. In other words, states should concentrate on improving lending practices and deploying infrastructure in a more equitable fashion, leaving the details to locals who best understand the fabric of the community. We’ll all be better off for it.
The work of the housing task force, like the policies for which we all advocate, will continue far beyond its final report. As two state municipal league leaders who represent the elected and appointed leaders in our communities, we are confident that local officials will play a key role in improving the housing landscape their cities and towns. We salute NLC for taking a leadership role on this important issue and we implore local leaders across the country to dive head first into housing issues in their communities. There is perhaps no matter as representative of the health of a community as how its people live their lives inside of it.
When considering housing policy, we must continually ask:
Is it safe?
Is it affordable?
Is it inclusive?
Do I see a future here?
The questions are easy. The answers are not.
Dan Gilmartin is the executive director & CEO of the Michigan Municipal League.