The Misnomer of Affordable Housing in Detroit

By Delphia Simmons, Editor

I cringe when I read or hear the “A-word” uttered in Detroit these days, especially in relationship to housing.

As a city, I think we’ve almost forgotten that affordable housing for all is as important to the life of a truly thriving city as shiny new restaurants and shops, perhaps even more so. I wish I could say I believe that Detroit understands this fact. But much of what I hear is easy lip service and background noise. The reality is clearer each day: We are losing housing that is affordable for most residents of Detroit at a pace that is not keeping up with replacement or even the proclamations of new developments with 20% “affordable” units. Adding to the problem is the fact that units being proclaimed affordable are out of reach for the same income brackets experiencing the steady loss of affordable units. Sometimes the new “affordable” units are in the same location as previously truly affordable units.

We’re all using the same words, but we are not speaking the same language. Worst of all, we’re pretending that questions of affordability in Detroit will magically go away instead of balloon.

Thriving cities know and do better. They start by getting honest about the problem and the opportunity. We need agreement in Detroit and in the region, about what the “A-word” means and how it must become more of a strategy. While some decision-makers and those elected to represent our best interest as residents of Detroit (and Michigan) seem to be on the same page, others are using a different playbook altogether.

Years of the highest property-tax rates of any major U.S. city; the regular auction of inhabited and non-inhabited homes, often for an amount less than delinquent property taxes owed; and the city’s ownership and possession of tens of thousands of vacant foreclosed homes are just a few indicators of the dissonance and glaring disconnect on the meaning of affordability. Until we’re willing to take an honest look at our own practices and our deep need for clear and common language, the term “affordable housing” will only be a trope and a threat to Detroit’s ability to thrive.

Some of our own city tax, land, and housing practices create a pipeline to loss of housing and lack of affordability. Here’s an example. Eighty percent area median income (AMI) is the implied metric of affordability for the average Detroit resident. But the practice of using the AMI for Wayne County in order to determine affordability in Detroit will continue to leave units developed in better-resourced and desirable areas of the city out of reach for about half of Detroit’s population. 

There have been some encouraging efforts and strategies to ensure inclusionary housing that may still leave affordable housing off the table for Detroiters with low and very low incomes.  The Detroit Housing Development and Preservation Fund is part of a new inclusionary zoning policy. It comes with the requirement that not less than 70% of the funding serve households at or below 30% AMI.  The city’s Multi-Family Affordable Housing Strategy also has some ambitious goals to preserve and produce more affordable housing. Catching up and keeping pace with the need must happen quickly. Requiring development to also include units affordable to most Detroiters can fill some of the affordability gaps.

The strategy to attract new residents above or near the median income bracket for Wayne County is clear and important. What’s not so clear is the strategy for bringing enough units of affordable housing online to accommodate almost half of those who are already here.

Infographic from newsletter:

1 in 2 Detroit residents are spending over 30% of their income on housing.

Donut chart titled "Average Rent of Apartment Buildings with 50 or more units in Detroit"

Bar chart showing "Income by population in Detroit" with the median income listed as $27,838
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