Special Report: The Affordable Housing Crisis in Northern Michigan
The demand for affordable housing is an ongoing issue, and one that housing commissions and community resources deal with on a daily basis.
For people who work in the affordable housing industry, they say the issue, especially in northern Michigan, is going to get worse before it gets better.
Rohlman says the agency is one of 40 housing assessment and resource agencies across the state available to help those who are struggling to find and afford housing.
“Of those 2,500 folks a year that we serve, a lot of them they just need some help connecting to resources,” she said. “Some folks need more help than that. We can put them on the waiting list for housing choice voucher, which is going to help them pay part of their rent, or folks who really need a lot of help, we have some programs to help them pay rent.”
Mid-Michigan Community Action also provides case management where they can help people find housing, pay security deposits and rent while they work to become more financially stable.
They’ve also helped people during the pandemic is the COVID Emergency Rental Assistance Program, or CERA.
“It’s been a really important resource during the pandemic to make sure that folks stay in their homes, they don’t have to go to shelters, they’re not camping or staying in their cars, or really even doubling up with family and friends,” said Rohlman.
They’ve helped about 600 families through CERA.
“We have found that with our CERA funding, we’re able to keep folks housed who previously may have gotten evicted, and that has exposed this lack of affordable housing,” she said. “There simply aren’t enough units for low income people to afford.”
Demand for affordable housing sweeps across towns and cities in rural northern Michigan, including Cadillac.
The Cadillac Housing Commission provides 125 low income public housing units, with 75 units for seniors.
“We probably get between a dozen and 2 dozen applicants per day” said Executive Director Carrie Furgeson. “I can tell you that our wait lists are quite long for both programs.”
For the housing commission, the number of applicants they get just adds to their growing wait list.
According to the commission, for family or roommates looking to relocate to Cadillac with a 2-4 bedroom apartment, the wait list is one to two years, but for a person looking for a one bedroom apartment, the wait list for that is five to seven years, and it’s not getting any shorter.
“We’ve got elderly, people with disabilities, and simply people that struggle to make ends meet,” said Furgeson. “It’s really not one or another, but that just seems like the hardest niche right now for us to fill.”
The housing commission has looked into building new low income housing, too.
“We do have a couple acres of land next to our family units that we are constantly trying to figure out where we could build on that and we are going to continue to look at that,” Furgeson said.
The cost of building a new housing unit, especially during a pandemic, has been difficult, especially since the Cadillac Housing Commission is federally funded.
“I think right now, people are less willing to build, even the cost of building is so high, it’s so difficult to get certain building materials right now,” said Furgeson.
Furgeson says she knows it’s hard for people looking to move to Cadillac to apply for and afford housing in the city.
“With northern Michigan being so heavily on travel and tourism, it’s very, very difficult to find people in key jobs whether it be in restaurants, in service industries, she said. “If a company wants to bring in new employees and they don’t have a place to live, that’s very challenging to them.”
“If you talk to the realtors and other folks in Big Rapids, the demand is for additional single family homes in Big Rapids right now, and across all income levels,” said Big Rapids Housing Commission Executive Director Mark Sochocki.
That’s why the housing commission purchased and built six homes in a subdivision they’re calling Brookside Estates.
“We acquired a failed subdivision about five years ago that had complete infrastructure, roads, water, sewer,” said Sochocki. “We acquired that and then we started building houses and selling lots.”
The homes are added to the housing commission’s 360 units across the region.
The housing commission says they’ve shifted their focus to single family homes over the last few years.
“I think every rural community, there’s a need for more housing, specifically affordable housing and single family housing,” Sochocki said. “In Big Rapids, I feel like we have an adequate supply of multi-family affordable housing right now. The demand now is for single family homes.”
The project has had its challenges, especially during the pandemic.
“Finding contractors, finding materials, price of materials, we’ve ordered windows for this house and they’re 14-16 weeks out just to get windows,” said Sochocki. “It’s been difficult right now just to do small scale family development.”
But the housing commission is trying to fill the demand they’re seeing from people moving to the area.
“It certainly has an economic impact having single family homes available,” said Sochocki. “With folks moving, climbing the ladder, selling their starter home, moving in to the second home, we think it’s a key component to economic development.”
Rohlman said there’s a couple solutions that could help with affordable housing.
“Small landlords should consider renting to low income people,” she said. “Sometimes they get nervous about making housing available to low income households, and I think that you’ll find that low income tenants are great tenants.”
The other solution is for developers and communities to work together to build more affordable housing developments.
“We need developers and we need communities to really step back and take a hard look at the need for affordable housing and consider putting more units in their communities,” said Rohlman.
In July 2021, the Big Rapids Housing Commission received $371,362 in Low-Income Housing Tax Credits from the Michigan State Housing and Development Authority to refurbish 47 apartments in the Nisbett-Fairman senior residences in downtown Big Rapids.
“A lot of affordable housing in Michigan is developed through the low-income housing tax credit program, which is an IRS program funneled down through the state of Michigan,” said Sochocki. “Rural areas compete with metropolitan areas for these limited amount of tax credits to develop affordable housing.”
Sochocki says the scoring system for this program can lean more toward urban areas rather than rural.
“They’re looking for more urban projects in some cases,” he said. “There are some aside for rural areas, but it’s limited, so it’s highly competitive.”
Furgeson thinks affordable housing will continue to be an issue.
“I don’t think it’s going to go away any time soon,” she said. “I think it’s probably going to get worse before we find a solution. It really takes a community and it takes a lot of people putting their heads together and making really tough decisions. I think that we’re going to be talking about it for years to come.”
If you are struggling to find housing, or afford the housing you are in, you can contact Mid-Michigan Community Action at 877-213-5955.