First, preserve the affordable housing we have before we need ‘housing first’ to support the homeless

By Dennis Archambault

Housing security is one of the key social determinants of health. The stress of housing insecurity creates or complicates health issues. Loss of stable housing worsens medical and mental health. Clearly, we need to do everything possible to prevent the loss of housing for people struggling to make ends meet.

In a community that is now dominated by renters with fragile household incomes, the risk of homelessness has escalated – even as city leaders announce new affordable and low-income housing opportunities.

A recent study by the Detroit legislative policy division has concluded that the median Detroit family can’t comfortably afford median Detroit rent. In a Detroit Free Press commentary, Melinda Clemmons argues that the answer won’t come from new affordable housing units, however valuable and necessary those units are. The answer lies in preserving what we have, in terms of  what is often referred to as “naturally occurring low-income housing.”

“The fact is that we will never be able to build quickly enough to compensate for the number of affordable homes Detroit loses each year — let alone to meet the current need,” Clemmons writes. “We need policies and programs that ensure we preserve thousands of units that are at risk.”

Essentially, Clemmons, vice president and Detroit market leader for Enterprise Community Partners, a national affordable housing nonprofit, argues for a subsidized approach for low-income renters in the city. On one hand, market forces encourage building owners to attract higher-paying tenants, driving lower-income tenants out. On the other hand, building owners are letting their properties deteriorate to the point of no return, then selling out to developers who, in turn, gut the buildings and renovate them for a higher-priced market. Either way, low-income tenants lose.

The answer, she says, is to create “the right mix of resources and technical assistance” that would keep rental units affordable. This is a bold housing policy that was absent from the previous presidential administration, but under President Biden’s leadership may change.

Unfortunately, a significant number of households in Detroit have been unable to even make what is “affordable” rents. According to the City of Detroit study, “housing is considered affordable when one’s housing costs is less than 30 percent of a household’s income. The notion of only using 30 percent of one’s household income for housing expenses has been unobtainable for many Detroiters, due to the median income of the average Detroit resident being less than the existing federally established Area Median Income (AMI) guidelines used to determine the affordability of housing in the City.”

Just as the “housing first” philosophy requires health and human services support, renters need more than the subsidy; Detroit renters also need support so that they can not only afford their rent, but afford nutritious food, quality education, transportation, and health care. All of those are policy options that can contribute greatly to creating healthier communities.

Dennis Archambault is vice president of Public Affairs for Authority Health.