“Affordable is not affordable:” What happens when your city costs too much to live in

Before Jemica could be accepted into an affordable housing program, she was asked to answer a question: What does being an independent woman mean to you?

 It was a question she struggled with at first. After several bouts of writer’s block, she found her answers. 

 “To be able to do things on your own. Not fully on your own, because we all need to network,” she said. “You (also) gotta get a job. I mean, how you going to pay your rent? Your phone bill? Or whatever you have to pay for?”

 Her last response struck a more accountable tone:

 “It also means owning up to your own responsibilities.”

Jemica’s responsibilities don’t parallel a lot of other people. Where some people wonder what they’ll eat at night, Jemica worries if she’ll eat at all. Some people wager if they’ll shower in the evening, or in the morning; Jemica questions if she’ll be able to shower at all.

When someone leaves work, what’s top of mind might be how long their commute home will be. When Jemica rides home on the school bus, she’s not sure if she’ll have a place to sleep that night. 

Jemica’s first experience with homelessness came in 10th grade when rent at her apartment cost too much for her mom to pay. Now, two-and-half-years later, she still hasn’t found a sustainable place to live.

While Jemica’s situation carries its own unique weight of heartbreaking anecdotes, it’s far from the only story of its kind. Beneath the nuance of age and address is a pattern of struggles that low-wage earners across Detroit, Michigan and the rest of the country face. 

For Detroit’s lowest earners, it costs too much to live in the city. As affordable rent dwindles and costs rise due to inflation and demand, the wages haven’t seen the same kind of growth. A stagnation in salaries has widened the gap between rent and wage - which leaves low-wage earners with a choice: Either expense more of their money on rent or search for a cheaper place to live.

 As those making less money have discovered, neither option is feasible. 
For renters who choose to bite the financial bullet and spend more of their check on rent, there is less available for the rest of life’s expenses - a detrimental decision for those with child and health care costs. If renters decide to look for cheaper places to live, they’ll find very few options available to them. With dwindling government investment in affordable housing and the cost of owning a home increasing, the number of cheap places to live has declined. This downward pressure from both sides has pigeonholed low-wage earners into a living situation they can’t escape.
As this gap continues to grow, experts see a different kind of housing crisis form. One owned by everyone but shouldered only by those with the fewest resources saved away. While critics point to extreme examples of skyrocketing housing costs in New York City and San Francisco as evidence of an unequal housing gap, similar if more subtle trends are playing out in cities everywhere else. Detroit may not play host to such highly-cited examples, but it is emblematic of the larger story being told.
Its residents are poorer and older than most other urban environments – two of the demographics most in danger of falling into this housing trap. How the city and its planners reconcile with this dangerous divide will be up to them. While some policy solutions are in place to address this housing crisis, whether it will be enough is still up for question.

Overview: “Affordable is not affordable:” What happens when your city costs too much to live in
Part One: Minimum wage workers have to work almost 80 hours a week to afford 2-bedroom rent in Michigan
Part Two: Affordable rent is disappearing in Michigan
Part Three: Detroit's work to stop the next housing crisis

Jack Nissen is a reporter with Fox 2 Detroit. You can contact him at (248) 552-5269 or at Jack.Nissen@foxtv.com