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Primary Residence: Michigan

Primary Residence is an in-depth look at housing policy and its critical importance for voters in Democratic primary states, in the lead up to the 2020 Presidential election. In this edition, we speak with Alice Ehn, Executive Officer, Washtenaw Area Apartment Association (WAAA), about the county and state’s broader housing affordability issues and their possible implications on candidate housing plans. 

For Alice Ehn, Executive Officer at the Washtenaw Area Apartment Association, “Washtenaw County is no different than any other area in the United States. Affordability in housing continues to be a huge problem.” 

Located in eastern Michigan, Washtenaw County is uniquely positioned to feel the impact of the housing shortages in neighboring Detroit and the county’s most prominent city, Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan. Split between Michigan’s 7th and 12th Congressional districts, the area houses more than 150,000 apartment residents in nearly 85,000 apartment units.

Ehn says two factors have exacerbated the unaffordability of housing in Washtenaw County and greater Michigan. First, the cities of Ann Arbor and East Lansing, home to Michigan State University, have declared educational orientation a protected class in housing. Essentially, students must be rented to, which has prevented new workforce housing from supporting the very market it was intended to help. 

Second, the state legislature passed a law in 2019 that prevents municipalities from inspecting rental units if they did not receive consent from the unit’s resident. Municipalities are struggling to achieve compliance with the new legislation and maintain their existing inspection programs. Some municipalities still charge property owners for inspections that were never conducted. 

“One of our members in Ypsilanti had five residents declined inspections and the city assessed inspection fees against him anyway,” recalls Ehn. 

Ehn has also found rental housing registration programs place a heavy financial burden on owners and renters, furthering driving inequality in housing affordability. “In Saginaw, rental housing registration fees are $125 per structure. One of our members has 60 single-family units and 50 duplex homes. That’s $10,625 annually, in addition to property taxes and other costs, just to be certified to provide housing in town.”

In a Democratic race that started with nearly 30 candidates, just three remain in the fight for Michigan’s 125 pledged delegates. Amongst those candidates expected to participate in Michigan’s primary, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Vice President Joe Biden appear to be most viable with voters, having claimed a combined 1,087 out of 1,357 pledged delegates on Super Tuesday. The Wolverine State is the largest delegate-wise of six states participating in “mini Super Tuesday” on March 10, which include Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota and Washington. It is also the seventh largest among the remaining 38 voting states and territories. 

Biden stampeded through his Super Tuesday contests, winning 10 states and propping himself up as the race’s frontrunner. The consolidation of candidates—which marked the conclusion of Senator Amy Klobuchar and Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s campaign bids—in advance of Super Tuesday surely boosted Biden’s moderate Democratic support base. Sen. Sanders ended Tuesday with a victory in delegate-rich California and three other states.

Biden and Sanders now face off and will now have the opportunity to double down on their policy platforms. For Michigan housing providers, now is a good time to pay attention to the core components of each candidates’ strategy for addressing housing affordability.  

Sen. Sanders has introduced several concerning housing proposals, most notably his pledge to establish nationwide rent caps of no more than 3 percent, or 1.5 times the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Michigan currently enjoys a statewide rent control preemption that would come under attack should a federal requirement gain life. Biden does not indicate a willingness in his housing plan to establish rent control laws or reward those communities which establish such laws as part of his housing affordability strategy. Both candidates call for incentivizing the identification and elimination of local adverse housing policies in an effort to reduce barriers to develop and operate affordable housing.

The candidates’ reach across the state is critical. “Sanders is very popular with the students,” says Ehn. Both Ann Arbor and East Lansing, held by progressive city councils, will likely be handed to Sen. Sanders, who also won the state’s Primary in 2016. Last week, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer officially announced her endorsement for Biden. Recent dropout Michael Bloomberg invested heavily in the state, opening offices and hiring well known Michigan operatives to make inroads with voters. According to Ehn and her colleagues at the Property Management Association of Michigan, those resources may shift to Biden now that Bloomberg has offered his full backing and make a big difference when corralling voters in metropolitan Detroit.

The victor in Michigan undoubtedly will find momentum that will carry them through the coming weeks in delegate heavy Ohio, Florida and Illinois. After Georgia votes at the end of March, more than 60 percent of delegates will have been allocated. A final decision on the next Democratic nominee is closing in fast. Understanding their path to tackling housing affordability is more important than ever. 

The National Apartment Association (NAA) will provide ongoing coverage of the 2020 Presidential Election Cycle highlighting its importance to the rental housing industry. Stay tuned for more spotlights on candidates’ housing policies, debate analysis and much more. For more information on the 2020 Presidential Election, please contact NAA Manager of Public Policy, Sam Gilboard.