By Madeleine Graham
The Flint water crisis had no discernable effect on Flint’s housing market, according to a recent report released by the University of Michigan – Flint’s Victoria Morckel and Bernadette Hanlon in the academic journal Housing and Society.
According to the report, published in March 2020, income limitations, residential segregation, and past practices like redlining restricted some Flint residents’ mobility long before the water crisis. Hanlon is the associate professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State University.
Morckel is associate professor of urban planning and public policy at UM-Flint. In an online interview with East Village Magazine, she explained that prior to the water crisis, Flint already had a severe lack of housing demand, which contributed to residents’ perceptions of constrained mobility.
“Flint’s housing market is one of the most affordable in the country, for an urban metropolitan area,” said Morckel. “This is not to say that everyone can afford housing here in Flint. Rather, the issue is more so one of income and employment opportunities. In other words, it’s not that the homes are too expensive, it’s that incomes are too low,” Morckel stated.
Morckel explained that for housing to be affordable, the amount spent should not be more than 30 percent of one’s income.
“The more housing costs, the fewer resources people have for other important things like transportation, health care, and education. It is also an issue when people, especially younger people, cannot afford to purchase a home. They miss out on the financial benefits of homeownership, like home equity, that accrue over time,” Morckel said.
Flint’s impaired housing market exacerbates residents’ ability to move
Flint’s impaired housing market exacerbates residents’ ability to move. “This decrease in relative value is a problem when a Flint homeowner decides to move to another community. The proceeds from the home sale may not come close to covering the cost of a similar home elsewhere,” Morckel said.
Flint’s oversupply of housing is not unique. “Many small-to-mid-sized cities in the Midwest face similar challenges with vacancy that stem from population loss, deindustrialization, and suburban sprawl,” Morckel said.
There are many difficulties with a shrinking city where population has declined. Developers have no incentives to build new homes due to supply costs exceeding potential sales price.
“When housing values are extremely low, some investors buy homes with the intent to eventually abandon them. They’ll rent them out as long as possible with a minimum level of maintenance, then abandon once the properties become uninhabitable — say, when something expensive like a roof needs to be replaced,” Morckel stated.
Blight is symptomatic of depressed neighborhoods. “There is not wide-spread blight (things like vacant homes missing windows) in healthy housing markets,” Morckel stated.
Shrinking cities and the lasting impact of redlining
“Also because Flint is a shrinking city located in a shrinking metropolitan area, rehabilitating homes does not solve the larger problem. In some cases, rehabilitation merely shifts vacancy around from one neighborhood to another.” Morckel stated.
Redlining practices that began in the 1930’s also have a lasting impact in cities like Flint. The U.S. government created maps of urban neighborhoods identifying race, religion, and ethnicity to help determine the creditworthiness of neighborhoods, and these maps were used in cities like Flint by realtors, lenders, developers, and planners. Though redlining is now illegal, the practice has a lasting impact.
Historically redlined neighborhoods among the worst, still today
“Historic housing discrimination (say, through the denial of home repair loans) and the resulting disinvestment can contribute to a long-term trajectory of neighborhood decline. Many of the neighborhoods that were redlined in Flint (neighborhoods that experienced additional forms of disinvestment thought-out the 20th century, it should be noted) are the ones that are in the worst condition today,” Morckel stated.
Policy interventions that have worked to create affordable housing include “rent controls and set-aside programs, where developers are required to build affordable housing alongside market rate housing,” Morckel explained. “Some places are exploring for ADUs (accessory dwelling units, like garages and sheds) to be turned into small homes, to create more housing supply. There is an increased interest in tiny homes–very small homes that are affordable because they are so small.”
Several agencies are working to try to mitigate the problems in the housing market. Future articles will explore Metro Community Development and The Tiny Homes project.
EVM reporter, Madeleine Graham, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.