MSHDA has recently issued a call for proposals to their Neighborhood Enhancement Program, with local applications due December 1.  Municipalities and 501(c)3 non-profits can apply for up to $30,000 or $50,000 (depending on size) in funding for local exterior home improvements or public space improvements.

In mentioning that funding opportunity, I want to point to the Oswego Renaissance Association in upstate New York as a great precedent for how these relatively small grants can be used for substantial impacts. The ORA has one of the neatest programs I’ve found via Strong Towns. As they explain,

Among other activities, the Oswego Renaissance Association makes small matching grants to clusters of homeowners who want to collaboratively improve the exterior of their neighborhood. This results in a huge return on investment, not to mention the value of neighbors working together…often for the first time.

This is a simple but profound process that unlocks neighbors’ confidence in their neighborhood.

The ORA’s mini-grant program supports small, visible investments and repairs on clusters of properties, helping spin up collective action and belief on blocks where residents may be suffering from despair about their neighborhood’s prospects. Where the hurdle to residents’ reinvestment is as much about their belief that it’s “worth it” as it is the dollar cost, a program like this can get everyone moving together and supporting each others’ efforts.  (Often, of course, these neighborhoods also suffer from larger economic shifts or histories of discrimination, challenges that require larger interventions and shouldn’t be overlooked in a search for quick fixes.)

MSHDA’s program can be used in exactly this way — to offer every home on a block some funding for exterior rehab, providing a visual and emotional impact that’s greater than what might happen from just one home being fixed up: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. As an example, Battle Creek’s past grantees Neighborhood Inc. note that their use of NEP funds for home repairs not only got those household engaged in additional projects, but generated a lot of attention from surrounding neighborhood residents.

The MSHDA funds are limited to owner-occupied single family homes, so unfortunately can only be used for a subset of neighborhood residences. A non-profit applicant, community foundation, or private sponsor could add funds to cover these gaps in eligibility; note that the municipality generally cannot use its funds for activities like private home repair.

Detroit Roosevelt MMP

Detroit is midstride in its great comeback, emerging like a phoenix in full burn. In a city which has suffered so much loss, not only are community leaders and private investors acting to salvage what remains, but they are making the city whole again by knitting together gaps with new infill. Big impacts have been directed to the downtown core, yet there’s still much to be done at the neighborhood level.

One of the instruments of Detroit’s success was established during the economic recovery, with an unorthodox approach to building preservation and reuse. In 2013, City of Detroit and the Detroit Landbank Authority (DLBA) received an allocation from the Hardest Hit Fund. Working with an army of volunteers from the Michigan Historic Preservation Network and Preservation Detroit, along with homegrown tech experts from Data Driven Detroit (D3) and Loveland Technologies, they created the Detroit Blight Task Force. Out of this creative partnership, Blexting—short for blight texting—was born.

Blexting created a survey of the condition of nearly every property in the city of Detroit. The results were informed recommendations for the demolition of thousands of properties by DLBA. Instead of blindly pushing through blight elimination dollars, Detroit’s leaders used a more sophisticated approach supported by photos and existing conditions data directly uploaded to the survey. By documenting and evaluating a substantial portion of the city’s building stock, the taskforce effectively put assets into a building savings account for when the market ripened for rebirth.

Less than a decade later, Detroit is now activating those saved assets. Neighborhood-level community plans and new developments contain a mixture of building rehab, adaptive reuse, and new infill construction. Sections of the city which had not seen new work in decades are now receiving reinvestment. And it’s far from done.
Detroit is in many ways unique. Yet in other ways, such as scarcity of resources, lost taxable value, and declined population, it mirrors the disinvestment felt by many Michigan towns. Here are lessons learned for Michigan’s aging building stock.

Strategize & Combine Tactics

The decisions cities make today will shape the reality of their future. Cities need to articulate a consensus vision of who they are and who they want to be. Immediate tactics are site inventory, zoning reform, and the choice of target sites for catalytic reinvestment. Doubling down on existing buildings – both historic gems and simply older sites – and development of vacant lots in core city centers can also help cities respond to increasing interest in lessening environmental impact and improving infrastructure resiliency.

Michigan residents are choosing increasingly to live, work, and be in places of authentic texture. And because energy use is an increasingly important issue, they often want it connected to transit. The Q Line on Woodward is one way that Detroit is concentrating effort along an existing corridor, building in walkable transit-oriented development amid the streetcar suburbs of the last century.

Explicitly Advocate for Diversity

Only 8 percent of National Register sites and 3 percent of our National Historic Landmarks represent people of color, women, or members of the LGBTQ community. As stated by National Main Street CEO Patrice Frey in a recent City Lab article, “The preservation movement is also struggling to tell the full American story.”

Cities must build an authentic local vision by asking their residents to help with asset inventory. Get on the ground and engage in conversations with those who live there. Record what defines the place to avoid sacrificing cultural identity.

Detroit is owning the gaps in its recorded history and they’re doing something about it. Through neighborhood planning efforts, the city is backfilling a broad range of under-told histories which are more reflective of all residents. They’re doing this through a pilot event that brings together several departments to engage with local preservation stakeholders. Tiffany Rakotz, a Preservation Specialist at the City of Detroit, says this dialogue will “focus on thematic topics that impact local preservation efforts during this period of recovery and growth.”

Broaden the Concept of “Preservation” to Plan for Attainable Housing

According to recent discussions at the Urban Land Institute’s spring meeting in Detroit, households are now choosing smaller homes in favor of proximity to parks, walkability to shops, and employment. The magical formula here also includes the key calculation of what people can actually afford.

In considering how to rehab Michigan’s aging housing stock and accommodate gaps with new construction infills, communities must choose a diversity of options instead of one single family housing solution. Prior to standardized zoning, historic neighborhoods had small scale commercial next to single-family homes mixed with multi-unit splits, carriage houses turned into apartments, row houses, and duplexes intentionally built next to single units.

By easing zoning restrictions and allowing these natural adaptations to take place by-right in the code, we can not only legalize what has happened in neighborhoods for decades, we can also encourage reinvestment in those same neighborhoods in new and creative ways.

In choosing to allow for a mixture of building types for rebuilding neighborhoods, cities can also communicate that attainable quality for many income bands does not equal luxury housing. Cities also need to develop alternative financing options so people who want to fix up their aging building stock – either in incremental multi-unit development or single-family rehab – can access the funds to accomplish the work.

Tempering community engagement with realistic expectations is key. In Detroit, members of the community are being actively engaged in “preserving … local history, and in creating a vision for the future,” says Rakotz. “I think it is important for the citizens of Detroit to recognize what resources the City is able to provide and for us as public servants to understand what those citizens want.”

Many of our communities have ordinances that require periodic inspection and certification of rental residential properties. Because people who live in rented homes often have little control over the physical condition of the structure they live in, these ordinances protect the health and safety of these residents, as well as protecting neighborhoods from blight caused by landlords who aren’t paying attention to their properties.

These rental inspection ordinances can also create problems for rental tenants, though: if the municipality finds a landlord has not kept up their rental property, rendering the home unfit for occupancy, the tenants may find themselves evicted through no fault of their own. (This concern also came up last year when Detroit attempted to increase compliance with their rental certification ordinance.)

The city of Jackson is addressing this potential downside with their new Rental Assistance for Displaced Tenants Ordinance, which took effect in March of 2019. As the city explains:

Under the new ordinance, if City inspectors find serious code violations that make the housing unsafe for tenants to live in, the unit is vacated, and the landlord has to pay for relocation assistance for the displaced tenants. …

Over the past year, the City has seen an increase in renters being displaced due to unsafe living conditions at no fault of their own. This is usually due to a long list of violations at each location, such as exposed electrical wiring, unsanitary conditions, or no access to heat. Being abruptly vacated from housing is known to create financial hardships for tenants and may result in homelessness.

The ordinance came in response to cases where the city had to post rental properties as uninhabitable, and attempted to secure replacement housing for the tenants–the city found itself paying for the landlord’s failure to maintain their properties, with no mechanism for recovering those costs. The ordinance also includes exemptions, such as if the city’s building official finds that the triggering code violations were caused by the tenant.

Jackson’s new ordinance has only been in effect for a few months, so it’s too early to evaluate its success, but it is worth tracking as an innovative approach to protecting vulnerable residents and neighborhoods from “bad apple” landlords.

League staff have recently helped educate legislators on the need to reinstate Michigan’s historic tax credit, which could have broad applications for multi-unit rental housing in historic buildings, upper story residential in downtown cores, adaptive reuse of underutilized buildings, and rehab of existing single-family housing. Accessible to both commercial rentals and owner-occupied residential, it would be one more excellent tool in the toolbox, and not only encourage reinvestment in our existing downtowns and already-built-out neighborhoods, it would reduce the ecological impact of building demolition in Michigan landfills.

Related to this push is the demand for a certain kind of housing – think smaller (2,000 sf or less) missing middle – in the workforce price range of 80 to 120% of Area Median Income (AMI). This demand is far outpacing current supply in cities. Part of the problem a lack of multi-family housing options. Part of it is our aging single-family housing stock, a lot of which desperately needs upgrades and repair. Many people don’t buy those older homes in our city centers because of concern over the hassles of fixing up an old house and a dearth of skilled contractors. (Again, this is where the historic tax credit would be tremendously helpful in increasing the relative affordability of this work.)

We also know that new construction costs the earth to build, so the luxury market is where the majority of new builds are happening. Another way to address the housing mis-match could be a loan fund for homebuyers that would allow them to gain access to the capital needed for immediate improvements upon purchase, because many people barely squeak through closing with enough money to buy curtains, much less a new HVAC system.

But even if we get that Michigan historic tax credit back, and we start addressing capital needs in creative ways, we’re still going to need new construction and a skilled labor force to meet our housing demands.

Quickly. And on a budget.

The Need for Skilled Trades

One proactive step could be to address this need by putting a big investment in building out the trades apprenticeship programs. The Michigan Historic Preservation Network created a rather successful program last year doing trades training, and there are other small scale apprenticeship programs out there, but those programs striving to train a dozen people are no match for a statewide initiative that could be created if the resources of a larger government department or non-profit foundation were tapped.

Another way to incrementally expand the skilled trades professions could be to develop dedicated factories for modular housing, therefore creating reasonably permanent construction jobs in a geographically stable area.

Schematic drawings for new homes being constructed in Grand Rapids by Kent County Landbank

Schematic drawings for new homes being constructed in Grand Rapids by Kent County Land Bank

“But, Modular Housing. REALLY?”

Yeah, really. What we really need is a variety of solutions – not one or two good ideas will solve our housing needs. Particularly in the more rural areas of Michigan, those with flat to limited new housing activity, this kind of model would provide the consistency needed for keeping skilled tradespeople engaged in steady work.

Let’s now address the elephant in the room: perceptions of quality. We’re not talking cheap construction, not cookie-cutter plastic houses that all look like they came from Playskool. This kind of housing is known as “indoor stick built” and it isn’t your grandmother’s double-wide trailer. These housing units are widely customizable, and are constructed in sections of moderate to high grade materials such as metal stud walls, integrated insulation and mechanicals, double or triple paned windows, and fiber cement board siding. The built sections are then trucked from the factory and assembled on a foundation already prepared on site. They are available in a variety of configurations to avoid nauseating repetition. This method of construction is, on average, cleaner and more efficient than standard new construction methods, and it minimizes waste.

What are we talking about for prices? According to our recent research with the Michigan Landbank Fastrack Authority, cost for construction is $110 to $115/sf, which is tracking at about $170,000 for a 1,500 sf home, plus land and site work. Some of these units are already being built in Michigan, with a new project led by the Kent County Landbank in Grand Rapids to do infill construction in existing neighborhoods by constructing homes on vacant parcels. And many more Michigan communities are expressing interest.

This also not the first time that this sort of idea has come into vogue in Michigan. As discussed in Mid-Michigan Modern, a 2016 publication by Susan Bandes of Michigan State University, modular construction was one of the ways communities responded to the market demands for workforce housing in the immediate post-WWII era. There are still a lot of mid-twentieth century neighborhoods across our state that were built with modular construction. They just don’t look like it. Consider also the Sears Kit Homes that got built here in the mitten. These beloved homes were products of a factory system of mass-made, high quality homes delivered from the warehouse. Or, closer to home, the Bay City-based Aladdin Homes chosen from pattern books and “Built in a Day.” Only a few steps away from current-era indoor stick-built homes.

In the end, modular housing indoor stick-built housing may not be THE next big housing solution. But it is one more good quality solution that might work for a segment of the population, while we keep working on other fronts, too.