‘The Rent Is Too Damn High’ demonstration calls for housing changes in Lansing

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Sign held that says "fight today for a better tomorrow."

Markus Spiske

Protest sign.

On Sept. 5, a crowd of around 500 people gathered at the Michigan State Capitol steps to send a message to lawmakers: the rent is too damn high.

Protesters came from far and wide: Lansing, Detroit, Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor. Various nonprofits participated as well. Those demonstrating expressed their disapproval of housing conditions and costs in the greater Lansing region. They say the “rent is too damn high.”

“A lot of (landlords in the area) don’t allow pets and still charge more than $1,000 per month,” Lansing resident Kylie Breining said.

Breining said she “lucked out” and likes her private landlord but still argues that the market isn’t great for housing. Some renters haven’t been as lucky, though. East Lansing resident Allison Albin said her landlord refused to send proper maintenance out to her residence.

Albin placed a maintenance request after her washing machine, sinks and shower wouldn’t drain; her toilet wouldn’t flush. Instead of sending a proper plumber to fix the issue, staff sent a member of the maintenance crew.

“He put a snake in (the drain) and all of a sudden, everything drained,” Albin said. “I went back into my bedroom and I was ankle-deep in sewage water.”

A plumber eventually came out to her house and found that tree roots had grown through the plumbing system. Albin claims that her landlord, DTN Management, never acknowledged or apologized for the issue. They also didn’t offer any reimbursement despite her having to live with her parents for several weeks while her house was being cleaned and dried.

Spartan Newsroom reached out to DTN Management, who have yet to respond for comment.

Albin pays more than $570 for her one bedroom and shared space. The house has four bedrooms; Albin has three roommates. Collectively, the four of them are paying more than $2,000 per month for what Albin argues is a subpar experience. She said landlords in college towns get away with this because students must live close to campus.

“We have to pay it,” Albin said. “It’s not like we can move somewhere else.”

The Rent Is Too Damn High coalition, at the heart of Sept. 5’s demonstration, said their four main goals are rent control, housing first, social housing and a renter’s Bill of Rights.

Rent control

Rent control is a series of laws that help ensure the affordability of housing. Currently, 33 U.S. states, including Michigan, have bans on rent control.

William Lawrence, coalition coordinator for The Rent Is Too Damn High, said that he and other members believe that Michigan should repeal its state-wide rent control ban so that local governments can take action to stabilize rent prices.

“Frankly, municipal governments only have so much authority,” Lawrence said. “There’s only so much you can get done at a local level.”

The coalition believes that a “Democratic trifecta” in the Michigan state government will allow them to achieve these goals. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won reelection last November and, for the first time in decades, the state elected a Democratic majority in both the House and Senate.

“We realized that being (in Michigan’s capital city), that gave us home-field advantage,” Lawrence said.

Housing first and social housing

“Housing First” is a popular concept in social housing.

Utah was lauded for “solving” its homelessness crisis when it reduced its chronically homeless population by 90% from 2005 to 2015 by using a housing first model.

Housing first is simple: remove barriers to housing and people will succeed. Housing comes first, services later. In Utah, tenants still pay some rent – either 30% of their income or $50 per month, whichever is greater.

Generally, 30% is accepted as the amount one should spend on housing without exceeding their means. Latrisha Sosebee, manager of community building and engagement for the Dwelling Place of Grand Rapids, says anyone spending more than 30% of their income on rent is considered rent-burdened.

“If we could work towards ‘no one is paying more than 30% of their income on rent,’” Sosebee said that would be ideal. “30%, to me, seems high.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 19 million U.S. renter households were considered rent-burdened between 2017-2021.

Social housing, however, is a public option for rental housing, not exclusive to those without homes. Social housing includes mixed-income housing, which can include people with low-to-moderate incomes.

Lawrence notes that building quality social housing is important since so many see it as being undesirable to live in.

“Public housing shouldn’t be stigmatized as exclusively for the very poor, or the very poor would only want to live there because the places are run down and falling apart,” he said. “That’s what people think of when they think of public housing. That’s because we haven’t sufficiently invested in it.”

A renter’s Bill of Rights

Michigan is considering a bill entitled the “Renter’s Bill of Rights,” which hopes to alleviate a red-tag issue in Lansing. State Rep. Emily Dievendorf said “hope is coming” for those worried about renter’s protections.

Red-tagging is when a city deems that a structure has been severely damaged to the degree that it is no longer safe to inhabit.

Some of the additions to the renter’s bill include the legal right to counsel, relocation assistance in case of red-tagging, increasing the frequency of safety inspections, protection against discrimination based on housing status, just cause eviction and more.

Another major feature of the bill would be something called “right to first refusal.” In other words, if a landlord decides to sell their property, tenants would get the first bid to purchase the property.

“Obviously, not everybody is in a position to take advantage of that,” Lawrence said. “But that could be a really big deal for some people.”

One piece of the bill that would’ve helped Albin is the ability for renters to proactively fix issues their landlords are stubborn to fix. Under the bill, renters can fix problems themselves and send an invoice to landlords for reimbursement.

The fight goes on

Groups such as The Rent Is Too Damn High and the Dwelling Place of Grand Rapids are continuing to work to make housing more accessible. Another new bill, sponsored by Dievendorf, is a homeless Bill of Rights, which would guarantee unhoused people certain protections, such as discrimination based on housing status.

Grand Rapids passed a bill in July that regulates panhandling in places such as outdoor dining areas and ATMs. Sosebee argues that bills like these can lead to criminalizing homelessness.

“It can criminalize homelessness,” she said. “Whether that’s taking away possession of properties that are left behind…or creating some loitering laws, where if you don’t have a reason to be in a space, you can be arrested.”

Lawrence adds that one of the barriers to making progress is that those in the House or Senate typically don’t bring items to a vote unless they know it will pass. He argues that this doesn’t force elected leaders to choose a side.

“I’d rather have a bill fail than have no vote at all,” he said. “I want to see these legislators have to pick a side.”

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