The research is clear: health begins at home.
Over the years, countless studies have shown clear links between poor health outcomes and unsafe or unstable housing. Now, homelessness and housing instability, always with us, have become even more perilous to our health. People without homes have been unable to quarantine, and the challenges of social distancing in shelters have left many without even that emergency option. This spring, the tragic death of a woman “sleeping rough” because she couldn’t find a home — even though she had a rental voucher — emphasized the degree to which our community and neighbors depend on homes to be safe and healthy.
It’s a story far too familiar to homelessness advocates.
Even when we’re able to provide the financial support that people need to avoid or end homelessness, the housing in which they could use it simply isn’t there. And it’s not just people experiencing homelessness, or people with low incomes — individuals and families all across the income spectrum are struggling to find homes.
Why? High land values, ever-growing construction costs, zoning limitations, and tax rates — especially for rental properties — have so complicated housing development that construction rates have slowed to levels far below the 50-year national average, in spite of increasing demand from new household growth.
And even when builders are able to overcome the complexities and costs of new construction, they all too often find their projects stymied by neighborhood opposition.
The result? An undersupply of housing that raises costs for everyone and makes homes unaffordable to many — and completely out of reach to low- and moderate-income residents.
When homes are unaffordable, people are at greater risk of foreclosure, eviction, and, ultimately, homelessness — and all the health and safety risks that come along with it.
This isn’t news, of course. Housing shortages have been top-of-mind for businesses, local governments, human service providers, schools, hospitals and economic developers for years.
But the complexity of the problem overwhelms us, makes solutions seem unattainable and out of our control, and drives us to look for both culprits — the local government, developers, the state, and individuals themselves — and silver bullets that would solve the problem once and for all.
Of course, there are no silver bullets, and no single party that’s responsible. It’s everyone’s problem to solve. And the more we wait for the perfect solution to come from someone — anyone — else, the more this problem will grow.
Instead of waiting, we can, as a community, accept responsibility for the things we’re able to change — like land costs, development processes, taxes and community support. Changing even these local conditions takes time, but the good news is, it works.
We know, because we’ve seen the results here in Traverse City. Local and county governments, volunteer groups, nonprofits, developers, and others have all come together, many times over, to organize land purchases, new development, grant funding, tax incentives, zoning changes, and building conversions. Safe Harbor, East Bay Flats, and the Depot Neighborhood, to name just a few, were all a result of these partnerships.
We can do it again. We only have to begin.
Where? There are many actions that can be a jumping off point — finding land, changing zoning, raising funds, and building partnerships. Volunteers, nonprofits and members of the public can advocate and work with local governments to take the first steps on these actions.
We only need to recognize the importance of partnerships, of local government leadership and action — and perhaps most importantly, the degree to which our support as members of the community can drive that action. After all, local charters everywhere declare that local governments are here to protect the “health, safety, and welfare” of the community.
In the era of “stay home, stay safe” orders, it’s clear beyond question that housing is necessary to that health, safety, and welfare — and that we all have a stake in it.
To learn more about how local governments and other partners can get involved in housing solutions, check out the Housing Ready Checklist at homesforourfuture.org.