What Defines ‘Affordable’ Housing?

In Detroit, a city marked by its storied resilience and complex socio-economic landscape, the concept of affordable housing has generated a robust conversation—one that straddles the fine line between progress and equity. The skyline of this industrious city is experiencing a facelift, burgeoning with new developments and luxury apartments. These visual markers of change seem to herald a renaissance, but they also pose a vital question: Is affordable housing truly affordable for all Detroiters, or is it tailored to suit the needs of a privileged few?

“Detroiters of all incomes seek housing that meets their needs in terms of affordability, quality, amenities, location, and more. Our focus is on preserving and creating housing that meets the needs of Detroiters of all incomes,” said a City of Detroit Housing and Revitalization Department spokesperson. “HRD’s housing investment activities primarily focus on creating affordable housing options for lower-income households to ensure long-time Detroiters and lower-income Detroiters have the ability to live and thrive in Detroit.”

According to HRD, since 2015, approximately 9,400 units have been preserved, meaning that affordable rents have been guaranteed for residents for decades to come. On top of that, about 2,500 affordable apartments are either completed or currently under construction. By the HRD’s standards, housing is deemed “affordable” when households allocate no more than 30% of their income to housing costs. These costs include rent and utilities for tenants and mortgage, insurance, taxes, and utilities for homeowners.

However, defining affordability purely by numbers can be misleading, particularly when it fails to consider the variegated fabric of the city’s demographics. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in Detroit, as of the latest data, stands at approximately $30,000, markedly below the national average. The scenario becomes even more nuanced when the lens is focused on Black Detroiters, who make up around 78% of the city’s population. The median income for Black households in Detroit is even lower than the city’s overall median income, and economic disparities within this community are glaringly evident.

So, when we discuss the preserved or newly constructed units that cater to households making up to 60% of the area’s median income, we’re still talking about a somewhat narrow demographic band within a city that’s marked by high levels of poverty and economic disenfranchisement. Furthermore, approximately one-third of these affordable units are earmarked for those making up to 30% of the area’s median income. The commendable efforts by the HRD prompt us to question who is actually reaping the benefits of this seemingly progressive housing policy.

The geographical location of these affordable housing units also calls for scrutiny. Many of them are situated in downtown Detroit, an area undergoing significant revitalization and, subsequently, gentrification. While that’s convenient and attractive for those who work downtown, it can be exclusionary to Detroiters employed elsewhere or those who cannot afford the costs associated with living in a rapidly gentrifying area. What about seniors living on fixed incomes who’ve been lifelong residents of this city? What about the young families looking to set down roots but are economically disadvantaged?


“Broadly speaking, housing is ‘affordable’ to a household when they are spending no more than 30% of their income on housing costs,” said the HRD. “For tenants, this includes rent and basic utilities. For homeowners this includes mortgage, insurance, taxes, and basic utilities.”

The term “affordable” can also be subject to interpretation based on other life circumstances, such as credit history, criminal records, or other socio-economic factors that may influence eligibility. Often, rental applications inquire into these aspects, potentially barring those who don’t fit into the mold of an “ideal tenant,” a term that is itself laden with societal biases. When the HRD states that they focus on creating affordable housing options for lower-income households, it begs the question: What does “lower income” mean in the context of a city where the average income is already considerably lower than the national norm?

Therefore, while the term “affordable housing” is splashed generously across brochures of new residential developments, its application is less generous in scope. A single parent making less than the median income would find it a daunting, if not impossible, task to secure one of these so-called affordable units in a new downtown development. The term then becomes nothing more than a veneer that lends an air of inclusivity and social justice to an endeavor that may, in fact, serve a more exclusive demographic.

The resurgence of downtown Detroit, while a sign of urban renewal, has also had unintended consequences that disproportionately affect some of the city’s most vulnerable populations, notably the elderly seniors who have spent decades, if not their entire lives, in the city. As new developments spring up and property values soar, landlords are increasingly inflating rents, often to make way for a younger, more affluent demographic.

For seniors on fixed incomes who already struggle to make ends meet, this inflation translates to an untenable living situation. They are faced with the agonizing choice of leaving their homes, communities, and, often, the only city they’ve ever known. This displacement not only erodes the social fabric of Detroit but also places undue stress and emotional burden on seniors, forcing them into unfamiliar environments where they must navigate new challenges in the twilight of their lives. The gentrification of Detroit, therefore, brings into question the true cost of progress, especially when it comes at the expense of pushing out lifelong residents who are least equipped to cope with such seismic shifts.

Affordable housing shouldn’t be a privilege reserved for those who are better positioned within systemic imbalances; it should be a right for all citizens. Detroit’s strides in the domain of affordable housing are commendable but need to be continually assessed and critiqued to ensure that the city’s most economically vulnerable aren’t left behind in the dust of its revival.

As Detroit navigates its complex revival narrative, a comprehensive, nuanced approach to affordable housing is crucial. The city must create an inclusive environment that welcomes not just new money and fresh faces but also uplifts and secures the future of the Detroiters who have held the fabric of this community together for generations. Because, in the end, for true Detroiters—whether they are Black, white, rich, poor, old, or young—the question remains: Is affordable really affordable?

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