Can Oakland County’s new resolutions, blueprint to end homelessness, increase housing security?

About nine months ago, Odyssey Jenkins and her partner were facing mounting home concerns. The price of the room they were renting in a Pontiac apartment “just kept going up, up, up.” What’s more, the $750 they paid per month didn’t include their own kitchen, fridge, or proper heating, says Jenkins. Things got worse when their landlord forced the couple to leave on a two-week notice.  

Jenkins, her partner, and their four kids bounced around different hotels in the area, then paying about $750 per week while separately balancing work at a local Arby’s. 

“We worked the entire time because we don’t have no one to really watch our kids,” says Jenkins, noting that she and her partner would switch off watching the kids when one of them wasn’t working. 

By November, the two were connected with the poverty-alleviating nonprofit Lighthouse, which helped them secure a Section 8 voucher. But they “kept getting denied” when trying to use their voucher in Oakland County. Five months later, they were approved to live in a Roseville home, which resides just north of Detroit’s east side, couched between Eastpointe and St. Clair Shores. Jenkins was relieved. 

“Imagine having to go to wash clothes, you know, at a laundry mat – just to have that right in our home?” She says. “To cook our own meals for the kids, to have more space to run around instead of being cooped up in one room? It means a lot.”  

For many, it’s a challenge to find housing in Oakland County, but two housing security resolutions that passed on April 14 may alter otherwise similar narratives of future resident hopefuls. Partially with new American Rescue Plan Act dollars (almost $245 million of them in total), the resolutions prioritize housing attainability, construction, and home repairs, and add warming shelters for homeless individuals in Oakland County. And while many across government and nonprofit sectors are declaring this moment a victory, questions remain about how far these policies can go to improve life for potential residents — especially those who have been historically excluded from the region. 

A "Little Free Market" at a Ferndale Public Housing location.

‘Potentially Transformational’

By its own admission, Oakland County has previously failed to secure housing for its residents and resident hopefuls. A 2018 letter from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) deemed that Oakland County improperly distributed HUD funds and violated the Civil Rights Act. At the time, HUD officials wrote in an open letter, “Despite recognizing the need, the county does not place a high priority on housing assistance to renters” — those renters being disproportionately Black, Latinx, and Asian American. 

But in 2021, the county began prioritizing housing insecurity, digging into its root causes and the overarching solutions. It was then that it published a blueprint to end homelessness. 

Earning minimum wage, a resident needs to work “65 hours to afford a modest one-bedroom rental home at market rent," reads the report. The document also lays out numbers that illustrate the hardships of county residents. 

At any given time, there are at least 3,000 homeless individuals — 62% of them Black, 7% battling mental health issues, and most of them young, between the ages of 25 and 54. But much of housing insecurity is directly impacting those precariously housed. As an example, about 40% of county residents pay more than 30% of their income on rent, which is the same position for 69,000 homeowners. 

The county stated that it needs to add 11,500 housing units, and, according to Oakland County Board Commission Chairman Dave Woodward (D-Royal Oak), the mostly-renting front-line workers — many of them called “heroes” during the pandemic’s initial stages — need them most.  

That demand for affordable, secure, and attainable housing is not new. But what some advocates find interesting and compelling about this moment, is that housing security — for renters and homeowners, for the young and old alike — is that Oakland County’s leaders are putting action behind their words. 

Commissioner Charlie Cavell (D-Ferndale) at a Ferndale Public Housing location on Withington Street.

Reflecting on the 2018 incident when HUD charged the county with racial discrimination, Woodward admits the federal agency was “right” to scold them. And, recently, Commissioner Charlie Cavell (D-Ferndale) spearheaded two resolutions, including permanent and one-time federal dollars to make housing easier to secure for low- and middle-income residents, and possibly resident hopefuls. 

On April 14, a permanent Oakland County Housing Trust Fund was established to “increase available, affordable or attainable rental and homeowner-occupied housing,” with $2 million annually allocated to a new housing trust fund board. The board will also receive $5 million in initial rescue plan dollars before receiving another $5 million after the first five are spent. Additionally, an Oakland Together Housing Security Initiative resolution will allocate $7 million to increase emergency shelter beds for homeless individuals, allow for the acquisition and rehabilitation of buildings for shelter use, and provide funding to qualified homeowners for critical home repairs. 

Some local nonprofit and political leaders are impressed with the shifting perspective and proceeding policies. Ryan Hertz, president & CEO of Lighthouse, called the plan “potentially transformational” in its ability to diminish poverty. 

Mike McGuinness, a Pontiac city councilman and the executive director of the Oakland County Historical Society called it a “new frontier,” adding, “there is no precedence for Oakland County being this proactive or forward-thinking with housing policies or direct action, period.” 

Cavell said he’s pushing for more inclusive and secure housing because he wants to stem the tide of increasing inequality and reverse the trend of neighborhoods being segregated by race and class. 

“We need to make sure that Oakland County doesn’t just become this upper-class, exclusive place where all the people that work for Oakland County have to live in Wayne County or Macomb County or Livingston County, which is already starting to happen,” he said. 

A common area at Ferndale Public Housing on Withington Street.

Exclusive Zoning Laws One Explanation for Housing Insecurity & Segregation

When Oakland County set about understanding the root causes of poverty and housing precarity in its 2021 blueprint, it linked domestic violence and discriminatory policies to an inability for residents to access livable wages, healthcare, and housing. These burdens, it says, fall significantly harder on renters, who often pay a disproportionate amount of their income on housing compared with homeowners. 

Metzger, like Woodward, Cavell, and Hertz, expressed concern about the ability for retail and service industry employees to be able to afford to live in Oakland County.

“While Oakland County touts its high skill manufacturing and tech jobs, they still need to find workers for the new Van Maur department store as well as all of the markets, restaurants, service stations, etc.,” he wrote in an email. 

The county’s solutions, which include the resolution’s housing trust fund, also highlight homeless diversion plans, and plans to address exclusive neighborhood zoning laws. 

This last part – investigating exclusive zoning laws — is what concerns Cavell most. While introduced in the original housing security resolution, the measure was politically unpopular, despite it being less than one percent of dollars originally appropriated to the resolutions, and its language was removed from the final documents. Cavell felt his fears were warranted. Even though zoning laws are controlled by city council members in places like Ferndale, Berkley, and Royal Oak – not by Oakland County commissioners themselves — some county representatives did not want to even research what makes zoning laws more or less exclusive. 

Cavell says that redrawing zoning laws in Oakland County cities would help “move us from being a color-blind county to being an anti-racist county” because cities with single-family-only zoning laws almost always keep lower-income people of color from relocating to those spaces. Still, the commissioner says he removed the zoning law language from the newly minted policies just to pass the two resolutions. 

He acknowledges that future policy will have to investigate and dismantle single-family only zoning laws. As it stands, local nonprofits have struggled to place low-income residents in neighborhoods because of those laws. 

Lighthouse Chief Operating Officer Jenny Poma, who called passing the resolutions a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” notes that in the past her nonprofit tried to build a mixed zoning apartment complex in Oakland County but wasn’t able to because of restrictive zoning laws. 

Conversely, cities with inclusive zoning laws make it possible to build different types of affordable apartments and homes, pushing down housing prices and allowing families — like the Jenkins, for example — to reside there. In other words, inclusive zoning laws foster the flourishing of multi-racial, economically-diverse areas. 

For now, though, those Oakland County areas remain sparse, as the region remains part of a past that has articulated its neighborhoods by race and class, pushing people of color and lower-income individuals away from its pricier neighborhoods. It’s a trend Commissioner Woodward hopes to reverse. 

“If we segregate this so the rich live here and the poor live there, it’s a recipe for disaster,” he says. “And history will bear that out.” 

All photos by David Lewinski.
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