As rental prices rise, so does tenant activism


Shawn Brock was rendered homeless recently when he could not afford his rent due to expenses from a medical condition.

Last week, Brock was one of 100 people who gathered outside the Lansing Center to picket for tenants’ rights.

“In this town, you need to make a decision on if you’re going to work yourself to death to pay rent or take care of your health,” he told the crowd. “We’re not second-class citizens. We’re trying to work just like anybody else in this town is. We need to stand together and rise up, because they can’t ignore us forever.”

“Not right,” several protesters replied.

Michigan’s branch of the Rent Is Too Damn High coalition organized the protest on the first day of the Building Michigan Communities Conference, a major housing convention hosted by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority inside the Lansing Center.

Picketers were responding to a growing nationwide affordable housing crisis. According to the state’s housing portal, Ingham County’s median monthly rent increased by 37% — from $748 to $1,027 — between 2012 and 2022.

Individual income rose more during that period in Ingham County, but not necessarily for people who rent.

“This is not an affluent community,” said state Rep. Emily Dievendorf, D-Lansing, who is championing measures to help renters.

“In Lansing, we have about half of our population that rents, and the majority of our population cannot afford to build a new house at an average of over $400,000, or even buy one when the average cost of a house that doesn't need extensive renovation to make it safe is over $300,000. It just isn't tenable for somebody who is also struggling for basic needs.”

Nearly half of the state’s renters now qualify as “cost-burdened” — meaning more than 30% of their monthly income is spent on rent.

Rent Is Too Damn picketers line the sidewalk in front of the Lansing Center to advocate for renter’s rights during the first day of the Building Michigan Communities Conference on May 14.
Rent Is Too Damn picketers line the sidewalk in front of the Lansing Center to advocate for renter’s rights during the first day of the Building …


The Rent Is Too Damn High coalition formed last year in coordination with a Sept. 5 rally at the Capitol that drew 400 protesters. Today, the coalition comprises members from 54 organizations, including tenant unions and policy activism groups from cities throughout the state.

Rent Is Too Damn High’s statewide coordinator, William Lawrence, a 33-year-old East Lansing native, said last week’s outing was a second step for the movement. Some members attended the conference.

“If you hear about housing policy, it’s always about the interest of homeowners, developers and lenders. Very rarely is it discussed from the perspective of housing being a human right,” Lawrence said. “The message we’re looking to send here is that renters’ interests are not being represented in these conversations.”

Their members are calling on state legislators to establish rent control policies, fund social housing projects and pass bills providing legal protections for renters before the legislative session ends in December.

The coalition is advocating for a legislative package known as the “Michigan Renter’s Bill of Rights.” Introduced last year, the package features 16 bills that are all still in committees.

It includes legislation that would protect renters’ right to unionize, establish a court-guided legal counsel system for qualifying tenants, require landlords to accept qualified applications on a “first-come, first-serve” basis and provide fair warning before raising rent prices, among other things.

Dievendorf co-sponsored each of the 16 bills.

“In housing, just like any other realm, the people who are experiencing the most risks should be able to speak on and negotiate on their own behalf. Right now, tenants just don't have that power,” Dievendorf said. “They have to be able to weigh in on what their health and safety standards are, on what needs to be done with their structures and on policies and procedures related to landlord’s stipulations in a lease.”

Of all the bills, House Bill 4947 could have the largest impact. It would repeal a 1988 law that limits local government’s ability to implement rent control policies.

“As far I'm concerned, we should be leaving this up to municipalities, because what’s affordable in Ann Arbor is different than it is in Detroit or Lansing,” Dievendorf said. “It’s also important to note that the position from national economists on this issue has shifted over time. Just last year, economists put out a public letter saying that they were wrong about rent stabilization negatively impacting the economy, and that it could actually be a useful tool.”

Doug Benson, a local landlord who serves as president of the Rental Property Owners Association of Mid-Michigan, wasn’t overly concerned about these potential restrictions.

“My group has about 150 members and caters probably to the smaller landlords. The vast majority of us can’t put together a new 500-unit building project, but one benefit of being smaller is that you can make accommodations more easily,” he said.

Benson, who owns 95 units in Greater Lansing, echoed Dievendorf in noting a discrepancy between the higher-end, new-build housing complexes that are increasingly being funded through state incentives and the older, existing housing stock that the majority of the state’s renters can realistically afford.

“In some of them, they’re asking for $1,700 for a one-bedroom. For mine, they’re $800. Do we have a shortage of housing for the wealthy? I don't believe that we do,” Benson said.

A landlord for 22 years, Benson sympathized with tenants’ “recognizable pain,” though he noted that costs for materials, labor, insurance and property taxes have also risen considerably.

“I don't want to act like we're eating dog food over here, but for the life of me, I just don't really see how people can start out in this business right now,” he said.

William Lawrence, state coordinator for the Rent Is Too Damn High renter’s advocacy coalition, offers his closing remarks near the end of a May 14 rally outside of the Lansing Center. 
William Lawrence, state coordinator for the Rent Is Too Damn High renter’s advocacy coalition, offers his closing remarks near the end of a May 14 …

Benson’s perspective would draw little, if any sympathy, from the Rent Is To Damn High crowd, however. Lawrence was unapologetic in his opposition to the existing power structure.

“Right now, they’re still listening to the landlords. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer literally said ‘the rent is too damn high’ in her State of the State address, but she really hasn’t offered any leadership when it comes to supporting these renter’s rights bills,” Lawrence said.

To him, state Democrats “are governing scared.”

“They think that doing less will somehow help them win in November,” he said. “We need to let Gov. Whitmer know what this is truly about and push her to do the right thing before she leaves office. And that starts this year, in this session, because we may never get the majority back.”


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