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Census: Rise In Mich. Homeowner, Rental Vacancies

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DETROIT (AP) – The number of empty homes and vacant rental properties grew by nearly 50 percent in Michigan over the past decade as the state struggled through one of the toughest economies in the country, according to 2010 census figures released Thursday.

Nearly 660,000 homes and apartments were vacant last year across the state, or 14.6 percent, compared to fewer than 450,000 in 2000.

“Michigan was the only state to lose population this decade, and until recently had the highest unemployment rate in the nation,” said Jeff Nutting, a demographer with the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, a regional planning group.

“We rank seventh in foreclosures at one out of every 324 households, and have fallen from 18th to 37th in per capita income during the decade. Home ownership rates in the state have declined to a level not seen since 1990,” Nutting said.

The vacancy rate for empty homes or houses up for sale last year was 2.7 percent. A decade earlier that figure was 1.6 percent. More than 11 percent of rental homes and apartments were vacant in 2010, up from 6.8 percent.

The numbers aren’t surprising and could have been worse, Nutting said.

“What has kept it from being worse is that the economy fell flat nationwide,” Nutting said of Michigan’s housing situation. “There wasn’t another place that people could pick up and find jobs. If there is not a place for people to go, they have to stay where they are.”

And more people who stayed in the state or moved to Michigan rented, instead of buying homes. Last year, nearly 30 percent of all occupied homes and apartments were rented. That’s up from 26 percent in 2000.

Renting may be the only option for Jim Johnston, 58, of Clawson, about 11 miles northwest of Detroit. Johnston, a wholesaler, said the company he worked for downsized several years ago. He now makes just over half of what he once earned and was unable to make his mortgage payments.

He filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and has yet to be notified if his home has gone into foreclosure.

“I’m not worried … and I’m not prepared, either,” he said Wednesday. “If I go into foreclosure, I’ll have six months to come up with a plan. I really don’t know what my options are at this point. The worst-case scenario is I’ll have to rent.”

When Bruce Ling’s mortgage payment ballooned a year or so ago, and calls for jobs slowed to a trickle, the Grand Rapids area electrician found his Comstock Park home in foreclosure.

“I was robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Ling, 54, who fell back on his talents as a fiddle player to make ends meet. “The only thing I was getting was small maintenance things, like the outlet doesn’t work. You can’t make a living off that. I was putting food on the table solely by giving fiddle, mandolin and guitar lessons.”

By working with a local nonprofit group, Ling was able to get the interest rate on his mortgage lowered and avoided foreclosure “by the skin of my teeth,” he said.

The affordability of homes in Michigan – by national standards – may have kept the vacancy number lower, and Michigan also had fewer subprime mortgages than some markets, said National Association of Realtors spokesman Walter Molony.

The national median home price is about $170,600, compared to $139,200 in the Midwest. The median price of homes in Lansing, Mich., for example, is less than $80,000.

“For those folks who do have secure jobs, home ownership is much more in reach because the housing is so much more affordable than the rest of the country,” Molony said.

But new home construction barely has crept along as jobs disappeared and foreclosures rose. If the state’s fortunes turn around, that likely will change.

“If you go based on our past history, a glut of housing will not prevent developers from continuing to build in the more suburban or ex-urban areas,” Nutting said. “That’s been our trend and I haven’t seen anything to suggest that won’t continue once the economy improves.”

Development patterns are more of a function of societal choices, he added.

“There are things that pressure those choices, like the cost of gasoline,” Nutting said. “That would cause people to locate closer to their work than they normally would. Increased gasoline tends to reduce the ideal commuting distance.”

Detroit was the hardest hit city in Michigan by the housing crunch and mortgage crisis, and shows little sign of recovery.

Census figures released in March show the city’s population fell from 951,000 to 713,777 between 2000 and 2010. Nearly 22 percent of available housing in the city was vacant in 2010.

Michigan’s top-five lowest vacancy rates for empty homes or homes for sale by county in 2010, according to the Census: Clinton (1.7%), Marquette (1.8%), Midland (1.8%), Isabella (2.0%) and Livingston (2.0%).

Michigan’s top-five highest vacancy rates for empty homes or homes for sale by county in 2010, according to the Census:  Roscommon (5.1%), Alcona (5.1%), Oscoda (5.0%), Lake (4.8%) and Kalkaska (4.8%).

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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