Traverse City News and Events

The House Always Wins: Four Companies Betting Big On Employee Housing Initiatives

By Craig Manning | Feb. 3, 2024

Ask any local employer to name their biggest recruitment roadblock, and you will likely hear the same answer every time: Job candidates can’t find anywhere to live.

Between limited housing stock, elevated real estate prices, and the area’s plethora of short-term rentals, finding long-term lodging in and around Traverse City is no easy task. Increasingly, that situation is leaving employers with a tough ultimatum: Either get by with less staff, or find a way to offer housing to candidates as an employee benefit. From retail to resorts to hospitals, a slew of local enterprises are choosing the latter option; we touched base with four of them.

Grand Traverse Resort and Spa

The projects: In 2022, Grand Traverse Resort and Spa broke ground on a brand-new construction project on its property, with plans to dedicate the entire building to employee housing. The two-story structure, which includes multiple dorm-style units, opened last year as a space for accommodating the Resort’s sizable foreign labor force.

The numbers: Between the new dorm and several other housing assets – including six different apartments, a house, and a few other dorm-style buildings – Resort GM Tim Norman says the enterprise has accommodations for around 100 employees.

The tenants: The Resort makes substantial use of visa programs, welcoming workers to the property through both the H-2B and J-1 visa programs. All on-site housing, Norman says, is set aside for those foreign workers.

The upside: “To have the space to house additional employees during our peak season is crucial,” Norman says. “We have been able to bring in extra H-2B and J-1 workers to fill positions in culinary, housekeeping, food and beverage, and grounds. With the investments we’ve made in our housing units, we have also been able to bring in workers to fill higher-level roles, like supervisors and managers.”

The challenges: “With housing around 100 employees, there can be wear and tear on the buildings faster,” Norman notes. “We find ourselves making necessary upgrades to the units frequently to keep everything in top condition.”

The future: Fresh off a big investment in employee housing – past reporting on the matter estimated the cost of the Resort’s new dorm at $1.5 million – Norman says there are no plans to build any additional housing infrastructure in the immediate future.

Cherry Republic

The Projects: Per Cherry Republic Founder and President Bob Sutherland, the company’s housing investments currently include three properties in Leelanau County. The retailer also works to support local housing initiatives like Housing North, Peninsula Housing, and HomeStretch, all of which contribute to the development of attainable housing in the region.

The numbers: “Our efforts have enabled us to house 18 team members directly,” Sutherland says. “We also collaborate with the Leelanau School during the summer, extending our housing capability to accommodate an additional 16 people.”

The tenants: Cherry Republic’s housing initiatives cater to a diverse group of employees, including seasonal labor in the summertime, Sutherland says. “However, we’ve expanded our scope to include year-round team members, addressing their housing needs throughout the year,” he adds.

The upside: Sutherland sees Cherry Republic’s housing initiatives as a key aspect of its talent recruitment and retention capabilities. “Our ability to provide housing has directly contributed to our business growth and sustainability, despite facing a housing deficit for our employees,” he explains.

The challenges: “Each seasonal employee costs us about $1,500 a year in additional expenses that we would not have to cover if there were more locals to hire,” Sutherland says. “We also encounter significant challenges with local township zoning roadblocks and limitations. These challenges mean we are spending lots of unnecessary time – time that could be better spent selling cherries! – solving our housing and code issues.”

The future: “A five-year goal of Cherry Republic is to provide a dozen apartments to rent for our new hires and year-round employees who currently struggle to find reasonable housing,” Sutherland says. 

Crystal Mountain Resort

The projects: Staff housing isn’t new at Crystal Mountain. According to Director of Communications Brittney Primeau, the Thompsonville resort first started investing in employee housing back in the early 1990s, building two four-bedroom homes that can sleep up to 16 employees each. “Then, in 2021 and 2022, Crystal added four more homes, with each housing up to six people each,” Primeau says.

The numbers: The employee housing at Crystal, called the Cabanas, can house up to 56 employees.

The tenants: “The Cabanas are available to any incoming or current employees who find themselves in need of temporary housing,” Primeau says – including seasonal employees, interns, international staff, and new employees who have recently moved to the area.

The upside: Per Primeau, it’s only because of Crystal Mountain’s employee housing that the resort can participate in internship programs and foreign exchange programs. “It also makes it possible for new hires who are relocating to the area to start work earlier while they look for permanent housing, instead of waiting to find housing before they can begin work,” she adds.

The challenges: “A recent study done by Housing North determined that Benzie County is short by more than 700 units for the area’s workforce,” Primeau notes. “Needless to say, affordable, attainable, and quality employee housing is critical, which is why you see businesses buying and repurposing hotels and houses for their employees.”

The future: Crystal Mountain’s next big housing project is a collaboration with HomeStretch, a nonprofit working to provide affordable housing in northern Michigan. Recently, Primeau says, HomeStretch identified a property near Thompsonville Airport – and owned by Crystal Mountain – as a potential project site. Crystal is donating “about 15 acres of land to HomeStretch for their phased proposal to build eight buildings with 32 townhouse-style rental units,” Primeau says.

Munson Healthcare

While Munson is newer to the housing rodeo than Grand Traverse Resort, Cherry Republic, or Crystal Mountain, the healthcare system is betting big on housing in 2024.

“The availability of long-term affordable housing continues to be one of our greatest barriers to attracting candidates to our area,” shares Megan Brown, chief marketing and communications office for Munson Healthcare. “This is an issue that we need to solve as a community, and Munson Healthcare is committed to being a part of this important conversation.”

To address challenges with recruiting and retaining talent, Munson is establishing a series of new initiatives and community collaborations to assist job candidates and employees with housing challenges.

For instance, Brown says Munson is currently in the process of launching a new program for qualifying employees who need support with housing, financial guidance, and career growth.

Brown also touts several other new programs or strategies for addressing housing challenges within the Munson workforce, including:

>Working with landlords in the community to offer rental opportunities to Munson employees.

>Establishing employee discount programs, including special mortgage offers from banks and other companies. Quicken Loans, for example, is currently offering reduced closing costs to Munson employees that use Quicken for their mortgage.

>A new convener program, to help connect job candidates with local resources to help them find housing.

>Offering relocation assistance to out-of-town candidates (on a case-by-case basis.)

This story is an excerpt of a longer feature that appears in this month's edition of the Traverse City Business News. Pick up your copy today!

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