Traverse City News and Events

The Search For Housing Solutions

By Beth Milligan | Feb. 2, 2021

Two major grants totaling $275,000 will fund a Housing North campaign in 2021 and 2022 to mobilize solutions around the region’s housing crisis, including training advocates to champion housing programs, offering free educational events, and coaching local communities on becoming more welcoming to affordable housing developments. Recent housing studies show the region has demand for over 15,600 more housing units – 70 percent of those being rentals – with market need primarily centered on homes under $200,000 and rents below $800 a month.

Housing North, a ten-county nonprofit focused on regional housing solutions, received $125,000 from Rotary Charities and $150,000 from the Frey Foundation to fund the two-year Homes for Our Future campaign. “Affordable housing has been a critical issue in our region for years,” says Rotary Charities Executive Director Becky Ewing. “It’s a complex system with many moving parts.” Frey Foundation President Holly Johnson says her organization hopes the grant funding will “expand our neighborhood-based housing initiatives in Northwest Michigan, foster additional public-private partnerships, and further leverage capital investment to expand housing options across the region.”

Housing North Executive Director Yarrow Brown is the first to acknowledge that tackling the housing shortage is a “big endeavor.” The first step in trying to enact systemic change is “communicating the need, getting everyone on the same page, and creating an advocacy network that will work on changing things from the ground up,” she says. The need may be obvious to locals – particularly anyone who’s recently competed for an apartment or tried to buy a home – but the numbers put the challenge in starker context. Despite the nearly 16,000 units believed to be needed to alleviate local demand, analysis shows that the overall available housing stock in the 10-county region remained flat between 2010 and 2016. During the same time period, however, the number of units classified as “seasonal” increased by 15 percent.

“Short-term rentals are a concern,” says Brown. “We need them, but we need a balance, where you don't have 70 percent of people leaving in the winter.” In local surveys, “access to housing” has been identified as a primary obstacle to creating new jobs, with young professionals considering leaving the region because of challenges finding housing. Housing shortages drive up living expenses, with people living further from their jobs and paying more in gas to commute – factors that also impact traffic and the environment, according to Housing North.

Brown says despite the seeming intractability of the housing problem, there are practical solutions that can bring change. Housing North will hold three free public virtual events this month to start training residents and government partners on options, including an Advocacy 101 session on February 9 from 6pm-8pm, an overview of the Michigan Housing Coalition on February 17 from 2pm-3:30pm, and a session on Land Bank Partnerships on February 24 from 2pm-3:30pm (registration information for all events is online here). More events are expected to follow in the months ahead.

Part of the campaign goal is to create an army of advocates who are educated on housing issues and can show up to local meetings to support solutions. “We want to train them to talk to elected officials, attend meetings, respond to calls to action, and write letters at the state level,” Brown says. Residents sharing their own first-hand experiences and struggles with housing can be particularly impactful. “When there is NIMBYism or people against a (housing) project calling or writing in, we need more of those voices commenting in support,” she says. “There can be a lot of stereotypes about people in need of housing, and we want to share all sides of the story. We have to be redundant and have our leaders hear over and over that it’s a concern.”

Housing North also plans to work directly with local governments to enact policy changes – like zoning rewrites to allow for accessory dwelling units, duplexes, tiny homes, seasonal RV parks, and other options for increased housing density – and funding tools municipalities can use to encourage housing, ranging from land grants and zero-percent loans to brownfield and TIF funds. Housing North has created a Housing Ready Checklist for communities to follow and resolutions of support that can be adopted by local commissions and boards to back the campaign. Some municipalities are already tackling housing as a priority – Traverse City planning commissioners spent much of 2020 on policies to encourage housing and denser development, and Garfield Township planning commissioners last week identified housing as a 2021 priority – but other municipalities are further behind the curve, Brown says.  

“I think people are very motivated, but COVID has made things more difficult and has also made the need greater,” Brown says. “Every community has their own pulse. Half are close to being ready, and the other half are doing something and could use some support and direction.” Brown adds Housing North is also working with state leaders to address bigger policy changes, from homestead tax exemptions for landlords renting out workforce housing units to new criteria for Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) grants that could drive more funding to rural northern communities instead of primarily downstate urban areas.

Brown hopes the Homes for Our Future campaign will create meaningful progress on the housing front, opening the door wider to developers who want to build workforce and “missing middle” housing, reducing policy and funding barriers to construction, and creating more opportunities for workers to find stable homes. “We are a tourism-based community, but we want people who can live and work here year-round,” she says.

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