2017-09-14 / News

Affordable Housing Continues To Be a Problem in Northern Michigan

By Ken Winter

In metropolitan areas across the country, residents face a lack of affordable housing to purchase or rent to fit the wages earned from available local jobs. It’s no different in northern Michigan, except its arguing “one size does not fit all.”

Northern Michigan business leaders are also now taking a harder look at state programs and incentives that basically exclude smaller rural populated areas in favor of larger metro areas like Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and Lansing. This is especially true for housing, job creation and training, economic funding, and brownfield redevelopment programs.

“Middle-income and high-income households are beginning to seek more affordable housing in accessible neighborhoods with traditionally low rents and proximity to jobs,” says Mariam Zuk, the project director for urban displacement at the University of Berkley’s Center for Community Displacement. “Many low-income households are simply unable to secure affordable rents. As neighborhoods change and housing demands change and housing demand shifts, landlords (or potential housing investors) are presented with a new set of financial prospects.”

“Something has to allow for more job creation in rural areas,” says Kent Wood, director of Government Relations for the Traverse City-based Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance. He also points out that many now believe the job creation model used to measure success needs to include affordable housing and rentals for lower-income and middle-income wage earners.

The 14-county Northern Michigan Regional Chamber Alliance, with more than 6,500 members, has become more aggressive in regional housing and workforce development by banding together to maximize its political influence at the state level. An alliance comprised of the Chambers of Commerce from both northern lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, and now approximating the size of the Lansing, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo chambers, they have become a significant political force in the capital. Kent Wood serves as their full-time director/lobbyist, monitoring laws and influencing Lansing lawmakers to better represent outstate interests.

“We don’t care about jobs right now that we can fill,” he says some are starting to argue. “Building housing development is as important to economic development.”

Resort communities like Harbor Springs, Charlevoix, and Petoskey are faced with second-home buyers pushing local housing values up and out of the reach of local residents. In cases like Charlevoix, one-time affordable housing is being purchased by investors, who turn them into seasonal rentals, taking them out of the local housing inventory. Nine-month rentals after the summer season are not attractive to those needing a year-around home.

McLaren Northern Michigan hospital and other larger employers— and Odawa Casino—have been scrambling around the Petoskey area trying to find housing for middle management and those they hire, as there is a shortage of homes in the $300,000 to 400,000 price range. A lack of apartments also makes it difficult for the hospital to recruit nurses and other medical technology personnel.

The Chamber Alliance traditionally asks group representatives to make two trips to Lansing to meet with lawmakers to promote their key concerns. This follows their November meeting in Traverse City, during which they identify regional issues and legislative priorities important to northern Michigan. For this year, the alliance identified:

Rural development and housing incentives—Downtown Development Authorities and Tax Increment Financing, Brownfield Redevelopment programs, affordable and “missing middle” housing incentives, talent and training programs, and access to Capital programs.

Infrastructure and Education investment—support serious investment in infrastructure and education that helps northern Michigan compete in global economy including narrowing the gap for K- 12 per pupil funding across the state, community college capital proposals for Alpena, Northwestern (Traverse City), and North Central (Petoskey) program and supporting the 21st century infrastructure commission that benefits northern Michigan.

Improve northern Michigan business climate –Change healthcare laws, defend funding for rural hospitals, support energy policies that are conducive to reliable and affordable energy in northern Michigan and policies that improve and invest in tourism, including post Labor Day School Start and H2B guest visa program.

One of their overall challenges is to re-educate, then convince Michigan lawmakers and state agencies like the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) that they need to offer business assistance services and capital programs for business attraction and acceleration for rural areas. The panoramic vistas, trees, and lakes are certainly “Pure Michigan” at its best, but strengthening the area’s economics requires more than just an ad campaign to attract seasonal visitors.

As those coming north to live have discovered, it takes more than “A view of the bay is worth half your pay” to survive.

Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News- Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey and Michigan State University.

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