In Northport, the Affordable Housing Debate Got Personal
By Patrick Sullivan | Sept. 30, 2017
From the start, something wasn’t right.
Frank Goodroe remembers the day in late December 2014 when he attended mass at St. Gertrude Parish in Northport. He had just arrived in the community to start his new job as village coordinator.
“Of course, there’s not that many newcomers, and I went in and was welcomed and things like that, and as I was leaving — it’s a very elderly congregation — a couple of the folks came up to me and said, ‘Sir, you have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into. The village is so dysfunctional.’” Goodroe recalled. “Now, these are people that are in their 70s and 80s and 90s that are telling me this. It was very strange. It was a very peculiar situation.”
Three years later, he’s been forced from the coordinator job, he’s seen his campaign signs disappear, and he said he’s been targeted by village officials in an ordinance-violation case he believes was meant to drive him out of town.
SCRAPING TO GET BY
Goodroe only lasted six months as coordinator, but just before he resigned (under duress, he said), he had purchased a house in Northport, tethering him to the village.
To get by, he’s started a cleaning company. He also he rents out three of the four bedrooms in his house. Having those roommates has caused Goodroe’s latest conflict with village officials: Last winter, he received a zoning violation notice that alleged he was running a rooming or boarding house, in violation of village rules.
The accusation forced Goodroe to go before the village board to defend his living arrangement. He and his roommates each testified that they live as though they are a family. The violations were dismissed, but not before Goodroe racked up thousands of dollars in attorney fees.
Today, the 63-year-old is trying to get a part-time job as a mail carrier, and he’s considering filing a federal civil rights lawsuit against the village.
The case against him was ironic, he said, because the village desperately needs the kind of affordable housing he offers. Goodroe said he made affordable housing a priority during his short tenure as village coordinator, and village officials knew he planned to rent out rooms when he bought his house.
“I was very up front about it. I told them exactly the kinds of priorities I have when I was interviewed. And they knew that I was going to have people live here,” he said. “It wasn’t a secret at all.”
Goodroe said his trouble stems from one person: Barbara Von Voigtlander, the former village president who took his job.
NORTHPORT HOUSE HUNT
When Goodroe moved from Huntington Woods, a suburb near Detroit, to Northport in 2014, he learned firsthand what a challenge Northport’s lack of affordable housing poses.
He couldn’t find a permanent place, so as a stopgap he found a winter rental. He had to be out by May when the summer residents returned, so he looked at every property that came up for sale in the village.
Goodroe settled on a house on Third Street, near the old mill pond. He bought it three days after it went on the market. It wasn’t exactly what he was looking for — he had wanted a house that he could use as a bed and breakfast — but it was well built and well priced (around $249,000). Because it had four bedrooms and was too big for a single man, he thought it would be nice to have roommates.
Goodroe said he believed there would be no problem renting rooms. From his desk in the village office, he could look up at the zoning map and see that the house he was buying was in a district zoned commercial/residential. Besides, he’d noticed that a lady around the block advertised a room in the Leelanau Enterprise. It didn’t seem to be a problem in a community that had long embraced temporary vacation rentals.
Also, when he bought the house that May, Goodroe was unaware his job was in imminent jeopardy.
“I didn’t know that there were problems going on with the village as far as my employment, or I wouldn’t have proceeded to buy the house,” he said.
THE OFFICIAL WHO WOULD NOT LEAVE
Goodroe might not have feared for his job, but he did sense things were strange at work.
Goodroe is an experienced administrator. He has served as the city manager of Hudson, Michigan, southwest of Ann Arbor, and was the director of the downtown development authority director for Durand, northeast of Lansing. He was also a court administrator, heading up the 45th District Court in Oak Park, near Detroit, before coming to Northport. Previously, he served as the state court administrator for the Nebraska Supreme Court and the executive officer for the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.
Goodroe's administrative skills proved to be no match for Northport, however.
Von Voigtlander had been village president until the end of 2014, when she was voted out of office by only a few votes. Goodroe said that when he started his job in January 2015, it seemed Von Voigtlander didn’t want to cede power.
“Barb was defeated unexpectedly — very, very bitter,” he said. “But the new village president knew nothing about village government, so they had Barb come in and provide orientation to me, because the records and everything were just really quite a mess, and she was very detailed.”
After the orientation, however, Von Voigtlander kept coming to the office for hours every day.
“So she continued to come in constantly.” he said. “She was there all the time. She was the chair of the utility authority, so she would use that as the reason. She was just there all the time. It wasn’t appropriate.”
Although he didn’t see it at the time, Goodroe said he now believes that Von Voigtlander worked behind the scenes to get rid of him so that she could take his job.
In June, Northport Village Council Trustee Phil Mikesell asked Goodroe to resign. Goodroe said he wasn’t given specific reasons for the request.
“I don’t really know (why). We didn’t have a conflict when we were working together, when she was doing the orientation,” Goodroe said. “It wasn’t until the very end that I was even aware that there was any conflict.”
POWER GRAB DENIED
Von Voigtlander denied that she had anything to do with Goodroe’s resignation. She said she only filled in at the office because she was asked to bring Goodroe up to speed and, later, because of her duties on the utility board.
“I was not a part of the village council or any part of his hiring or his leaving,” Von Voigtlander said. “When he first was hired, I came in and tried to give him the benefit of what I’d learned from being here in the office.”
She denied that Goodroe was forced out so that she could take his position and regain a position of power. Mikesell did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Goodroe said he can think of only one reason officials might have been frustrated with him: the position he took on Northport’s controversial sewer, a project that went way over budget and for years has cost residents thousands of dollars in monthly bills.
Goodroe had opposed the use of general fund money to pay bond payments for the sewer system.
“I thought that was an inappropriate use of the village general fund,” he said. “They knew that they would have a big hurdle to deal with if I was in that role and would stand in the way of using $60,000 a year from the general fund to supplement the sewer bond payment.”
With Goodroe out, Von Voiglander got Goodroe’s job. She remains in the position today.
DON’T WANT THE RIFFRAFF
Goodroe might also have clashed with officials over affordable housing.
There are two reasons why Northport’s affordable-housing shortage could be more acute than elsewhere in northern Michigan: For one, the village has a permissive short-term rental policy that allows virtually any property to be turned into a vacation rental. That takes a lot of homes out of the housing market.
Also, the excessive cost of the sewer built a decade ago still reverberates today. The hook-up fee for new construction — around $17,000 — stops affordable housing projects before they start, and the annual fee per user increases the cost of living for everyone.
Goodroe said village officials know they need to appear as though they support affordable housing, but he said he doesn’t believe that the ones currently in charge really do.
“They’re talking out of both sides of their mouths, Barb, and Phil Mikesell, and some of those folks,” Goodroe said. “It ain’t ever going to happen in this village. The real thing is, they don’t want the riffraff.”
Von Voigtlander said the creation of affordable housing in the village is a challenge, but it is one of her priorities.
Goodroe said he’s always been interested in helping people escape domestic violence and homelessness. As a court administrator, he promoted recovery programs for victims of domestic violence and diversion programs for the homeless. He said his living situation in Northport has enabled him to help people firsthand.
“I’ve even had the sheriff’s department contact me to see (if) I have any place that somebody could live for the winter,” he said. “So I had a person living in my pantry. And that person [had been] living underneath the park bench at the library over at the township hall. There’s a bench there. And they were living underneath that bench, sleeping, [and] working at Tom’s Market.”
Goodroe said he tries to charge as little as possible so his rooms are affordable for low-wage workers. He said single people cannot survive in a place like Northport unless they have roommates.
“There’s no way that a single person working in this area can afford to live here, even if we were to create small houses or apartments or condos,” he said. “It would take at least two people working very full-time in order to pay the $750 to $900, which would be considered an affordable rate range for housing.”
WELCOME TO NORTHPORT
A while after Goodroe was forced out of the village, he decided to run for township office. That led to his second conflict with Von Voigtlander.
Goodroe ran for Leelanau Township supervisor, as a Republican against an incumbent Democrat. Von Voigtlander, he said, apparently didn’t want him to run the township, which partners with the village in the sewer project.
Goodroe was an underdog in the election, but he won some support and got permission to place campaign signs on a strip of land at the entrance to the village on M-22, where the “Welcome to Northport” sign is perched.
The land’s owner, Barbara Weber, gave Goodroe permission to place his signs there, but he said the village took them down on Von Voigtlander’s orders.
“So I had two signs there. I didn’t have a whole lot of signs — I only had 50 of ’em, you know, for the whole campaign,” he said. “So I get this phone call from Barb [Weber] saying, ‘Frank, your signs are gone.’”
Goodroe confronted Von Voigtlander.
“I said, ‘Barb, where are my signs?’ She said, ‘I told them to take them down. … It makes it appear like the village is supporting your candidacy,’” he said.
By the time he retrieved the signs from a dumpster, one of them was ruined, he said. After he replaced the signs, Goodroe said the road commission then told him he needed to move them.
Von Voigtlander said that she forgot that the land was privately owned and mistakenly had the signs taken down. She said the road commission later contacted her and asked that the signs be removed because they were in the right-of-way.
Dan Wagner, managing director of the road commission, said the road commission never contacted the village about the signs. He said Von Voigtlander called him to complain about the signs of two candidates being located on village property, and he agreed to talk to the candidates, including Goodroe.
That spurred complaints, however, and Wagner said he realized he’d gotten into the middle of a dispute of which he didn’t want to be part. He said the road commission has since developed a policy on where road signs are and are not permitted.
THE CODE ENFORCER KNOCKS
Goodroe first learned there were questions about his roommates around the time he and Von Voiglander tangled over the signs.
The village zoning administrator, William Fuller, paid him a visit. Fuller told him there were questions about whether he was in violation, Goodroe said.
“They were after me. They wanted to hound me to get me out of the village,” Goodroe said. “They wanted me gone.”
Goodroe said the code enforcer admitted to him that Von Voigtlander sent him. Fuller did not return a message seeking comment.
Goodroe disagreed that his living situation constituted a violation. He did not believe he was running a boarding or rooming house.
“Whatever you want to call this, if you want to call this a multi-family home or whatever, it’s properly zoned,” Goodroe said. “I mean, I spent all that time with the zoning map right on my wall in my office.”
Nonetheless, Goodroe received a notice of violation. That meant he had to hire an attorney, Karen Ferguson, who decided it would be best to argue that Goodroe’s living arrangement is allowed in residential-zoned areas.
“I had to hire two different attorneys, and it cost me $7,000 to handle these ‘zoning violations,’” he said.
Von Voigtlander denied that she targeted Goodroe or instructed Fuller to investigate and find a violation.
“That’s inaccurate,” she said. “I had a council member come and see me and say he had heard from a constituent who has property near Frank,” she said. “They questioned whether they were allowed to have so many people.”
She said she asked Fuller to research the question, and he determine whether there was a violation. She defended the decision to enforce the zoning code, even though it cost the township $5,621 in attorney fees.
“I think it’s a necessary use of village resources when you have an issue, you have a complaint. Frank had his issue, but what about the people who live around him? They have rights, too,” she said. “We know he was having quite a few people in his residence, but without the complaint, we probably wouldn’t have addressed it at all.”
Goodroe doesn’t believe his neighbors were the origin of the complaint. The neighbors did not respond to several messages seeking comment.
“I thought that’s very peculiar, because they’re the ones who referred a man who was homeless, living in a tent [as winter approached], who had no place to live, and they are the ones that referred the man to me to live in this house,” he said. “We’re Facebook friends. I was totally shocked. Totally shocked.”
WHAT IS A FAMILY?
In April, Goodroe and his three roommates appeared before the village board to argue that they qualified as a family.
The zoning code defines a family as a “domestic housekeeping unit in a dwelling unit, or a collective number of individuals domiciled together in one dwelling unit whose relationship is of a continuing non-transient domestic character."
Fuller, the zoning administrator, said at the hearing that he thought Goodroe’s tenants were transient and what he operated was like a rooming or boarding house, putting him in violation of code. In particular, he noted that Goodroe took out a classified in the Leelanau Enterprise looking for roommates.
“When I saw the rental ads, I'm thinking, ‘Room for rent, that sounds transient to me,’” Fuller testified, according to a transcript. “It doesn’t sound like somebody is in there for a long period of time.”
Ferguson noted that the 1984 Michigan Supreme Court decision Delta Township vs. Dinolfo forced localities to broaden their definition of “family” from people related by blood and include groups of people bound together in other ways.
Ferguson disagreed that what Goodroe and his roommates have is transient; sure, she said, sometimes a roommate has to move out, but Goodroe always attempted to find long-term renters.
The three roommates also testified.
Mike Bunn, a retired builder who had been physically and mentally abused in his previous living situation, said Goodroe took him in and improved his life. He’s lived in Goodroe’s house for nearly three years.
“He was happy to take me in, after I told him the problems I was having with these people that I moved in with, like two years before, and I was in fear for my safety, and Frank was there for me,” Bunn told the board. “I want to let you guys know that.”
He said he considers Goodroe and his two female roommates to be family. They spend birthdays and Christmas together, and they give Bunn, who can’t drive, rides when he needs them.
Esmeralda Gutierrez moved in with Goodroe in August 2016, and has become his girlfriend.
She used to live in Traverse City, but she works at a nursing home in Northport and had looked for a place closer to work for years before she found something she could afford.
“To me, a family is someone that comes together, helps each other out, that it's there for you,” she testified. “I do have family that doesn't do that for me. So being in this family is something beautiful to me, because I feel accepted, and I feel like I belong. Something I have never felt before.”
Several residents who attended the hearing noted that there are people all over town who share houses, yet the only violation was issued to Goodroe.
Ferguson said she was surprised that the village board capitulated after she made her case.
“I think they got legal advice from their attorney” that if they continued with the claim that the village could become responsible for large damages, she said.
ANOTHER AGGRIEVED CONSTITUENT
Will Harper, owner of North Shore Outfitters, a clothing and outdoor equipment rental store on Waukazoo Street, said he isn’t surprised by these disputes. He said Von Voigtlander has also used her position as coordinator and chair of the utility board to settle grievances.
Once, he said, after Von Voigtlander charged him with a zoning violation, he went to her office and yelled at her. Two weeks later, he said, his sewer rates were increased so that he would be responsible for an additional $15,000 over 10 years.
“She has used these positions of power to go after people with personal vendettas,” Harper said.
He fought the assessment for over a year and finally got it removed, but only after he had converted an apartment behind his store to a storage room.
Von Voightlander denied that she was responsible for the increase in Harper’s sewer rate and said that the code violation — for parking a trailer on a lot he didn’t own — was valid.
“I categorically deny that, and I couldn’t do that on my own anyways,” Von Voigtlander said. “But if he’s right, I have a lot more power than I thought I had.”
Meanwhile, both Goodroe and Harper have put their names in for recent openings on the village board. Most recently, both were passed over; a relative newcomer to Northport was selected to fill an empty seat.
“They had five or six people apply for it,” Goodroe said. “They didn’t interview anybody. The person they appointed had only been here less than a year. No one even knew her. Good idea to have a female on the council — that’s a good thing — but she was a total unknown that Barb Von Voigtlander found.”