New Affordable Housing Development Ruffles Feathers
By Ross Boissoneau | May 5, 2018
Add to the list of housing debates in Traverse City: the conversion of part of a former Country Inn and Suites hotel to an apartment building. The proposed East Bay Flats, at 420 Munson Avenue, just east of Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), will offer both working-class apartments and apartments for at-risk youth. It’s the latter group that seems to be causing some unease, as does the potential for increased traffic on Eighth Street, which borders the back half of the property.
Addressing the first part of the objections, Traverse City Housing Commission Executive Director Tony Lentych said it is important to note that the label of “at-risk” means “at risk of becoming homeless.” Over 200 youth in the five-county region have aged out of foster care and/or are listed as homeless and not living with their families as of 2016.
Lentych did acknowledge that there will likely be an impact on traffic on Eighth Street. That’s because drivers headed toward downtown will find it much easier to turn right onto that road from the back of the property rather than trying to turn left onto Munson from the front. Indeed, that is part of the appeal of the property, along with its proximity to NMC and several restaurants, motels and other work opportunities, as well as the relative proximity to downtown.
Lentych said addressing the concerns of those who own property near the development is of paramount importance. “I am sympathetic … to how it affects the neighborhood. I’m not discounting anything. We want to be good neighbors,” he said.
To that end, Lentych organized a tour of the property in March and followed it up with a meeting in April. He also noted that there is an application process for screening potential resident, and there will be onsite oversight for the project. “We’ll have a resident assistant who lives there,” he said.
Though no one from the neighborhood would respond on the record to multiple requests for comment, it’s clear those concerns and a general fear of change drove opposition to the project. At least part of the dispute arises from a perceived lack of communication between the development’s partners and the neighborhood.
As the property was privately owned, there was no requirement for the sales or plans to be publicized prior to the sale. In fact, says Lentych, such publicity could have derailed the project. Given that, he doesn’t see how there could have been better communication at the outset.
Owners Jack Burns and Jay Payne initially intended to convert the building to condominiums, but after contacting Socks Construction the plan changed. Socks Construction had been looking for an opportunity to construct a multi-dwelling unit to provide more affordable housing in town, but costs kept the company from realizing such a project. John Socks said the company saw this as a way to address the issue in a more affordable manner. “We’d like to build it — that’s what we do — but with the land cost, taxes, and construction costs it doesn’t work. Now it’s fallen into place,” Socks said.
Thus, East Bay Flats. The partnership between the Traverse City Housing Commission and Socks Construction will allow for 46-50 units. They will be available to those earning less than 80 percent of the region’s area median income, $41,000 for a single person and $47,00 for two persons. The estimated rental cost for the one-bedroom units will be $990, and the efficiency apartments will be $924.
A grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will provide rent support for the ten to 14 units set aside for youth at risk of homelessness. Over 200 youth in the five-county region have aged out of foster care and/or are listed as homeless and living without their families as of 2016. Those youth renting the apartments will be expected to pay one-third of their income as rent. The HUD grant that will make up the difference.
Burns is a believer in the project, and is hopeful it will help to address the housing crunch in Traverse City. He also said its cement block construction — “It’s built like a fort,” he said — and the fact the building was originally constructed as suites makes it ideal for converting it to one-bedroom apartments.
One thing he wants to make clear: Country Inn and Suites is not closing. The hotel portion is remaining open for the foreseeable future. It is the lodge building adjacent to the motel that Burns and Payne have decided to part with. “It’s always been a separate parcel,” Burns said.
Lentych hopes to use the project as a model for other such proposals. Likewise, Socks said his company is hoping to participate in building, developing or redeveloping other such units. “We have others in sight. We’re always looking, but this one is the farthest along,” he said.