March 31, 2023

Housing Is Community Development and Economic Development

Guest Opinion
By Yarrow Brown | Feb. 25, 2023

You’ve probably heard a lot about housing lately and could be getting tired of it. I’m not here to convince you that we have a housing shortage or crisis. We know that. But it’s important to share why this is a community effort with ways everyone can make a difference.

Housing is community development and economic development; they’re interconnected, and without homes for those who live and work in your community, the community cannot thrive.

Growth is inevitable. So why not embrace it in ways that make sense for your village, township, and county? Growth is already happening in our region—we are one of the few regions experiencing growth in the state. It’s an opportunity for northwest Michigan.

According to the report Population Trends in Northern Michigan, the Census Bureau’s five-year estimates for 2021 from the American Community Survey data reveals northern Lower Michigan’s population is growing but still getting older. We’re losing younger families and professionals and struggle to attract talent or keep our residents because there are not enough housing options. We also don’t have enough housing for our older residents to move into, opening up the larger homes for families. We need more housing diversity at a variety of price points to attract a diverse population.

We can work together to protect our natural resources and grow in a responsible way. We can protect our water bodies and plan for increased development close to infrastructure and other amenities. But it’s going to take time, collaboration, and effort on all sides.

It’s been impressive to see the conversations around housing shift over the three years I’ve worked in the field. We see more housing action groups or teams form to support positive housing changes and advocacy. We’re seeing more zoning changes for increased density such as accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and duplexes/triplexes. We see housing projects approved for underutilized spaces and creativity in how to bring more units to our downtowns. This is great progress—but we need more!

We need more homes for all residents. We need homes for the most vulnerable and for those who would move here for employment but can’t because there’s no housing that’s affordable or available close to their jobs. We need options for people to downsize and upsize—more housing diversity. And we see these changes happen with hope that more projects can be replicated in more communities.

So how do we bring more homes to our community? The four bills signed by our governor in December will allow local governments to incentivize housing development. This is an effort that began years ago and has paid off as we now have new opportunities for rural communities to bring important housing development to the region.

These include expansion of two measures: Payments in Lieu of Taxes or PILOTS and Neighborhood Enterprise Zones or NEZs. They open up opportunities for any unit of government to enter agreements with developers for tax abatements or reduced property taxes for a specific period to lower the cost of housing and bring in economic development.

Why is this needed? The costs to build—particularly in places like downtown Traverse City—are high. Construction, site preparation, and approvals make it impossible to build apartments or homes for less than $225,000 per unit. These bills require an affordability component and are critical to generate more rental and home ownership units in our communities.

The two other bills allow local governments to establish districts for housing that provide reduced property taxes, similar to the Industrial Facilities Act but for housing. Information about these tools are on the Housing Michigan Coalition website or the Housing North website.

Now the real work begins. We need to help our communities embrace these tools and work collaboratively on projects that meet the housing needs. Housing North and other nonprofit partners are working to get these tools into our community, but you can play a role too. Let your elected officials know you support these new tools and that you want more housing in your community. Show up in support at meetings where a PILOT ordinance is proposed. Show up at planning commission meetings and master plan updates to make sure housing is a priority and your communities are aware of the new housing tools.

We’re seeing some great innovative projects. I’ve heard of some shipping container developments being planned and will visit SI Container Builds in Illinois this spring break to learn more. We have Commongrounds Cooperative, now open for both housing and office space with a lot of community benefits. Homestretch is working on a multi-use building in Traverse City known as Lot O which will use mass timber and provide a range of opportunities for rental housing.

There are many public-private partnerships happening and a lot to be celebrated. But there’s still a long way to go.

Yarrow Brown is the executive director of Housing North, a 10-county housing agency serving northwest Michigan.


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