January 24, 2021

Tiny Houses and Big Raises

By Stephen Tuttle | Jan. 2, 2021

Let's start by assuming 2021 will be better. The mysteries of local government, however, will remain the same.     

The Traverse City City Commission and their overlords at the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) continue their obsession with eliminating downtown parking and increasing population density in the same area. Their latest foray is multi-family housing with no parking and little single-family homes on little residential lots, all in the elusive quest for affordable housing. 

One commission member said they were hoping to attract the “missing middle,” perhaps having surrendered the fantasy of housing lower-income folks. But if income levels are the target, they're seeking the wrong “middle.” The demographic we're missing downtown, and elsewhere, is age-related, not financial.

Traverse City's population is aging without being replaced by young families with children. It's a significant enough trend; we are out of step with the rest of the state and the country.   

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2019, about 18 percent of Traverse City's population is under 18, and more than 21 percent is 65 or older. Statewide, about 21 percent are under 18. Nationally, the figure eases up to 22 percent. And the state and national figures for the 65 and older demographic are just under 18 percent and 16.5 percent respectively. In short, we have fewer young people and more older people.   

That's a trend that is not good on many levels: schools, business startups, young entrepreneurs, taxes ... most everything is impacted when the population skews older and older. So, what we need are young families.

The DDA and City Commission would have us believe the key is downtown and that the objects of our ardor will be keen to move their young families into a tiny house on a tiny lot or into a multi-story apartment building ... with no car. What fun for the children. 

Downtown Traverse City is the DDA's only job, so their advocacy for more and more is understandable. After all, they realize a direct financial benefit from more downtown development through their tax increment financing (TIF) districts.

But downtown is not the only job of the City Commission. Yes, downtown is the economic driver for the city, so we all understand it's a priority. But it also has the most expensive real estate, so any below-market-rate housing will require significant subsidies from taxpayers for both the builders and tenants.

There are other parts of the city where people can live. But when was the last time we had a discussion about or promoted housing options in the Orchard Heights, Oak Park, Indian Woods, Traverse Heights, or any other neighborhoods? Not everybody, or even most people, move to northern Michigan for the dynamic urban lifestyle. They might like some trees, a yard for the kids, maybe even some birds that are neither seagulls nor pigeons.

Downtown is not the only housing game in town. It's just the only one a majority of our current city commissioners wants to play.   

Meanwhile, the Grand Traverse County County Board, a typically parsimonious group, has become unusually generous to four county employees. And themselves. 

They recently approved significant raises for the county administrator, county clerk, HR director, and IT director. They didn't get around to anybody else because they “ran out of time.” Then they gave themselves a tidy little 60 percent raise from about $7,000 annually to $12,000 annually. (They even found money to fund a newly created PR position but none for a new patrol deputy, the 16th year in a row with no additional deputies on the road.)

Commissioners Betsey Coffia and Bryce Hundley voted against all the raises, and they were right in their opposition – the symbolism here stinks.

This is not to suggest the employees so rewarded have not done an outstanding job and did not deserve the pay bump. They’ve had an unusually challenging year to negotiate. But it's been no less challenging for county employees who are not at the top of the pay scale who do the daily work, including first responders, and who might receive a tiny pay raise, if any.

The argument made by the board — that they had to reward those receiving the raises or risk those folks going elsewhere for employment that promised more money — is specious. If they were going to leave for more money, why didn't they already do that when they were being “underpaid?”

The board's self-serving increase is a bit different. If the increase was truly justified – they also make a $35 per diem for any meeting they have to attend – it should have applied to the board next elected, not the current members. The rest of us don't get to give ourselves a big raise, and neither should they.

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