BY BENJAMIN J. GOHS, EDITOR
Boyne City officials and other community leaders, developers, business people, and concerned citizens gathered last week for a meeting to discuss the current state and future of housing in the area.
Boyne City Mayor Tom Neidhamer opened the event with a little background on how the housing summit came to be.
“We’re very excited to have our first Boyne City Housing Summit,” he said. “And, this is a result of our city-wide goals that have been an accumulation of data from the city commission, from Main Street, the chamber, and a lot of data has—not only locally but regionally—identified the housing crisis in Northern Michigan, and we need to address this.”
Boyne City Manager Michael Cain said the issue of a lack of affordable housing for working families has been the subject of discussion for a couple years now.
“It was basically not just coming from one source—from businesses, people connected with our industrial park—but all across the community,” Cain said…. “So, tonight, we’re looking to start a conversation.”
He added, “I don’t see that this is going to be an easy solution because, if it was, it would have been solved already.”
Cain said affordable housing is not just a Boyne City issue.
“This is not even just a Northern Michigan issue,” he said. “This is a statewide and possibly, a national issue.”
Cain added, “But, it’s an issue that needs to be dealt with because it’s having a lot of repercussions for individuals, businesses, and communities as well.”
Cain said if the community can come together and find solutions, Boyne will be ahead of those cities which are not even discussing the matter.
Sarah Lucas of Networks Northwest then addressed the nearly 60 people in attendance at the Thursday Oct. 20 event.
“We don’t come to these events with solutions or answers to a problem,” said Lucas, who added that there is no single solution to the issue of affordable housing…. “But, one of the strategies we often talk about as a first step for communities is to have just this kind of discussion.”
Lucas said, in all the community discussions she has attended, she has never seen such a diverse crowd interested in an issue.
Lucas then introduced a number of issues impacting the state of affordable housing.
“It is probably a crisis at this point, I think it is safe to say,” she said.
Lucas said there are people living with their parents and searching for housing to no avail due to the lack of affordable housing.
The seasonal aspect of Northern Michigan makes it difficult due to lower wages and high property values.
Another really big factor, Lucas said, is the demographic of the area—most of the population is 55 and up, with a big decline in younger working families.
Lucas said statistics also show more young adults are living with their parents than ever before.
Lucas said younger adults are waiting longer to start their own households, and many of them are saddled with large amounts of student loan debt.
Lucas said it is next to impossible to find one-bedroom apartments or other similar housing for households of one and two people.
Lucas touched on the issue of employers who are finding it difficult to fill all their job openings because potential workers can’t find an affordable place to live.
“This is probably our primary economic development issue in the region right now,” she said.
Lucas said housing for the entire community, not just affordable housing, is an issue, adding that people generally think of subsidized housing when you say “affordable housing” and that there is a lot of baggage attached to the title.
Lucas added that housing for a variety of income levels—not just for lower income working families—seems to be in short supply.
Lucas said a study was completed which shows the housing demand in Boyne City for multi-family housing over the next five years is 15 owner-occupied, multi-family units, and 76 new rental units.
“That demand is coming from a pretty wide swath of people,” Lucas said. “Anyone from a young single person that’s earning about $20,000 to $30,000 on up to, in Boyne City’s case, about $50,000 for moderate income Baby Boomer early retiree-aged households.”
Lucas said the demand for rentals seems to be much higher than the demand for home ownership.
Lucas said another factor affecting local housing is the large number of second homes which are only generally used a limited time each year.
Lucas said the demand for housing could triple if Boyne City businesses were to heavily recruit for certain types of employees.
One potential solution discussed is a tax credit for those who rent out workforce housing.
Lucas said incentives have had mixed success. She also said there is often resistance from communities who are often hesitant about creating diverse housing.
She once again said there is a lot of baggage attached to terms like “affordable” or “low-income” housing, which, in some people, conjures issues like crime and lowered property values.
“So, one of the strategies that we talk about is exactly what you’re doing here tonight—having a conversation with the community about what affordable housing is, what you need, what you’re looking for,” said Lucas.
Lucas also said that getting the public on board with potential solutions is vital.
“Because, all the arguments you hear for a particular project, for higher density housing or affordable housing, you will also hear those when you’re talking about changing the zoning for those very types of housing units,” she said, referring to some people’s concerns about the type of people lower-income housing may attract—regardless of whether the stereotype is fair.
“So, you just have to be prepared for that type of opposition,” Lucas said.
Finally, Lucas said, the biggest obstacle is how you pay for the housing.
She said one of the most obvious solutions is grant dollars and different subsidies but they’re not enough to fix the problem alone.
Cain said voters who care about this issue need to elect candidates who are willing to work on the issue of housing in the state and locally.
Another possible solution, Lucas said, is that communities can donate property to be used for housing developments.
Lucas said a housing partnership between developers and communities could also be helpful to work through regulatory hurdles and to find grant moneys to make projects work.
This was the first major public discussion of the housing issue but Boyne City officials intend to continue working on the matter in the future.