The newly formed Northwest Michigan Rural Housing Partnership has tapped Sarah Lucas as its executive director. Lucas, who also serves as director of community development at Networks Northwest, a 10-county public regional planning agency, talked with MiBiz about the issues that make workforce housing virtually impossible to build in communities that continually get overlooked by state and federal programs.
As executive director of the Northwest Michigan Rural Housing Partnership, what expectations are you setting for year one?
In our first year, we want to establish ourselves as a new resource and partner in development. … We’ll be developing an advocacy platform to prioritize our policy needs, then working with partners to advance that platform at the state level. We’ll be connecting with developers and local governments to support local projects and initiatives, and we’ll be exploring opportunities to create a regional fund that will make additional resources available to communities and developers.
What’s one example of how the affordable housing crisis has manifested in Northern Michigan?
Leelanau County has some of the highest housing values and median incomes in Michigan, and is well known as a tourist, retirement, and second-home destination. The challenges of its year-round residents, though, were and are far less recognized. Its economy depends on employees who struggle to find year-round rentals or homes they can afford to buy, and they are likely to end up in older, deteriorating homes that are often unsafe or unhealthy. We face (a dichotomy) here in Northwest Michigan: a high cost of living that creates a lot of economic challenges for a workforce that earns less, relatively speaking, than much of the state.
What are the less understood nuances of tackling this housing challenge in Northwest Michigan?
Between land costs, labor, materials, infrastructure, and taxes, it is so difficult — almost impossible — to put together financially viable projects that are affordable to the workforce. These developments require some level of subsidy, whether it’s from grants or tax incentives or land donations. That’s true everywhere, but rural Michigan has fewer options for those subsidies.
Why do the funding mechanisms favor other areas of the state?
The public funding programs available to support affordable or workforce housing are mostly designed for urban areas, making it difficult for rural communities and small towns to compete for the dollars that are needed to make these types of projects work. Another challenge is the perception that we don’t need help here in Northwest Michigan, especially in seasonal or shoreline communities, where there’s a lot of wealth and new business investment, a hot real estate market, and a booming tourism economy.
In fact, the desirability of the region itself, and the high real estate values that come with it, make it that much harder to develop housing that’s affordable — especially to the many people needed to support those new businesses and our tourist economy.
How does your background in planning influence your thinking on what does and doesn’t work in developing sustainable, long-term housing options for seasonal communities?
In planning, you’re looking at the community as a whole, so it becomes clear how decisions on different community elements — transportation, housing, infrastructure, natural resources — are all impacted by each other. We know that, in many cases, it’s easier and cheaper to build on undeveloped land outside of town — but we also know that that development pattern comes with more traffic and higher transportation costs for residents, and requires costly infrastructure and service expansions on the part of the community.
How should developers be approaching housing?
A far more sustainable approach is to be deliberate about locating new workforce housing in neighborhoods that are close to jobs, schools, services and shopping. It’s been shown to be more affordable to residents long term, and there are huge advantages to integrating different types of housing throughout the community.
We have a lot of great examples of how that’s worked in our region, both in seasonal and in more year-round communities. In seasonal communities, an added consideration is how we can ensure that new housing remains available and affordable to the workforce, rather than used for vacation rentals. This is a growing concern for seasonal communities, many of whom are seeing significant amounts of year-round housing being converted into seasonal housing or short-term rentals.
Are there any easy solutions to the affordable housing problem?
It’s said that for every complex problem, there’s a solution that’s clear, simple and wrong. Housing may not seem like a complex issue — we need more housing, so let’s build more! But the development process is fraught with barriers that make it difficult to build the type of housing we need, or enough housing, in the right places.
Why is that?
Development is too expensive to be affordable, and the subsidy that’s needed to fill the funding gap is often not available. Local governments don’t have the policy tools needed to incentivize or support the development that’s needed. Local zoning may not allow the type of housing you’re trying to build. And even when you have all the pieces in place, community or neighborhood opposition can derail the project.
What can this new partnership do to advance the cause?
We need additional resources and incentives for development, a voice in Lansing that supports better policy and more development tools for rural Michigan, and improved communications and partnerships between the diverse partners involved in development. The partnership is an attempt to organize forces around all those complex, intangible issues — to create the pathways, messaging and resources that will streamline the development process and ultimately make it more affordable. It’s a systems-oriented approach to a complex issue. The intent is to support and connect the partners and organizations that are, have been, and want to be part of the solution — nonprofits, developers, local governments.
Interview conducted and condensed by Elijah Brumback.