In case you haven’t noticed, help wanted signs are everywhere in Northwest Michigan these days. While it might be a good problem to have, employers from restaurants to schools to hospitals to banks and everything in between will tell you that it has become harder to find the help they need to do business and expand.
They’ll also tell you that housing costs are keeping many potential recruits from moving here, and even driving some away. A recent survey by FUSE, the young professionals group of Traverse Connect, showed that nearly half of professionals under 40 have considered, or are considering, moving away because of housing costs.
A common response to housing challenges faced by young people and other workers is that they just need to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps — like I did.” We all struggle when we’re young, the thinking goes; no one should expect a dream house early in their career. True enough, but by and large, the workers and families in the region aren’t looking for a dream house — they’re looking for any house, and not finding one they can afford, or that has room for their family, or that’s safe to live in. The bootstraps that many of us may have used in to pull ourselves up in the past — affordable starter homes and rentals that allow us to budget and save for a future starter home — aren’t really available any more.
Why? They were there when many of us were starting out. So what happened?
For one thing, new homes aren’t being built at a normal rate. Freddie Mac reports that new home construction — both single family and multi-family homes — has been well below average since 2008, despite rising home demand.
There’s a laundry list of barriers contributing to this phenomenon: zoning, tax law, labor shortages, land values and infrastructure costs all raise development costs to the point that it’s not financially viable, in many cases, to build homes or apartments that we need. Throw in the all-too-common phenomenon of NIMBYism — local residents who oppose new development — and development prospects start to look a little bleak.
Outside of new housing supply, what about the existing housing supply? Well, some of it simply isn’t for sale. Many seniors living in single-family homes want to age in place for as long as possible — or they can’t find a smaller place to rent or buy that they can afford. So, retirees and empty nesters — usually households of one or two people — are staying in the larger homes that young families are looking for. What’s more, smaller households mean that more homes are needed for the same number of people, pushing up demand for housing, especially in rapidly-aging communities like ours … all while fewer homes are being built.
Another complication, especially in regions like ours, is the impact of short-term rentals like AirBnB. American Factfinder shows that between 2010-2016, the region’s housing stock didn’t really increase at all — but the number of seasonal housing units increased by 15%. Essentially, an additional 15% of our year-round housing stock is no longer available to workers and families. At a time when we desperately need more homes, we’re actually losing them.
Local leaders, housing agencies, businesses and other stakeholders of all stripes have been exploring solutions to these problems for many years. We know there’s not a silver bullet that will solve all of them at once. But we also know that there are things that work, and tools that we can use. Tax incentives — like payments in lieu of taxes, or incentives available through land bank authorities and brownfield authorities — are key. So are grants and low-interest loans that can make development costs a little more palatable. Zoning changes to allow more homes, and different types of homes, will help.
But the big wild card driving all of those tools is public support. Without public understanding and support, local officials and developers will continue to struggle to make the changes we need to create new housing opportunities. Organizations like Housing North are working to provide some of the information and communications that will create that understanding. And all stakeholders — from the public to local officials to businesses — can do their part by advocating for the homes, and the people, that we need in our communities.
For more information on housing needs and solutions, visit housingnorth.org/resources.html.