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Yarrow Brown

Affordability is something we all should prioritize when it comes to housing. Don’t we all strive to live affordably so we can enjoy family and leisure time, travel and contribute to our local economy?

So why does the term often generate a negative response? There are many words used to describe the need for housing in our region. There is attainable housing. And the new term Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing, or NOAH. Or is it just housing in general? Regardless of terminology, we live in a region where affordable housing or rent is out of reach for much of our workforce.

The gaps in our region’s housing market were laid out in a 2019 Target Market Analysis (TMA) generated through a partnership between Networks Northwest and Housing North. It identified a demand for more than 15,000 homes in our 10-county region. Of these 15,000 homes, most of the need was for rental units and for households making less than $40,000 a year, but also included homes for all income levels and price ranges.

We also created a platform for communication and awareness through a Homes for our Future campaign, launched in early 2020 with new events planned for 2021. The communication toolkit includes definitions and ways to talk about housing, which can be a contentious issue in some communities.

What does the word “affordable” mean when it comes to housing?

How “affordable” a home depends on how much it costs in relation to a household’s income. In general a home is “affordable” if it costs less than 30 percent of a household’s income. Households that spend more are considered cost-overburdened and at greater risk of eviction, foreclosure or homelessness.

Lower-income households are more likely to be cost overburdened. State and federal guidelines define ‘low income households’ as those earning 80 percent or less of the area median income (AMI). The reality is these households make up a significant and critical portion of the region’s workforce, including those working in tourism, construction, childcare, education and healthcare. All of these professions are vital to our economy, but many struggle to find homes they can afford.

How else does this play out in our region? Often those looking for employment have to travel significant distances to find affordable housing, further eroding an overall household budget. In our region, on average, we spend around 50 percent of our household income on housing and transportation. But Grand Traverse County residents spend on average 55 percent to live and work. In Leelanau County it’s closer to 61 percent.

So what can we do to finally make some progress on these complex challenges?

At Housing North, we are working with partners to create tools that ensure affordability for all that need housing. We call it the Housing Conservancy Tool Box. Your community can prioritize or investigate these tools further, or invite Housing North staff to present them to your community.

The tools include a Deed Restriction Program to ensure year-round workforce housing in communities that struggle with short-term rentals. Another is expanding housing capacity though existing Community Land Trusts (CLTs), that offer ground leases and retained ownership of the land while selling the structure ensuring long-term affordability while allowing homeowners to gain equity. We can also help communities with new CLTs.

How can you help?

Be an advocate for housing in your area! Join our Homes for our Future Campaign (www.homesforourfuture.org) and work with your community to become “Housing Ready.” We have a communications toolkit and Housing Ready Checklist to address housing barriers. The site also includes information on income levels and other economic data for our region.

Support our work — spread the word! When we have a call to action for our Legislative Initiatives, sign on and help write letters of support. Show up at your local planning commission or council meeting to endorse housing projects and initiatives. Solving our area’s long-standing housing challenges is the key to unlocking the full potential of our region’s economy. It will require resources, partnerships and community support — but the pieces are in place to make it happen.

Yarrow Brown joined Housing North on May 4. She worked for the Leelanau Conservancy for 12 years and a non-profit for 15 years.

She has a diverse background in watershed and strategic planning, real estate transactions, project management and diverse technical skills. She has worked with landowners, government employees, lake associations and township officials. She has offered private consulting services across the U.S. and throughout northwest Lower Michigan.

Brown is a member on the Cleveland Township Planning commission and represented the Leelanau Conservancy on the Leelanau Clean Water board for more than a decade.

With her husband and daughter, she owns a 13-acre farm in Leelanau County.

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