When it comes to housing, there are a few things most of us can agree on. We want a place in our communities for ourselves and our kids and grandkids to live. We want there to be homes to support a workforce that can grow our local businesses and provide the services we need. We want there to be safe, healthy homes for children and seniors.

Most of us can also agree that these homes are in shorter and shorter supply, and that many of us — or our kids and grandkids — can’t find those safe, healthy homes, even with a good job and decent income. Changes in the housing market and rising development costs have created widespread housing shortages that are changing our communities, making it harder for young people to move home and for our workforce — including the first responders, teachers, health care, manufacturing and service workers that our safety and economies depend on — to live here.

Even if we agree on the problem, though, the solution isn’t always clear, and definitely not simple.

Our housing shortages demand solutions to funding, zoning, public opposition, infrastructure, and more. From a distance, these solutions look like a big, interconnected, complicated mess, and untangling this ball of yarn seems a daunting prospect.

But there’s one thread we can pull on that might help us get a grip on the rest: land. Land is a common denominator in all housing solutions and projects in the most stunningly obvious way — that is, all homes are built on it. It drives everything about the development — its cost, need (or not) for sewer and water, the amount of homes that can be built on it, whether it needs new roads, whether the public supports it…and all the other threads that need to be sorted out.

Understanding that land is central to the equation gives us a good starting point for talking about other solutions. If we can find and acquire the right land for housing, we then know what questions to ask, and solutions to pursue, for funding, infrastructure, and all the rest of those interconnected questions.

But that’s a big “if” – land, especially land that’s served by infrastructure and is close to services needed by residents, is expensive. Land costs are one factor in the unaffordable development costs driving our housing shortage.

Fortunately, Michigan communities have a unique tool that gives us some options to offset land acquisition and development costs. Land bank authorities are organized at the county level to deal with tax foreclosures. They have some important legal and financial tools available to get land back into private ownership and on the tax rolls – from demolishing blighted buildings, to cleaning up contamination, to the purchase, sale, and management of property, to partnerships with private or nonprofit developers.

Land bank authorities have been used throughout Northwest Michigan. They’ve donated land to nonprofits for affordable homes, helped with infrastructure costs, and provided grants for land purchases. Their participation in developments — like the Depot Neighborhood in Traverse City, or Habitat for Humanity homes in Leelanau County — have made homeownership attainable to local workers and families that can’t afford the rising costs of housing in Northwest Michigan.

Because land bank authorities are versatile and because there are so few resources available to housing programs in rural communities, there’s a growing interest in how they can be used strategically in Northwest Michigan.

Land bank authorities could have an even bigger impact if partnered with local investment or funds, like a land acquisition fund, which could provide resources for strategically acquiring land for homes. One model for this approach is the Urban Land Conservancy in Denver, which uses grants and low-interest loans to buy land that is then leveraged for additional investment in homes and community development projects.

The Urban Land Conservancy and land bank authorities will be highlighted at this year’s Northwest Michigan Housing Summit, scheduled for Oct. 18. The Summit is coordinated by Networks Northwest and Housing North, with local, statewide, and national speakers on topics ranging from land-based housing solutions to state policy initiatives.

The event is open to anyone that’s interested and costs $55 to attend. For more information or to register, visit nwm.org/housingsummit.

Sarah Lucas is executive director of Housing North, a nonprofit that supports communities, developers, employers and other stakeholders as they work to create housing in northwest Lower Michigan. Contact her at sarah@housingnorth.org.

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