Empire’s New Neighborhood: One Way To Build, Live Affordable

In a region where housing prices often act as a barrier to would-be residents, Empire’s New Neighborhood serves as a case study for affordable housing in a small town.

The design of the neighborhood, located near the intersection of M-22 and M-72, harkens back to a time before modern zoning laws, predicted on automotive travel. Modest house size and smaller streets combined with practical infrastructure means residents pay less to buy, build and live.

“The New Neighborhood is ‘new’ in the sense that it’s an extension of historic downtown Empire living and all that downtown living offers,” said Luba Childs, a realtor with Century 21 Northland. “[It’s] a walkable community where you know your neighbors.

That building started  back in 2002, when developers Robert Foulkes and Bob Sutherland launched the residential community. One resident, Eric Dubord, decide to make the New Neighborhood his family’s home after completing work on one of the community’s first houses.

“I had no intention of staying here,” said Dubord. “We realized we liked it so we stuck around 10 years.”

Since that time, Dubord’s family has grown and he is now a lieutenant with the nearby Glen Lake Fire Department. He described ten minute walks to the beach, an eclectic mix of close knit neighbors and a short drive to good schools.

“We enjoy it,” said Dubord, speaking for his wife Robin and their two children. “For that small town feel it’s nice.”

Foulkes, partner and land use planner with the Chicago-based firm Sam Marts Architects who makes his home in Leelanau County where he owns White Oak Timber Frames, has worked extensively on housing in the neighborhood and agreed with Dubord’s assessment of the area.

“You can live in the New Neighborhood and you can walk to church, and you can walk to the store and you can walk to the beach,” said Foulkes. “A whole lot of northern Michigan is not affordable because people live in a cheap doublewide, then have to drive 15 miles for a gallon of milk.”

The small town feel of Empire’s New Neighborhood is more than just a quaint selling point; it’s one of the primary factors that keep land and living costs low – and a study of one way to keep housing affordable.

According to the community’s New Neighborhood Empire Guidelines document, typical lots are 50-feet wide and 125-feet long. There are 81 total lots, and planning allows for 126 dwelling units (with a maximum of two per property). Available lots range from $34,000 to $59,500, and of the 81 lots in the neighborhood 15 are still listed as available for purchase.

Planning allows for 126 total dwelling units in the neighborhood, with a maximum of two per property. Only roughly one-third of the possible units have been built so far, which means even after all lots are sold there is still room for internal expansion.

Before land sales are finalized, homeowners’ building plans must be approved by the community’s Design Building Committee. This is to ensure zoning standards are maintained, and new additions to the community retain that old Empire feel. Childs indicated most looking to build in the neighborhood use the same few builders, many of whom often share plans.

There are no built houses currently for sale, which is not uncommon.

“Not many homes have been on the market since they’ve been built,” Realtor Childs said.

While the smaller lot size does mean smaller homes in a tighter configuration, Foulkes pointed out bigger isn’t always better.

“A bad design can [mean] a house that is clunky and not very functional and doesn’t do the things that you want in a good way and is 1,400 square feet,” he said. “Good design can mean that you have a beautiful house that you really love and that does everything you need in 900 square feet.”

Foulkes also addressed the notion that more land is always better.

“If everybody has to be on ten acres, then you have to buy 10 acres, and you’ve got to pay the taxes on 10 acres, and you’ve got to have a driveway that’s 800 feet,” he said. “Village density is something that makes housing affordable.”

Driveways are nonexistent in the neighborhood. Planners instead chose to build alleys for parking and garbage collection behind the houses. Roads less cluttered by cars, along with consistent, well-maintained sidewalks, motivates denizens of the New Neighborhood to walk or bike rather than drive, said Foulkes. This, he added, leads to decreased wear on the roads and a lower overall cost of living.

Foulkes also identified the New Neighborhood’s septic system as an important element in keeping living costs low.

“According to my running of the numbers, sewer systems aren’t cost effective unless you have 6,000 people use it,” he said. “You can go up to Suttons Bay and find a village population of 600 with a sewer system, but their costs of running it are really high.”

Almost all of the things that keep the New Neighborhood affordable stem from progressive zoning laws instituted in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The laws allow those looking to buy land and build a home to do so in an amount of space conducive to their needs.

Foulkes said many communities mandate a minimum square footage for building (to discourage doublewide trailers); a fact he feels often causes house size to exceed what the homeowner may need.

“We don’t zone for what we want in the U.S., we zone to keep out what we don’t want … which is a mistake,” said Foulkes.

The laws also allow for multiple occupancy dwelling units on a property, and do not dissuade residents from building coach housing and “granny flats.”

While residents of the New Neighborhood may benefit from affordable priced housing, Foulkes cautioned against calling it “affordable housing.”

“[Residents] would reject that, they equate affordable housing with slum,” he said.

Regardless of how it’s described, few can dispute the success of Empire’s New Neighborhood and its role as a template for future housing in the region.

Developers and officials from other municipalities visit Empire “to come and look at the New Neighborhood because it is a good model for getting the basics in so people can afford to live in their own community,” said Foulkes.

After more than a decade of living in the neighborhood, Dubord said he and his family are finally ready to consider the move to more spacious accommodations. This could mean an opening in Empire’s New Neighborhood; though it’s likely the house won’t remain empty for long.