Equal opportunity: Group pushes for more near the city core

TRAVERSe CITY – "SPRAWL." If you look it up in any thesaurus you'll find words like slump, collapse and slouch. The buzzword of the last half of the 20th century and of today is less than pretty and certainly not positive. Nevertheless, this term describes what's happening in our region and in numerous other communities across the nation.

"It's amazing how many new developments we have that include the word 'village' in their signage. Well, you can't have a village that's just one person's little development with a hundred houses in it. It has to be cohesive," said Ginny Coulter, a 12-year veteran of the Traverse City Housing Commission. "The biggest thing that can happen locally is addressing regulatory barriers and how we handle land use."

Fortunately, Coulter and a number of others in our community recognize the importance of the city core and keeping it alive and solid. A public awareness campaign called "Community Housing Choices" (CHC) believes that affordable housing close to employment, services, education, shopping and doctors is essential in keeping the city core healthy.

The group, which was incubated by Rotary Charities, is made up of TCAPS, Munson, Great Lakes Capital Fund, Northwest Michigan Council of Governments, Poverty Reduction Initiative, the Chamber of Commerce, HomeStretch and others. Together, they have conducted a study of options going forward, in part based on a housing study completed in 2003. The report can be viewed at www.communityhousingchoices.org.

Research shows that there is a huge gap between what families earning $40,000 a year can pay for a home and median home prices in the region. Affordable homes in good repair are rare and by 2010, 44,000 Grand Traverse region families may face this dilemma.

Beth Buelow, program officer at Rotary Charities, said their group took efforts to the next level when Rotary contracted with Great Lakes Capital Fund (GLCF) in spring of 2007 to facilitate a community planning process.

"After numerous focus groups, planning sessions and individual interviews with key stakeholders, GLCF recommended that the already titled 'Community Housing Choices' become an initiative of New Designs for Growth. Its goal is to increase affordable home ownership choices available in close proximity to existing communities. Those who need housing that is affordable are the people who make this community a vital place to live," she said.

The issue of affordable housing is often associated with a series of negative images, including lowered quality of life, increased crime, distressed neighborhoods, and declining property values-"a truly unfortunate and incorrect bias felt by too many," says Matt McCauley of Northwest Michigan Council of Governments. "In fact, it's just the opposite."

"The marketplace is just not providing units that are needed close to town near employment," said Bill Merry, executive director of HomeStretch, a non-profit started by Rotary Charities in 1996 whose goal is to build or refurbish affordable homes near the urban center.

"Families are forced to move out of town and then they have to commute," "It comes down to the fact that many people in this region are employed in the service industry and they aren't making wages that allow them to get into a home in the current marketplace," said Merry. "What they can afford is substandard. It's too small. If you look at the market list of homes that could be affordable to a working family in this area, they're extremely small. Often on a crawl space or with no garage. We just felt that was unacceptable and we really needed to develop good quality housing that would suit a family."

City taxes are a huge barrier for many working class home buyers. For example a home with a value of $200,000 in East Bay Township would pay annual taxes of $2,500. Compare that to the city of Traverse City with the same home value, taxes are about $3,600. Garfield Township is about $2,800 and Acme about $2,600 annually.

MSHDA (Michigan State Housing Development Authority) loans are an option for some, by offering a reduced interest rate to qualified buyers.

"I work with many deputies in the sheriff's department and a lot of teachers," says Georgie Cook Mortgage Planner at Traverse Mortgage.

Good for getting a family into an affordable home, but not necessarily in town near the workplace. So, what about this commuter issue?

The group's housing report touches on the Grand Traverse Region's commuter traffic problem and its accompanying air and water pollution problem, plus low public school enrollment in the central city. This results in fragmented development patterns and greater strains on community infrastructure.

The CHC report describes how living far from the town center may save money on the mortgage, but it runs up gasoline and car repair costs while cutting down on quality time with the family. High housing costs are worsening traffic congestion and wearing out our roads. More than 70 percent of workers in the Grand Traverse region commute to another township; about half of workers in Antrim, Benzie, Kalkaska and Leelanau counties commute across county lines.

Nels Veliquette is special projects manager for Cherry Country Fruit Works in Acme. He said that 90 percent of their workers do not live in the township and 50 percent don't live in the county.

"It's a 70-mile average commute. People are driving from Kingsley, Thompsonville, Mancelona. And they've even driven from as far away as Gaylord. It's difficult hiring and retaining employees because they can't afford to live locally. Car trouble is a big reason why people can't make it to work from so far away," he said.

So, what's the answer?

"It comes right down to zoning and the density issue," said Matt Schmidt, city commissioner. "When zoning laws are changed, dynamic planning and adaptable development close to town centers can begin. We've talked about townhouses and single family homes. Our goal is to provide housing close to town that a first-year teacher or firefighter can afford. That's it…they need to be able to live where they work."

At the last CHC meeting, they discussed the idea of hiring someone as a "champion" for the CHC group, possibly through NWMCOG.

"This person would promote affordable home ownership, attempt to work with the county's non-profit status land bank and report at city council meetings," said Schmidt. BN