Promising Trends in Local Housing Policy

Traverse City – northwest lower Michigan’s business and cultural capital – is at a defining moment in its history. Faced with skyrocketing home prices and swelling rents, we can sit back and watch as the housing issues escalate, or we can take action to create a bright future.

Fortunately, some local leaders are taking charge.

The housing issue is clear: There’s a pressing shortage of homes, apartments and condos downtown, which is partly driving up housing prices much faster than local incomes.

Smaller living spaces like condos, apartments and townhouses are necessary for Traverse City’s growth. Young professionals and recent college grads are choosing to live in smaller units in downtowns where they can work and also enjoy a thriving culture and recreational scene. At the same time, a growing number of retiring middle age and older residents are looking for similar surroundings. They, too, want to live in smaller units with culture and recreation nearby.

Different housing types and sizes at lower costs can still be found outside of town, but as young people, families and retirees are pushed farther away from their everyday needs, their transportation costs rise and they become vulnerable to shifts in fuel prices and long commutes. In turn, Traverse City neighborhoods can’t seem to find relief from streets that are clogged with outlying commuters just trying to get to work.

There are still plenty of places to build housing in the city in ways that respect each neighborhood and don’t require people to depend on a car.

The measure of success will be a resilient, thriving economy that keeps, attracts and houses a 21st century workforce, young professionals and retirees. Achieving that success requires the shared leadership of partners in the private, public, and non-profit sectors.

The good news is this: Developers, employers and nonprofit partnerships are already taking steps toward a promising future.

Developers are adding more apartments and condos to the city’s mix of home offerings. Westwind Construction, in partnership with TraverseCONNECT, just added more than 70 new apartments on Garfield Avenue near a paved trail and transit lines, which will allow more young people and families to thrive in this region without solely depending on the automobile for their transportation needs. The local development nonprofit HomeStretch is completing a group of three-story townhomes at the Depot Neighborhood. And Traverse City Housing Commission and Socks Construction are converting a former hotel into one-bedroom and studio apartments on the east side of town. Each of these projects begins to fill the pent-up demand for smaller living spaces.

Employers, themselves, are building new housing in town. Without big government financing and complex programs, business owners are advancing creative housing solutions. For example, partner attorneys at Olson, Bzdok, & Howard have plans for constructing six townhomes on State Street that will fill the demand for more townhome-style housing near jobs. Jeff and Trish Wiltse, owners of Firefly, Bubba’s, The Kitchen and Maddy’s Tavern, just built a dozen apartments on nearby Eighth Street. Similarly, outside of Traverse City in nearby Glen Arbor, Cherry Republic partnered with The Leelanau School to offer summer housing for employees.

And, finally, the newly formed Northwest Michigan Housing Partnership is a collaborative effort that is confronting the housing challenges of Traverse City and the surrounding region head on. Convened by Networks Northwest with funding support from Rotary Charities of Traverse City, the partnership is a smart, proactive mix of local leaders who are charged with helping decision-makers, developers and the public navigate housing policy and remove unnecessary burdens to creating more housing choices.

There’s considerable work ahead. While these initiatives show promise, it seems like there’s almost an endless array of challenges and opportunities. Archaic zoning ordinances, complex development processes, rising construction costs, and neighborhood opposition to new development are major barriers and must be addressed in a way that aligns with the community’s values.

Still, I’m optimistic. We’re a community that works together to solve tough challenges. These new housing efforts will support the economic growth of the region and simultaneously help to protect the character of what makes this place so special. In 20 years, I bet we’ll look back and applaud these leaders who took these steps toward making Traverse City a successful 21st century city.

Jim Bruckbauer is deputy director of Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities.