On June 19, Networks Northwest hosted a Regional Housing Summit to explore key issues faced by communities. The overarching issue was the lack of workforce housing, brought to light by ongoing feedback from the region’s communities, as well as studies conducted by Networks Northwest.
Networks Northwest (formerly the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments) is an organization which provides support to the ten counties of northwest Michigan. Providing programs and services in workforce development, business and economic development, and community development via workshops, trainings, and research, they are also a source for information on those subjects.
The purpose of the Summit was to bring the varied stakeholders together to discuss the changing housing needs of the region, to explore potential opportunities and to make connections to move forward with implementing solutions. Nearly 200 stakeholders such as developers, realtors, non profit and public agencies, lenders and funders, and local governments participated in the event.
Solutions were presented by experienced practitioners on the state level, like Dave Allen, of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA), who spoke on utilizing data and market studies to develop a strategy for meeting housing needs. A specific local example of utilizing a housing inventory to develop a strategy was presented by John Sych, Planning Director of Grand Traverse County.
The Summit was the vision of Sarah Lucas, Regional Planning Director for Networks Northwest. Lucas explained that the region is struggling with several housing variables: a shortage of affordable housing, businesses unable to hire people because prospective employees cannot find housing, a decreased demand for large single family homes, and an increased need for rental housing at all price points. Affordable housing may be based on HUD’s definition of a household which must spend more than 30% of their income for housing, or it may be 80% of the area median income which in Grand Traverse County is $45,000 for a family of three. That represents an hourly salary of $21.63.
Citizens create their own, non-ideal solutions such as commuting 45 minutes to one hour in order to live in acceptable housing, doubling up and more perhaps to the point of compromising safety, and living in non-affordable housing and going without important household expenditures such as car repairs, healthy food, and/or medications.
In an interview summarizing the summit, Lucas explained that barriers such as low density zoning combined with high development costs exacerbates the strong need for multifamily housing. Solutions include changing local zoning ordinances to allow for greater density, accessory dwelling units by right, and smaller minimum square footages. Housing trust funds (a public source of funding set aside solely for housing) are another option Lucas cited, as well as the issue that many affordable housing grants are geared towards urban areas, impacting non-profit developers abilities to provide housing. A theme which was explored in a panel at the Summit, and echoed by Lucas, is the need for, and success of, collaboration between non-profit and private developers.
Esther Greenhouse delivered the keynote address, speaking about the role of the built environment on independence, functioning and well-being. She highlighted the barriers present in the design of housing and communities, as well as solutions for creating multigenerational, age-friendly communities. The purpose of Esther’s keynote was to create a paradigm shift whereby attendees see that the built environment is pushing many of their citizens to an artificially lower level of functioning, which is preventable by enabling design. Excerpts from the keynote, along with an interview can be seen in this video.
For more information on the Housing Summit, and the extensive resources provided by Networks Northwest, visit their website at: http://www.networksnorthwest.org/planning/featured-stories/nw-michigan-housing-summit-2015-summary.html