Emmet County leaders address housing approaches in meeting
PETOSKEY — Emmet County officials and leaders say it will take policy changes and collaboration to combat the housing crisis in the region.
That crisis has been the result of an economy that offers little incentive to build homes except at very high brackets, despite a need across all income levels, according to some of the speakers at an Emmet County strategic planning session on housing last week.
New home development hit an all-time low coinciding with the recession, and the housing market had barely begun to rebound when the economic impact of COVID-19 began bearing down.
“Our economy has permanently changed as a result of the pandemic … and we’re experiencing to some degree the ripple effects of the 2009 economic crisis,” said David Emmel, president of the Northern Lakes Economic Alliance. “Think about how long ago that was. Affordability was easy then, because credit was easy, and credit was accessible.”
Those factors have resulted in a mismatch between needs and availability on several levels, which in general has meant that the cost of housing has far outpaced peoples’ incomes, falling far above the ideal 26 percent of income that housing experts recommend.
“As housing prices have increased, what people are making has not increased at the same rate,” said Yarrow Brown of Housing North.
A target market analysis by Housing North and Networks Northwest showed that the largest bracket of demand for housing throughout Emmet County tended to be among the $700-$800 monthly rent range for renters and the $100,000 to $200,000 range for homeownership. But there aren’t enough homes being built in practically any range to meet demand, and most of the homes that are being built far exceed that value.
That’s due, in part, because of the high cost of housing materials and the low amount of skilled laborers in the construction trades, two factors that were made worse following the pandemic.
Experts have identified a workforce shortage across many sectors of the economy, and Nikki Devitt, Petoskey Chamber of Commerce president, said housing is a fundamental cause of that issue, citing examples of prospective employees looking to move to Emmet County, only having to decline the job offer because they were unable to find a place to live.
“The current housing crisis is currently the single biggest factor in addressing the workforce shortage, which from a chamber of commerce perspective is what my businesses are telling me every single day,” she said. “You can’t fix workforce without fixing housing needs first.”
Devitt cited examples such as downtown service industry businesses and McLaren Northern Michigan, and Emmet County, Public Schools of Petoskey and Presbyterian Villages of Michigan also cited such issues in workforce housing in hiring government employees, teachers, and elderly care workers.
That’s in addition to the housing needs of the aging Emmet County population, and the needs of young families with children enrolled in the local school districts.
“I need young families to be able to have places they can buy,” said Chris Parker, Petoskey schools superintendent.
Many experts indicated the market alone would not be enough to combat the crisis — local governments would need to make changes in policy to help begin to address the issue.
Many of those recommendations revolved around zoning changes to reduce barriers to building residential developments at all economic brackets, as well as selling government-owned properties for the purposes of housing.
In particular, zoning restrictions preventing higher-density developments could be lifted to relieve the supply-side stress being seen in the housing market.
Some area governments have already begun initiating some of those changes. Petoskey’s planning commission is in the process of drafting changes in rules regarding height requirements and expanding the use of “accessory dwelling units,” additional residences created in a typically one-family structure. Emmet County’s planning commission has also developed policy changes to relax density limits.
But experts said officials need to make careful policy decisions to make sure those additional units aren’t just immediately filled with short-term rental housing.
Also, economic incentives are still needed to combat the high cost of land and development.
“We have parcels out there that we know would be ideal for development, but the cost to develop those, it’s almost impossible,” said Tammy Doernenburg, Emmet County planning and zoning director.
Carlin Smith, of Little Traverse Bay Housing Partners, and several other experts, also said collaboration was key in helping to solve the issue, and recommended Emmet County rejoin the Northern Lakes Economic Alliance, as well as help fund a housing director for the Little Traverse Bay Housing Partnership.