Special Report: A Place To Call Home

Affordable housing is an ongoing issue in northern Michigan.

Often times, there are misconceptions about what exactly “affordable housing” means.

9&10’s Megan Viecelli and photojournalist Catie Emery dug into the housing crisis to find out how communities are working to address it.

“The housing crisis is really for all income levels,” said Charlevoix Mayor Luther Kurtz.

People often struggle to find housing in northern Michigan. Whether you are a teacher, a police officer or a radiology technician, there are barriers that make affordable housing less attainable.

“People in the industry that are working on it, they have changed the name of what we call it so many times because there is this negative connotation that gets built up about different things that you call it, but what we are talking about here is just housing generally,” said Kurtz.

Charlevoix Mayor Luther Kurtz says it really does matter for many reasons.

“It makes the community. It is also better for the environment, obviously, to have people living by where they work. It is better for those families. It is better for the businesses that they are trying to hire people. Some of the businesses in town here, they have been recruiting employees and then the employee comes to try to find housing, they cannot find it and they do not take the job. They go back downstate,” added Kurtz.

According to Housing North, a ten-county region in northwest Michigan is in need of more than 10,000 rental units. A new project in Manistee County will soon put a dent in that number.

“I was just thinking back to 2018, talking to a lot of our employers and the need for affordable housing to retain and attract their talent and advocating for them to get this project moving at city council, so about two years, here we are. It is exciting,” said Stacie Bytwork, the president of the Manistee Area Chamber of Commerce.

Hollander Development Corporation partnered with the city of Manistee and Little River Holdings, LLC to build an apartment complex. Community members likely know it as the old Washington School property, but one day, it will be home to 45, one-to-three bedroom units.

“It shows again that Manistee County is poised for growth and we want to address the lack of housing and be able to provide for our citizens,” said Bytwork.

Challenges vary from one northern Michigan community to the next. As do the solutions. At the local level, it could be as simple as a zoning ordinance.

“One of many first steps to take is to revise the zoning, allow for a few more housing options and then go from there,” said Steve Schnell, the Charlevoix County Housing Ready Program Director for Housing North.

On a larger scale, at the state level, it could be a push for legislation.

“We do a lot of advocacy work with our legislators and looking at different tax credits or a tool kit for northern Michigan as a whole,” said Bytwork.

Schnell added, “That has historically been a challenge for rural areas, making sure that the legislation, which is often drafted to meet the needs of urban populations, our goal is to really help them understand some of the specifics to rural areas’ needs.”

Whether it is a new apartment complex in Manistee County or more options in Charlevoix County, Schnell says it is time to shift our perspective: “We need to look at things differently and we need to separate ourselves from that myth that affordable housing is 1,000-unit, giant towers of housing because it is not that. In a rural area, in most areas, affordable housing means creating more housing choices so people have more to choose from, move to an appropriate housing unit and we need to rethink the rules that are in place right now that restrict that from happening.”