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Access to affordable housing

Alex Doty • Nov 17, 2017 at 1:00 PM

Like homelessness, the lack of affordable housing options is another issue in which Ottawa County leaders are trying to make a difference.

Holly Johnson, co-chairperson of Housing Next, said recent estimates of the shortage of affordable housing units in our county have grown to nearly 15,000 units — a number that she said is “discouraging” to her and others involved in the group.

“I was surprised to know the number of how far off we are in Ottawa County to have everyone be able to afford a place to live,” she said. “The deep-dive view over the last few years has broadened my mind for the need for this.”

According to the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development, affordable housing is considered housing for which the occupant pays no more than 30 percent of their income for gross housing costs, including utilities.

The Greater Ottawa County United Way goes a step further than the federal guidelines with its A.L.I.C.E. (asset-limited, income-constrained employed) calculation. Those are people identified as working, often at more than one job, yet are still falling behind.

The A.L.I.C.E. household stability budget, which enables one to be self-sufficient, calls for an annual household income of $56,400 for a family of four and $19,848 for a single adult in Ottawa County. This compares to the U.S. poverty rate of $24,250 for a family of four and $11,770 for a single adult.

“These are people who work with us,” Johnson said. “These are people that we call colleagues and they’re struggling to live in our community.”

Why it matters

According to a report released by Housing Next and the local United Way, housing challenges have a myriad impact on the community at large.

“It really has quite the trickle-down effect,” Johnson said. 

Substandard housing conditions can mean health and safety risks, increased maintenance costs, and even stressed and absent workers. Longer distances to travel to a job due to the need to live outside the community can mean longer commute times, increased transportation costs, less time for other activities and more traffic on the road.

Johnson also noted that having affordable housing is critical to making sure that area employers can find and keep workers.

“We have jobs that we need to fill in our neck of the woods,” she said.

How it’s being addressed

Discussions began several years ago with the United Way and Housing Next, then called Ottawa Housing Next.

“Ottawa Housing Next was Phase 1 of a community conversation that started three years ago to address the lack of affordable housing,” Johnson said. “Our vision for that is housing for all in Ottawa County.”

Community leaders have since met to find the best way to address and solve the lack of affordable housing. The Housing Next Leadership Council was formed this past summer in response to the research efforts. Their first order of business was to seek out a person to be in charge of exploring workforce housing solutions, Johnson noted.

“What our main job was over the course of the summer was to secure funding to hire a director for Housing Next,” she said. “We did that and extended an offer.”

The Leadership Council selected and hired Ryan Kilpatrick as its first director. He comes from a background in economic development and city planning, and will provide strategic direction to the council, advocating for greater housing choice and affordability across the region.

As director of Housing Next, Kilpatrick is expected to be a strong partner with the region’s chambers of commerce, non-profit agencies, local municipalities and the development community to identify opportunities to increase the supply of housing at all price points and execute high-quality projects.

Kilpatrick previously worked for the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and is a certified planner and economic development finance professional.

“We have every expectation that he will hit the ground running,” Johnson said. “The big area we’re looking to tackle is looking with local units of government to clarify their vision of affordable housing in their community.”

Along with the hiring of a director to lead the charge, Housing Next also has a broader Advisory Board which will have representation from developers, businesses, philanthropy, housing nonprofits, government and residents.

Officials note that while they’ve addressed strategies and have a director to lead the effort at the beginning of 2018, they know there is still plenty of work to be done.

“It’s not ‘wave a wand’ and all of a sudden you construct 15,000 new units,” Johnson said.

Local concerns about housing affordability

Concerns about how affordable housing has also trickled down to local communities.

In Grand Haven, City Councilman Josh Brugger has led a charge to tackle affordable housing. He’s drafted a proposal that would set up a task force to address the issue.

“If adopted, it’s directed toward a task force that consists of two members of City Council, two members of (the city’s) Planning Commission and two members of the community at large who possess knowledge germane to the topic,” Brugger said. “(And also) the city manager and community development manager.”

Brugger noted that the housing affordability initiative will likely be on the agenda for a vote at the next City Council meeting.

“Hopefully, we'll have unanimous support in council,” he said. “It’s a first step, but a solid one in the right direction.”

The task force would be asked to review the community’s zoning rules within neighborhood districts and make recommendations to the Planning Commission for near-term (6-12 months), mid-term (1-2 years) and long-term (three-plus years) Zoning Ordinance amendments.

Brugger’s draft resolution recognizes Ottawa County and Grand Haven as being desirable places to live — but, at the same time, notes that the community has limited housing stock, creating “upward pressure on housing prices of all types; rental and owner-occupied homes both seasonal, short term and long term.” The resolution also notes that housing affordability is an economic issue key to the continued growth of local businesses and maintaining a socio-economically diverse community.

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