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Local businesses struggle with affordable housing

By Austin Metz/The Holland Sentinel • Jul 21, 2018 at 2:00 PM

Whether it is during local government meetings or Wake Up West Coast breakfasts, affordable housing dominates conversations among West Michigan leaders.

It has been a well-documented, multi-faceted issue affecting everyone from low-income residents to young professionals and, more recently, local businesses looking to hire.

Local organizations such as Lakeshore Advantage have been surveying some of the area’s largest manufacturers along with top-level executives of primary employers about their overall thoughts on affordable housing and the impact it has on business. In one survey, Lakeshore Advantage found that 40 percent of employers who responded said they are interested in learning more about the Housing Next initiatives. Another Lakeshore Advantage survey found that 17 percent of employers said housing is a community weakness or a barrier to growth.

Ryan Kilpatrick serves as executive director of Ottawa Housing Next and has been tasked with educating the public on the issue, along with working to solve the problem across the county. For him, the issue revolves around a number of factors, such as labor supply and the decrease in labor rates.

“As we look at that, what we are finding is that for those hourly wage conditions, typically employees making below $20 an hour, are becoming harder and harder to attract into Ottawa County as competition increases,” Kilpatrick said. “A big part of the reason for that is, frankly, the cost of housing. Relative to Allegan and Muskegon counties, Ottawa County is still an expensive place to live.”

The main reason for that comes down to supply and demand for housing in the area, he said. Right now, there is considerable demand and not a lot of supply.

Jeanene Kallio, director of Human Resources for Holland-based Trans-Matic, said that from her experience, affordable housing has reached a critical level within the past two or three years.

“It is kind of tied in with our tight labor market — the two go hand in hand,” she said. “It is about trying to find talent and then also have them be able to be in our community so it is easy for them to get to work and take advantage of services that are offered locally.”

Kallio said Trans-Matic has a number of employees making the commute from outside the county, which is supported by recent Census data.

According to Census data from 2015-16 that Kilpatrick shared, almost half of the local workforce is commuting into Ottawa County from outside the county. When looking at the population earning less than $40,000 a year, Kilpatrick said the number jumps to 60 percent.

The issue for employers when employees live outside the county is the lack of transportation options should car troubles arise.

“It really does all tie together and it really does impact your ability to recruit people and bring them into the area if they can’t find a place to live,” Kallio said. “If people could find affordable housing closer to work, anecdotally, my thought is they would be interested in public transportation. It would make their lives easier to get around.”

For local employers, the challenge is to expand the hiring circle farther and farther.

Despite the struggles, Kallio said Trans-Matic is still able to hire and employ workers.

“I would not say the affordable housing issue is our primary issue in finding talent,” she said. “We play in the skilled trade space, so that is probably our bigger concern in finding the right talent. However, if we didn’t have housing to be concerned about, too, it would be a lot easier. I would not tie affordable housing to impeding company growth.”

Kilpatrick said job growth in the area benefits Ottawa County, but the issue is that other regional counties are catching up.

“We are seeing some increases in job growth in our neighboring counties, so we have to be careful to maintain that advantage and are providing adequate supply for employees that work here,” he said. “There may be a day in the future when they have these prospects that are just as competitive in outlying counties.”

The Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce is another local organization working on the housing issue.

“Housing ranks up at the top with talent as far as critical concerns facing our area employers, and the two are inextricably linked,” said the Holland-based organization’s president, Jane Clark. “Not only do we hear from our members that they are in a constant quest to pull more talent to our area, and find housing for those employees, but we also see employers challenged with retaining staff that are already local to the Holland and Zeeland area, simply because those employees are finding it necessary to live farther and farther away from the centers of industry.”

Something that is widely agreed on in regards to affordable housing is that there is no simple answer. Clark said it will take a “collaborative effort from public, private and nonprofits to study and prioritize solutions” that will make significant changes in the community.

Kilpatrick agrees.

“This is a regionwide issue that we are trying to tackle, and we need support from public sector partners and community leaders,” he said. “We are not going to be able to solve this alone.”

For more information about Housing Next and how it is working through the issue, visit ottawaunitedway.org/ottawa-housing-next.

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