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City's housing future explored

Alexander Sinn • May 7, 2019 at 10:00 AM

City Council members on Monday shared memories of growing up in Grand Haven’s past, when single-family homes were smaller, affordable and within walking distance of a grocery store.

Today in Northwest Ottawa County, one of the fastest-growing places in Michigan, housing is not meeting the demands of that growth. 

Ryan Kilpatrick, the executive director of regional nonprofit Housing Next, spoke to the council Monday night about the need for housing, and outlined strategies for using the city’s assets to increase its inventory. A housing needs assessment was completed last year, providing new data that compares available housing to incomes and demand. The study affirmed the need for housing at all price points, Kilpatrick explained. 

The greatest demand is for housing in the $150,000 to $250,000 price range, Kilpatrick said, but there are municipal barriers to developing small and affordable housing that is in high demand.

“For 40 or 50 years, we’ve had a lot of stigma built up around the idea of affordable housing,” he said. “We tend to compartmentalize what affordable is, what it looks like, what it’s designed for and where it belongs.”

So what makes housing “affordable”? Kilpatrick said people at all income levels should not spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. More than 32,000 households in the region are living in housing more expensive than their incomes should allow, the assessment found.

At the lowest end, housing is needed at $625 per month in rent or mortgage payments. To achieve this, the city can make adjustments to its Zoning Ordinance, which is currently being updated. Kilpatrick said many municipalities do not allow small, single-person studio apartments, while building requirements such as parking spaces can also be a hindrance to building at this price point. Single adults without children are 40 percent of the local rental market, he said. 

Kilpatrick also gave examples of townhomes and detached homes with a small footprint. This kind of housing is attractive to millennials, Kilpatrick said, especially when housing is located close to amenities, from public parks to grocery stores. New designs should leverage existing buildings, he said, keeping down the cost of infrastructure such as water and sewer.

“The character you have in Grand Haven wasn’t created by a magic wand,” Kilpatrick said. “It was created by intentionality.”

Providing more opportunities for bicycles will allow households to have fewer cars, according to Kilpatrick, which will free up the roadways, increase pedestrian safety and improve all forms of transportation. Building materials can also keep costs within an affordable range, he said. 

Mayor Geri McCaleb said Grand Haven’s unique dune topography and climate are potential barriers to becoming a bike-focused city like many towns in the Netherlands. McCaleb, who was born in the Netherlands, said the European country’s citizens benefit from having stores located in neighborhoods.

Councilman Dennis Scott said he also saw challenges to bringing affordable options to Grand Haven, saying the city’s existing locations for housing are built out and in high demand.

Councilmen Bob Monetza and Josh Brugger said a future Grand Haven may resemble the past, before automobiles and large properties became the norm. Brugger said the Washington Square sector of Grand Haven is ripe for development to bring shopping closer to middle-class homes.

“The future looks something like the past, the pre-World War past,” Monetza said. “People were more on foot. People lived in somewhat tighter neighborhoods.”

Housing Next is a collaboration among local organizations in Ottawa County promoting increased housing development, pushing for changes in state and local policy.

In 2018, the city formed an Affordable Housing Task Force, which identified several broad objectives in line with the Housing Next initiatives. City leaders say they want people who work in Grand Haven to afford to also live in the city, and for residents to be able to age without moving out of the city.

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