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Officials say 'housing emergency' is costing Charlevoix valuable workforce

Alyssa Milazzo takes shelter from the rain on Nov. 4 at Munson Healthcare in Charlevoix, she's a radiology data specialist there.
Michael Livingston
Alyssa Milazzo takes shelter from the rain on Nov. 4 at Munson Healthcare in Charlevoix, she's a radiology data specialist there.

They're rallying behind the volunteer advocacy group, “Housing Yes Charlevoix,” which is focused on bringing better housing solutions to the area.

Housing for year-round residents continues to be in short supply all over Northwest Michigan. But in Charlevoix, it’s costing the area crucial members of its workforce.

The local school district, for example, said it’s had trouble in the past bringing teachers to fill jobs. They want to work, but they can’t find a place to live.

Charlevoix Public Schools Supt. Mike Ritter said the problems with attracting teachers comes amid an ongoing national teacher shortage.

“I just want people that want to move here, to be able to do so. And for housing not to be an impediment,” Ritter said. “And fortunately, it wasn't for me and my family and I feel so blessed to be here. I just want that for others.”

Ritter said many positions have been filled now, but he worries about the future.

According to Housing North, an advocacy nonprofit based in Traverse City, just 38 percent of homes in Charlevoix are principal residences.

But Charlevoix is growing. 2020 census data says population has increased by about 7 percent since 2010. So, while demand is high for working professionals, sometimes there isn’t anywhere for them to go.

Officials are rallying behind the volunteer advocacy group, “Housing Yes Charlevoix,” which is focused on bringing better housing solutions to the area.

The group consists of local business owners, elected officials and community stakeholders. Members can usually be found at local government meetings when new projects or opportunities are on the agenda.

Sarah Van Horn, president of the Charlevoix Area Chamber of Commerce and board member at Housing Yes Charlevoix, said the area will start to see greater staffing challenges if the issue isn’t addressed soon.

“Our businesses cannot staff for a level of operation that meets demand, meaning longer wait-times or even unavailable services,” Van Horn said in an email. “This spans from restaurants to contractor services to healthcare. We risk not being able to take care of residents, visitors, business owners, students ... it’s an issue that will reach everyone in some way.”

Mike Hinkle, another Housing Yes Charlevoix board member and President of Charlevoix State Bank said he’s experienced similar issues with hiring staff from outside the area.

Many of them have to find arrangements farther away, increasing commute times.

The issue isn’t just with people moving in, said Charlevoix Mayor Luther Kurtz. Long-term residents are also getting forced out.

“Let’s say you’ve been renting a place for a long time and your landlord suddenly decides to sell it to turn it into short-term housing,” Kurtz said. “You think to yourself, ‘I guess I'm going to rent another house.’ And then you're like, ‘Holy crap… there are no other houses to rent.”

That hypothetical is similar to what happened to Alyssa Milazzo, a radiology data specialist at the nearby Munson Hospital.

After being evicted from the apartment she had lived in for nine years, Milazzo wanted to buy a house of her own.

“I didn't want to share walls with people anymore,” she said. “I wanted my own yard and my own space away from everybody. But that wasn't possible.”

Despite having a good-paying job and a group of family and friends helping her to find a home, she said it felt like "an impossible task."

Milazzo said she remembers waking up to a barrage of text messages with listings every morning. She would call the realtor right away, but every time, someone else had made an offer first.

“I cried every day trying to find something and every call was just discouragement, one after another,” she said.

Milazzo never did find a home within her budget by her eviction date.

She said she was forced to live at the Mary Margaret House, a homeless shelter in nearby Petoskey, with her 13-year-old son from the beginning of April to the end of May.

Over the summer she was able to find somewhere to live — another two-bedroom apartment that was more than what she was paying for her first apartment.

Now, she’s back to square one. She said she's still looking out for a house that fits her needs with the help of her family and friends.

Milazzo said she doesn't want to move because she loves her job and the area.

"It's perfect to raise a child," she said. But she's grown more disheartened by the town she calls home.

“It’s sad that our town is just a resort now,” she said. “I can drive down the road and see houses that were listed seven months ago that are now empty because they’re for the visitors.”

Meanwhile, Housing Yes Charlevoix is hoping to provide solutions.

Mayor Kurtz, also a board member, said the work the group does involves plenty of honest conversations with neighbors who may be misinformed about the impact of housing projects on their property. He said it happens a lot.

“Some neighbors have legitimate concerns about things like where the water drainage will go,” Kurtz said. “But the people that are still saying ‘no’ after those things are solved … it’s hard to logic your way past it.”

The other part of the job is making sure the desire for affordable housing is heard by decision-makers.

“What we’ve found is that there are groups of people that are willing to get out there because they care so much about this issue,” Kurtz said. “They want to go to the meeting and share with their elected officials and planning commissions why they need to approve (housing projects).”

Housing Yes Charlevoix spotlights two on its website.

One is in Marion Township that would bring 80 residential units to an 89 acre parcel of land owned by a private developer. The majority of the residential units will be deed-restricted for year-round housing

Additional acreage outside of the residential housing footprint and nature preserve will be used for storage units and RV park developments.

The project is currently under consideration by the Marion Township Planning Commission.

The other project is a three-acre vacant lot located on the corner of Stover Road and Ferry Road that used to occupy the City of Charlevoix’s public works facility.

The city wants to remain owners of the land and turn it into housing units. Contractors from Edgewater Design Group submitted recommendations for units. It will likely be voted on after Election Day, Kurtz said.

Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.