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In Leelanau County, 'critical mass' on affordable housing

Aaron Selbig

Experts say the affordable housing problem in Leelanau County has reached “critical mass” – the point where talk must turn to action. A meeting on the subject Thursday morning drew a crowd full of developers and government officials.

Sarah Lucas from Networks Northwest led the meeting. She says that when people think of the term “affordable housing,” they might see an image of a large, run-down apartment building on the edge of town. But in Leelanau County, that public perception is changing.

Suttons Bay Township recently loosened restrictions on building duplexes and apartments without any public outcry at all.

“I think that the lack of controversy that you saw in Suttons Bay probably reflects the recognition on the part of the community that it’s a huge need," said Lucas.

In Suttons Bay, people saw their school enrollment drop to the point where the district now runs in a budget deficit.

“I think it really is gaining a critical mass," said Lucas. "I think everybody is having experiences with it. Everybody is seeing how this is affecting the community. They’re seeing the impact on school enrollment. They’re having trouble getting workers to fill their jobs. There’s a lot of support building for an affordable housing initiative.”

A broad initiative has yet to really take shape but Lucas says the pieces are there. Local governments can do their part by loosening zoning restrictions on high-density housing or allowing duplexes and “granny flats.” State and federal agencies can help by increasing funding for incentives and tax breaks for developers.

But to make a real dent in the affordable housing problem, Lucas says it will take all of these efforts and more.

“There’s not one thing that we can do that’s going to magically solve the problem," she said. "It’s going to take everybody at the table – private, public (and) non-profit. It’s going to take regulatory support and financing alternatives and incentives (and) a lot of creative solutions.”

Networks Northwest is taking its message to other counties in northern Michigan. The agency will hold another meeting in Traverse City Tuesday.