Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Working Families Pushed Out Of Town, Into Debt

Working Families Pushed Out Of Town, Into Debt

Long commutes no easy route to affordable homes

November 20, 2005 | By Carolyn Kelly
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Gary Howe/MLUI

A local housing agency helped Jimmy and Stacey McKenna close the gap between affordable home prices and rising energy costs by selling them a new home in Traverse City close to their jobs.

With two steady jobs and good credit, Jimmy and Stacey McKenna qualified for a $108,000, 30-year mortgage for their three bedroom house in Traverse City.

Since moving in four years ago, they built a picket fence and covered bulletin boards with photographs of their two children, Ethan, 5, and Riley, 2. And, somehow, they managed to keep the white carpet in the living room clean while raising two preschoolers. Downtown Traverse City is just two miles away, and the nearby TART trail makes biking there safe and convenient.

But the McKennas’ good fortune in finding an affordable home close to their jobs is an anomaly for hard working middle class families in Traverse City, where the median price for a three-bedroom house is $249,900 according to figures from www.realtor.com. Moreover, the mismatch between rising housing and energy costs, and static or falling working wages is causing enormous stress on families, the economy, and the region’s natural landscape.

Unlike the McKennas, many more working families endure heavy debt, and long and increasingly expensive commutes in order to find places to live in a market where affordable homes are in short supply. The result is that nearly one out of four families in Grand Traverse County spend more than 30 percent of their gross incomes on housing, according to the Traverse City-based Community Research Group. In the counties surrounding Traverse City — Antrim, Benzie, Kalkaska, and Leelanau — an even higher percentage of homeowners shoulder excessive housing costs.

Help From Homestretch
Mr. McKenna knows from first hand experience how tight the affordable home market is for a young family in the Traverse City region. When he moved to northern Michigan to be closer to Mrs. McKenna’s family, they spent several months looking for a place they could afford while they lived with her parents on Old Mission Peninsula, north of the city.

“When we started looking for a house,” he said, “what we could afford was outside the city.”

The McKennas found help from Homestretch, a local non-profit organization that builds and rehabilitates affordable houses, condominiums, and townhouses in neighborhoods near jobs, schools, and local businesses. Homestretch sells those homes at below market-rate prices to families that earn less than 80 percent of the median income in the county where they live. To qualify, a family of four in Grand Traverse County must earn under 80 percent of the median income of $58,812, or less than $47,050 annually.

The organization requires that each family have at least one working adult and good credit—they must be able to qualify for a conventional mortgage and make a one percent down payment from their own funds. The McKennas are one of about 35 middle class families who qualified and bought homes through the agency since 1998.

Can We Commute Our Way to Affordable Housing?
In past years, working families relied not on housing agencies but on inexpensive gasoline and their own time to compensate for not being able to afford homes closer to town. Commuters accepted a long drive — and less time for exercise, finger painting with their kids, or cooking and eating dinner as a family—because it meant they could afford a bigger house, where each kid could have a bedroom.

Fast-rising transportation costs are now making the long distance drive no tradeoff at all. According to The State of the Nation’s Housing, a Harvard University report published in July, the average lower middle income family spends an extra $234 each month, after taxes, on transportation. That amounts to almost $12 a day in added costs after taxes, a sizable expense in a region where tens of thousands of workers typically earn $8 to $12 an hour. The result is that many people find themselves trapped in a Catch-22: They try to live nearer to their jobs and pay too much for housing, or they commute long distances and pay too much for gas.

In the months after hurricane Katrina, in an era of unstable gas prices, it is becoming painfully clear that middle income families will not be able to commute their way out of the Grand Traverse region’s affordable housing shortage. According to a study two years ago on housing needs by the Community Research Group, three out of four workers in the region commute to another township and about half cross county lines to get to their jobs.

Grand Traverse County is the exception: nearly 90 percent of the employees who live in the county work there, too. Still, 73 percent commute to another township.

The consequences to the landscape are discernible as more manufactured housing and trailers appear along country lanes, contributing to the region’s growing sprawl and traffic congestion. Less visible results, say employers, include workers arriving late or not at all to their jobs. And some banks have begun to take into account commuting distance when they evaluate a household’s ability to pay off a mortgage. “If you’re living 20 miles outside of town, you have to start looking at that as a liability where you never had to do that before,” said Dan Stoudt, a consumer banking officer at Traverse City State Bank.

Smart Growth Saves on Housing, Transportation
Though gas prices have moderated in recent weeks, economists see the next large price increase as inevitable. One important way to close the gap between affordable home prices and rising energy costs, say authorities in the field, is putting people, homes, and jobs in closer proximity.

The McKennas benefit from that approach. Mr. and Mrs. McKenna, who are 30, met while they were in college in Montana. He’s from Portland , Oregon. She’s from Traverse City. They moved to her home town five years ago, when their first child was an infant. When they heard about Homestretch they quickly filed an application.

These days, Mr. McKenna tends bar in the evenings and Mrs. McKenna does accounting and administrative work during the day. The staggered schedule allows them to take care of Ethan and Riley without having to pay for daycare. The McKennas also have very short “commutes” – about two or three miles – which means that driving doesn’t cost nearly as much as it could and, just as importantly to them, allows for more family time.

Regional housing organizations — Homestretch, Habitat for Humanity, and the Benzie Housing Council — are mindful of fast-rising travel costs. These agencies build new homes only in existing communities — places that have schools, sewers, stores, jobs, and other necessities nearby. The three agencies sell about twenty homes each year at affordable prices — about $65,000 for a Habitat for Humanity house and about $95,000 for a Homestretch or Benzie Housing Council house — by cobbling together grants, loans, and donated land.

But none of these organizations has the resources to meet the enormous demand. According to the Housing Needs Assessment, 11,000 new middle- and lower-income households will need affordable homes in the Grand Traverse region by 2008.

Carolyn Kelly, a writer, is the associate editor of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach her at Carolyn@mlui.org.

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org