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Mixing and Matching

Affordable housing helps everyone, including well-off neighbors

July 13, 2006 | By Carolyn Kelly
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Ms. Bilicki worked until nine or ten o’clock every night to build a Habitat House for her children.

Corina Bilicki, a certified nursing assistant, and her five children are happily settled into their new house in Benzonia. They live across the street from a park, a block away from the library, a block and a half from the elementary school, and less than a mile from the grocery store.

Driving past their blue-gray three bedroom house, which was built by Habitat for Humanity with Ms. Bilicki’s assistance, you wouldn’t guess that they bought it for $65,000. It blends well with the rest of the neighborhood, where homes sell for twice that amount.

Eighteen miles to the north, Leelanau County has purchased four lots in Empire’s New Neighborhood, a New Urbanist development that uses traditional neighborhood design, for its own affordable housing program. A local builder, Paul Skinner, is constructing an affordable single-family home, a duplex, and a carriage house for four first-time homebuyers. Homestretch, a local nonprofit housing provider, has built more than fifty homes in the Grand Traverse area over the past ten years, and Habitat has assisted over 60 families in the Traverse City area. The idea is to seamlessly integrate those homes, priced for families earning $30,000 or $40,000 a year, or less, into a neighborhood of more affluent homesteads.

Public, private, and nonprofit housing developers across northwest Michigan are seeking to blend affordable and market-rate housing together because they believe it is good for everyone involved: first-time homebuyers, lower-income families, and communities. Offering a wide range of price points is essential to attracting and retaining the wide mix of people—from home-health aides to prosperous entrepreneurs—that established communities need.

Helping to keep younger, working families stay in town instead of moving to the exurbs stabilizes school enrollments, slows sprawl, and uses taxpayer dollars far more efficiently by minimizing the need for more roads, longer sewer and water main runs, and ever expanding public safety services. Without such programs, such people must either live in substandard in-town housing or “drive until they qualify”—that is, live in the suburbs, where land and housing prices are significantly cheaper.

“When people with actual jobs can afford to live here and put their kids in school, that’s just good planning,” said Don Coe, who runs Black Star Farms and serves on the Leelanau County Economic Development Corporation.

Building Strong Neighborhoods
Like many of the affordable homes built in the Grand Traverse region, Ms. Bilicki’s house, along with the lot next door, where another Habitat house will rise, is the only “affordable” homes on the block: Affordable homes in Empire’s New Neighborhood and Traverse City’s Midtown are scattered, rather than concentrated in one corner. That is partly a matter of circumstance. Most local housing agencies only have the financially capacity to build five or10—perhaps 20 in good times—new homes a year, and it’s difficult to find large parcels of inexpensive land with access to municipal water and sewer systems—which most affordable housing support programs require.

But scattering affordable homes actually helps working families and the neighborhoods they move into. It ensures that the families have access to the same amenities—from good schools to grocery stores—that more affluent families do, without having to drive long distances to get to them. The Bilickis, for example, can easily walk to the park, the library, the school, and, if they’re looking for some good exercise, even the grocery store.

Mixing differently priced houses also makes it easier to mix ages, since younger people just starting careers and households typically make less money than better-established baby boomers and many retirees. That means that elderly neighbors can hire youngsters to mow lawns and rake leaves, while first-time homebuyers can turn to experienced neighbors when they need a good plumber or have trouble with, say, ice dams on their roofs.

Mixed-income neighborhoods also help keep streets safe and school achievement high by preventing harmful concentrations of poverty.

“We’re convinced by our own experience and nationwide experience that separating people by income classes doesn’t work,” said Tom Kern, vice president of affordable housing at Red Management, which developed Midtown. Red Management was happy enough with its first venture into affordable housing that the company plans to build more affordable housing—approximately 30 units out of 100 homes on 2.5 acres of land near Traverse City’s old train station.

And weaving affordable housing into the gaps of “market rate” neighborhoods, or building it into new neighborhoods, ensures that it is developed at the appropriate scale and density for each neighborhood.   

“Our board said right from the beginning that we want to fit in with the neighborhoods,” said Bill Merry, the executive director of HomeStretch, which has developed some 60 units of affordable single family homes, townhouses, and apartments since 1996.

Think Simple, Not Shabby
That means paying attention to design, architecture, and landscaping. An attractive single-family house or a neat row of townhouses isn’t just easier on the eyes than an ill-maintained mobile home or clusters of old, worn-out dwellings—it is far better for property values, too. When affordable housing providers adopt designs that blend in with the neighborhood, the people who live there are much more likely to welcome it rather than reject it.

Just as importantly, living in a home that looks good gives a family dignity.

“My kids are going to be able to have company over now,” said Ms. Bilicki.

That is why local affordable housing providers like the Benzie Housing Council, Habitat for Humanity, Leelanau REACH, and HomeStretch have opted for simple stick built houses and townhouses rather than manufactured homes.

“We’ve never looked at modulars,” said Mr. Merry. “When we started the designs were horrible. And when we stick build, we’re hiring local builders and keeping money in the community, which is important for good will and good prices.”

But building attractive homes from scratch doesn’t mean building extravagantly.

“We build very simple houses,” explained Robin Grubbs of Habitat for Humanity. “A lot of people have forgotten what standard, normal housing is like because they only see the extremes—fancy lake houses or trailer parks.”

Neighbors, Not Nuisances
Places are important, but no amount of planning can substitute for great people and good neighbors. One of the reasons that Habitat houses have been so widely accepted in communities across the country is that the neighbors can see how hard the new homeowners work to build their homes.

In Ms. Bilicki’s case, that meant leaving home at 5:50 a.m., driving 50 minutes to get to daycare and then work, then, at the end of the day, driving to her new house and working on it until nine or 10 o’clock at night. With a work ethic like that, it’s hardly surprising that her new neighbors were friendly, courteous, and welcoming during the construction process.

Heidi Lindeman, a restaurant manager, mother of two, and the proud owner of a Habitat home in Cedar, says she’s had much the same experience. She rates her neighbors as “fantastic.”

“When we moved in, the neighbor across the street came through the snow with a welcome cake,” Ms. Lindeman said. “Other neighbors have babysat for my son or snowplowed my driveway in the winter.”

The same seems to be true from the other side of the fence. In Traverse City’s Midtown, prosperous professionals and retirees have embraced the families that have moved into the affordable townhouses in their midst.

“Since we’ve all come in together, with a range of ages and income levels, it was not an exclusive, gated community,” said Sherry Constantine, who lives in Midtown with her husband, Steve, a retired businessman. “You see children and you see elderly folks—it’s a live community.”

Carolyn Kelly is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s associate editor. You can reach her at carolyn@mlui.org. This article is part of a series sponsored by Rotary Charities of Traverse City, the founder of HomeStretch.

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