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A Vision for Helping Families on the Edge

Popular citizens’ plan for housing, transit, food, and energy can help entire community

November 16, 2010 | By Jim Dulzo
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Vicente Ramos
  More people are visiting charities like the Father Fred Foundation, looking for food, clothing, and cash assistance.

Part One of a series

Most weekday mornings, people pack the waiting room at the Father Fred Foundation, the largest food pantry in northwest Lower Michigan. The folks that crowd into the unassuming building on Traverse City’s east side are looking for food, clothes, or cash assistance to avoid utility shut-offs.

And, each time they visit, they surely notice that their numbers are growing.

At the root of this bleak scene is the region’s terrible unemployment rate. A year ago, it stood at 14.5 percent. As of this September, the seasonally unadjusted, 12-month average for the Grand Traverse region was 16.4 percent.

The damage this causes to struggling families in the region is profound. The most recent estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, which are for 2008, indicate that 18.6 percent of the region’s people 18 and under lived at or below the official federal poverty line that year. The poverty rate ranged from 11.8 percent in Grand Traverse County to a startling 25.4 percent in Kalkaska County.

There’s little evidence that things have improved since then: In 2009, fully 45 percent of local school children came from families poor enough to qualify them for free or reduced-price school lunches, while more than 50 percent of the region’s babies were born into Medicaid coverage.

Such statistics may be hard to believe, given that impoverished people are a relatively rare sight in northern Michigan’s charming towns and villages.

But there are thousands of families scattered across the Grand Traverse region—in Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, and Wexford Counties—who are literally living on the edge. Their household budgets are broken, and they cannot provide all the necessities for making a decent home for their children, who need good starts to their young lives.

And, as Father Fred’s workers will tell you, the problem is worsening. According to David Abeel, the foundation’s development director, the organization saw 30 and 40 percent increases in demand for its food pantry services in 2008 and 2009. In the first 10 months of 2010 they've seen a 15 percent increase—more than 2,500 new families the organization had not served before.

Terrible Choices
Without the help of Father Fred and other organizations that are part of a local, inter-agency effort called the Poverty Reduction Initiative, these families would have to cut budgets still more just to eat. But even with food, clothing, cash, counseling, job-search assistance, and other services from charities and government agencies, they still face terrible choices.

To make ends meet, should they get rid of their car? According to an estimate provided to the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments by the non-profit Housing + Transit Affordability Index, it costs more than $11,000 a year per family for transportation in the rural counties surrounding Traverse City. That number includes the region’s very few bus riders and its tens of thousands of car owners, whose expenses include buying, maintaining, fueling, and insuring their vehicles. Living without a car could save a lot of money, but doing so while living rurally is almost unthinkable.

Should these families stop paying rent and move in with relatives? Statistics from the Community Housing Needs Assessment indicate that would be impractical, if not impossible. In Grand Traverse County, for example, that could involve as many as 60 percent of all renters—the portion of folks that the assessment says are either “overburdened” or “severely overburdened” by their rent.

Utility bills put families at risk, too, particularly when it comes to staying warm during a northern Michigan winter. Five years ago, the non-profit National Energy Assistance Directors Association estimated that families receiving federal assistance for heating costs spent 20 percent of their income on energy—a figure that is bound to be higher in northern Michigan, where winters are colder than average.

And when it comes to food, most struggling families already cut costs by eschewing fresh, higher quality food, in favor of cheap, highly processed products. But these high-calorie, low-nutrition diets contribute to obesity, malnutrition, and diabetes.

So, the choices for cutting back on necessities to make ends meet are non-existent. And they will remain that way even when Michigan’s unemployment rate starts to shrink. As Mr. Abeel says, the cause runs deeper.

"It's the economy and unemployment short-term, but long-term it's the un-affordability of our systems," he said.

In other words, until we change our communities’ designs, it will be difficult for families to work their way out of poverty, no matter how hard they try.

A Helpful Vision for Struggling Families
This report, Families on the Edge: Designing Communities That Work, confirms Mr. Abeel’s simple message: Until we design our communities differently, families will still struggle with big expenses such as operating two cars to get to work, school, the grocery store, and other services. They will remain on the edge of eviction, shiver in drafty buildings while paying sky-high heating bills, and eat cheap, unhealthy food.

You will meet some of these families in this report, who bear dramatic witness to the damage so many people endure because of our communities’ designs.

For example, our region’s most affordable housing is almost always located far from jobs, shopping, and schools. That quickly creates two big problems.

First, that cheap rural housing always requires an expensive addition—at least one, and more likely two, cars. Second, such housing often is often also shoddy, and comes with sky-high heating bills.

And here’s another challenge: Federal subsidies of several major food crops, particularly corn, make highly processed food cheap—and attractive to poor families. But the dollars these families “save” with such purchases are pennywise and pound-foolish: They contribute to chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes.

But here is good news: There are solutions to these problems that do not require lots of new taxpayer dollars. In fact, the solutions are inexpensive: They involve better community design and smarter tax and incentive policies that simultaneously save money, increase quality of life, and promote local economic development.

If that kind of design seems unlikely to occur, think again: Residents of the six-county Grand Traverse region are now taking big steps toward redesigning their communities to better reflect their values and create a more livable, enjoyable region. And what those residents clearly want, it turns out, will help those suffering souls crowded into Father Fred’s waiting room.

This redesign is called The Grand Vision. It’s a holistic plan, touching on housing, transportation, local food and farming, and energy use, and is based on what 15,000 residents said about future growth in the six-county region. They said it during more than two years of unprecedented citizen participation, including dozens of well-attended workshops and input sessions, surveys, data crunching, ordinance review, and economic research. It describes a path to future growth that a remarkable 84 percent of our neighbors support, often very strongly.

If The Grand Vision becomes a reality, this report finds, many of Father Fred’s visitors will be more likely to find a path to the independence they seek.

That is because The Grand Vision calls for shifting land use and transportation investments away from rural lands and into existing cities and villages, and planning more housing opportunities there for all income levels. It calls for making those villages and cities more walkable, bikeable, and interconnected by a convenient, reliable public transit system, so that cars are much less necessary.

The Vision also calls for energy-efficient homes powered by renewable sources, and local food systems that make healthy food affordable and available for all.

A Vision for All
The Grand Vision, however, is just that—a vision, created by citizens. It is not a master plan or zoning ordinance. It has no regulatory authority or detailed implementation plan. While some see that lack of government authority as a flaw, many community leaders have another view. They are moving ahead, organizing within six new “Grand Vision Networks,” and forming strategies to turn vision into reality.

As these new networks propose changes to local master plans, zoning ordinances, tax policies, and transportation and food systems, Families on the Edge will remind them that people enduring poverty are depending on them to get it right.

In fact, we hope this report inspires the vulnerable and the comfortable to talk about what they can do together to improve everyone’s lives and prospects. As Families on the Edge demonstrates, those steps include:


  • Better zoning and incentives that build walkable communities and facilitate additional housing that’s more affordable for those with low-paying jobs—new teachers, public safety and hospitality workers, and young couples.

  • Better decisions on public transportation that ease the need for cars, save vulnerable families significant dollars, and provide reliable ways to get to work.

  • Local utility incentives and bond-based loan programs that help families tighten up their homes and drastically cut their energy bills.

  • Smart incentives, zoning ordinances, and business development assistance that shift the burgeoning local food movement into high gear, delivering better food not just to the region’s best restaurants and high-end grocery stores, but also to everyday people, at everyday prices, at every store, farmers market, and school in the region.

The people you will meet in Families on the Edge have real-life needs and dreams, opportunities and obstacles, and, right now, many more challenges than solutions. We hope you will come to understand just how many solutions the Grand Vision offers not just to the comfortable, but also to families in our region who are struggling against immense odds.

Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s managing editor. Reach him at jimdulzo@mlui.org.

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