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Youth: The Amenity Next Door

Some well-off people want affordable housing on their block

February 26, 2006 | By Carolyn Kelly
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Hans Baker

When Tim Burden discovered an opportunity to include affordable housing in his new Traverse City neighborhood development, he jumped at it.

TRAVERSE CITY—Greg Piaskowski is a big fan of living downtown. That’s hardly surprising given the wealth of theaters, restaurants, shops, beaches, and bike trails nearby or the comforts of his three-story townhouse. What’s more surprising, however, is that one of his favorite “amenities” is something many people consider a nuisance: The neighbors.

More specifically, dozens of neighbors of different ages, professions, interests, and incomes, all living within the space of a few city blocks. That is because Midtown, the new neighborhood where Mr. Piaskowski lives, built by local developer Tim Burden’s Red Management, includes condos and townhouses that range from smaller lofts and studios to luxury condominiums with as many as four bedrooms, allowing families of different sizes and means to live there comfortably.

Mr. Piaskowski, who is 61 and directs the Area Agency on Aging, based in Traverse City, says that he has expanded his social circle as a result.

“Every time you make a move you enlarge your circle of friends,” he observed. “What I notice is that, because the housing type varies, there’s a lot of variation of people, which has given me some folks in my life with varied backgrounds.”

Midtown is relatively diverse because its developer, Mr. Burden, decided to make it that way. He served on affordable housing committees for about a decade and often discussed projects with Bill Merry, the executive director of Homestretch, a local agency that helps working families move into quality housing that they can afford. When Mr. Merry told him that Homestretch had received an $875,000 HOME grant from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority and that the organization wanted to use the money to purchase some Midtown townhouses and sell them to younger families at a lower price, Mr. Burden jumped at the opportunity.

Today eight of Midtown’s projected 70 units (about half are still under construction) are “affordable”—meaning a working family can afford them. After Homestretch’s investment, the first such townhouses sold for about $85,000, less than half the price of the other, luxury units in the development. It is an amount that beginning teachers, nurses, and police officers—people who often do not make enough money to live in the communities where they work—can afford.

An Energetic Mix
Mr. Burden said that he felt including affordable housing in his project was simply the right thing to do, and that having a mix of people there is actually a marketing asset: The first half of the project is completely built and virtually sold out

“Almost without exception people were enthusiastic about having younger people there,” he said of Midtown’s residents, who tend to be older or retired. “Younger families, parents and kids who could be with their grandchildren—Homestretch families are generally younger.” 

Sherry and Steve Constantine, a retired Midtown couple who settled in Traverse City after living in places as diverse as Houston, Tex., and Zurich, Switzerland, think that is just fine.

“Midtown was and is not an exclusive gated community,” said Ms. Constantine. “With St. Francis High School down the street and Central Grade School within walking distance, you see children and you see elderly folks—it’s a live community.”

The Constantines are part of a somewhat new wave of retirees who are living longer, healthier, and wealthier lives than ever before and don’t want to give up an interesting life when they leave their day jobs. They enjoy biking, walking, and going out. Many are moving to innovative downtown or neighborhood developments that reward walking with a plethora of nearby stores, professional services, and fun things to do. The move means they will spend less time on home maintenance and that, when they finally have to give up the car keys, they’ll still have a life.

Blending Youth with Wisdom
Then there are “retirees” like Don Coe, who retired from his previous job, launched an ambitious enterprise in adjacent Leelanau County, and now lives in Midtown. Mr. Coe, who is a partner in Blackstar Farms, a combination vineyard, winery, stables, and bed and breakfast, thinks Mr. Burden’s approach is just right.    

“Cities can’t be cool unless they have a mix of incomes, and a mixed demographic base,” said Mr. Coe, who is president of the Leelanau County Economic Development Corporation and a board member of the Traverse Bay Economic Development Corporation. “And you can’t do that without affordable housing and employment. We don’t want to become a retirement community for the rest of the state. There’s a decrease in excitement and vitality when we lose our young people.”       

And of true, help-your-neighbor community. In mixed-age settings, New Urbanists say, younger people might rake leaves or shovel snow for elderly neighbors, a middle-aged couple might advise a first-time homeowner about ice dams or good plumbers, and retirees might volunteer their time at the local elementary school. And then there’s good, old-fashioned socializing.

“For example,” said Ms. Constantine, “this morning we had an ice storm and the schools were closed. One of our neighbors is a teacher, and called up and said, ‘Why don’t we have soup together?’”

Barb Cooper, a local realtor who represented Midtown and now lives there, agreed with Mr. Burden that her neighbors overwhelmingly support affordable housing in their neighborhood.

“People embraced it,” she recalled. “Everyone knows that it’s hard to find housing, especially downtown. No one has said anything negative, and everyone agreed that that’s the best thing to do.”

A Premium Mix
There are communities sporting an intergenerational edge springing up in many locations across the country. Some of the most striking, if least affordable, examples are the almost 50 retirement communities linked with colleges and universities, including such notables as Stanford and the University of Michigan. Seniors live near campuses, take courses, attend performances, lectures, and cultural events, and even enjoy reduced rates at athletic facilities.

These retirees pay a hefty premium—an initial fee of $200,000 to $300,000 plus monthly rent and association fees is not uncommon—and developers are tapping into the market while schools work to cultivate a new, backyard base of loyal donors and alumni. Other retirees simply move to, or stay in, a college town to soak up the youthful atmosphere and cultural resources. The strong trend is just another indication that, as baby boomers head toward retirement, many will search for lively, mixed-age communities rather than geriatric ghettoes.

Even hot retirement areas like Florida are developing intergenerational retirement communities. For example, one company, USHOME, a Florida firm that specializes in building planned developments, is marketing intergenerational communities which offer a variety of single family homes, condominiums, twin villas, and manor houses designed to appeal to several generations. The company says these upscale developments—where wealthy seniors are paying to live near children, teenagers, and young and middle-aged professionals—are selling at a record pace.

And in the American West, conservative Utah residents embraced affordable housing—and its intergenerational mix—after a campaign by Envision Utah, a regional, blue ribbon “Quality Growth” organization, convinced metropolitan Salt Lake City residents that such housing, instead of still more suburban tracts, would make it easier for a family’s different generations to live nearby. The initiative trimmed minimum lot  and home sizes, mixes housing types, and provides incentives for developers to include affordable housing in their projects—all classic New Urbanist strategies for ensuring that people will not be isolated by age or income.

Even on a more modest level, longstanding national programs like “Adopt a Grandparent” point to seniors’ desire for close contact with children and high schoolers. The reason that such programs have endured so long, in so many places, with so many different variations, say experts, is that people actually need relationships that span generations.

Looking for Help
These trends all point back to one of the simplest ways to meet the need for intergenerational friendships and community: Building neighborhoods that house a wide variety of people by providing a wide variety of dwellings—townhouses, studio apartments, duplexes, and detached single family homes, along with the parks, sidewalks, and the different services people need at different stages of life.

It also means providing both owned and rented housing. Young couples starting families or paying off student loans as they start their careers need housing that fits a modest budget. And, because many young people move frequently, they need the flexibility of renting—which is usually more affordable, too.

But affordable housing and Smart Growth advocates say that, in order for developers to better serve this sizeable market, they need better policies and more help from local governments. Municipalities, they say, must make it legal to combine a wide variety of housing styles and sizes, both owner-occupied and rented, in the same neighborhood. And, they add, governments should embrace public policy tools that make incorporating affordable housing easier on the developer’s bottom line.

There are planning tools and financing techniques that can help. They include giving “density bonuses” to developers who include a certain percentage of affordable housing in their projects. The bonus—allowing more dwellings on the same amount of land—helps developers recoup some of the costs of providing some units at below-market rates.

Other ways to grow such neighborhoods, New Urbanists say, include local governments reducing fees for water and sewer hookups, streamlining paperwork, underwriting low-interest loans, and allowing “mixed-use” commercial development for companies that meet affordable housing goals. The key is to level the playing field so that developers don’t have to choose between “doing the right thing” and making a living.

Carolyn Kelly is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s associate editor. Reach her at Carolyn@mlui.org.

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