Affordable housing in Glen Arbor? Some say it’s possible

Cherry Republic CEO Bob Sutherland (pictured on far left) is part of a county committee tasked with studying the issue of affordable housing.

By Linda Alice Dewey
Sun contributor

Skyrocketing land prices and high taxes have priced Glen Arbor out of the market for most service workers and working professionals like teachers and emergency medical workers. Over the past five years, we’ve lost countless professionals who have moved to other areas. But it’s not hopeless, say some.

“You know,” says Cherry Republic’s Bob Sutherland, who has recently been appointed to a 9-person county committee to study affordable housing around the county. “In other regions similar to ours, the cities, townships, and counties invest money in workforce housing. The local governments take on affordable housing. We don’t have to rewrite the book. There are already programs that exist that are used by other communities that we just need to replicate here to really tackle this problem.”

Former County Commissioner Bob Hawley agrees. “There are places around the country that have solved this problem,” he says, “but it takes an enormous amount of commitment, including government.”

Both men point to Colorado. “Our community is most similar to a ski community Out West, like Aspen or Vail,” continues Sutherland. “That community has worked hard to create workforce housing and programs. And really, the City of Vail has deed restrictions on the property that someone who lives there has to make [X] income or less and work in Vail.” Hawley agrees. “They have the same kind of economy we do,” he says. “They solved their problem. The whole community got together, and they built subsidized housing so that they could run their businesses.”

“There are programs,” says Sutherland, referring to government subsidy programs to create affordable housing. For instance, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) — funds the difference between the asking price for a piece of property and the price that will make it feasible to be developed to accommodate more affordable housing. “State and federal money go through that program,” he says. Sutherland is familiar with MSHDA, because his New Neighborhood development in Empire, sold four lots to Leelanau County. The County, says Trudy Galla, who heads the Leelanau County Planning Department, “used grant funds from the MSHDA for Acquisition, Development, and Resale (ADR funds). Using those funds, and construction funds we acquired from a local bank, the lots were purchased, homes were built, and then sold.”

Some residents in town may be concerned about “riffraff” who might move in through a subsidized program, but Sutherland says that safeguards can be built in so that won’t happen. “That’s the key,” he responds, “We can create windows. They have to work and make a certain income level … less than this or more than this.” His thought is to make such housing available to people in the middle income or even high-middle income bracket. “[W]e don’t have any place for someone who’s making $60,000 or $70,000 or $80,000 in this town, even the $40-$60,000 income person,” complains Sutherland. “Those are our teachers at Glen Lake; those are our fire chiefs, our firemen. You know what?” he asks. “The National Park! There’s not one person that works at the National Park that lives in Glen Arbor commons.”

When asked about citizens who are comfortable with things the way they are — Glen Arbor in the off-season is essentially a retirement community — Hawley describes his own situation. “I’m a retired person,” he says. “I’ve been here for 25 years and I like it the way it is, but I also have an understanding of what the business people are going through to staff their businesses, and I certainly understand what the schools are going through because we don’t have enough kids. In Suttons Bay and Leland, it’s dropped 25 percent in 10 years because young people with kids can’t live here. Those are the people who serve on the volunteer fire departments, teach Sunday school, the people that make a community. If you’re trying to make a community out of retirees…”

The problem is, Glen Arbor doesn’t meet prerequisites that would qualify a project here for MSHDA funding. “To build MSHDA, the federal subsidized program that is run through the state],” says Hawley, “you can’t build unless you have access to a sewer system — 99% of the county is septic.” Hawley goes on to explain, “I was on that group that studied the [Glen Arbor] sewer system for years. There was no place to build the actual treatment facility. The only place to put it is on National Park land. They’ve got all the real estate that would be appropriate for that system. There is no private property. The National Park Service wasn’t interested in pursuing it, because there’s nothing in it for them.”

Even so, it will take more than just the township pulling together for Glen Arbor to have affordable housing, says Hawley. “It’s going to take some kind of a subsidized system,” he admits. “There’s going to have to be government commitment, tax abatements, grant money, some method to keep housing affordable. When I was on the board [Hawley was on the county board of commissioners from 2000-2008], the county built a number of single family housing units, but the problem is that they don’t stay affordable.”

Hawley went on to describe the way the program works. “You get a government grant from MSHDA to build the house, sell it for $130K but it takes $200K to build, and MSHD makes up the difference. The person who buys the house can only sell it at an average basis of cost of living plus what [ever extra] they put in to it. It takes oversight to make that happen. We don’t have the kind of bureaucracy to do that. Traverse City, he says, is different. “Traverse City has a housing authority to do that. Maybe it takes a partnership with Traverse City to do that,” he says, thinking creatively. “It’s going to take a lot of people coming to the table to do that….

“Traverse City has also built an enormous number of apartments,” says Hawley. “I feel apartments are the answer. It’s going to take an awful lot of stakeholders to get together to make that happen. Anybody who wants to develop other than in the middle of the county, and I’m talking Cedar and Maple City, you’re in a resort area, where you can [make more on seasonal rates than your round renting].”

Hawley explained what it takes to qualify for MSHDA funds. “When you look at the guidelines, when you start looking at Leelanau County, when you look at what you have to do to get MSHDA involved — you need transportation. It needs to be within walking distance of a village or town — we don’t have very many [places like that]. You need a sewage system, a disposal system.”

Could MSHDA ease up on some of these requirements? “At this point,” says Hawley, “they have not even allowed group septic tanks. It’s a subject that probably is going to require not just local, but state and federal help of some kind. There’s lots of money out there for affordable housing.” He admitted that Leelanau County just doesn’t have things in place to qualify for it.

Hawley says there are a lot of challenges, and that it’s a complicated issue. “That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t stop trying,” he counters. “I don’t know if there is an answer,” he admits, “but I’m willing to keep my oars in the water.”

Our next edition examines one man’s dream for Glen Arbor — Paul Sutherland’s “Crystal Glen”.