Ideas to Consider #12 – Housing Affordability

Throughout West Michigan there is an ongoing conversation about the increasing cost of housing, and what to do about it.  

From what I am reading, housing costs are increasing for several factors:

  • Rising commodity prices for items such as lumber, OSB, shingles, copper, et cetera
  • Low interest rates which drive down monthly payments
  • Limited workforce availability
  • Limited supply of available units

Of these four issues, local policy can influence the last two:  limited workforce availability and supply of available units.  Currently, limited workforce availability is something that the education community, workforce development agencies, unions, and the State of Michigan are working on diligently through aggressive marketing, communicating job opportunities, and their associated good wages.  I see an increasing number of students interested in the construction trades, and believe that West Michigan Works, Kent ISD, and the Ottawa Area ISD (among others) are doing a wonderful job promoting the trades and demonstrating the career opportunities available.

In terms of the limited availability of housing units, this is a clear policy issue that currently rests in the hands of local planning commissions and elected township, city and village boards.  State law permits townships, cities and villages to create zoning ordinances which regulate what type of housing can be constructed and where it is allowed.  Zoning ordinances also regulate commercial, industrial and agricultural land use.  All of the zoning ordinances must comply with state and case law, which provides some limitations for local units of government.  But there is significant freedom for local units to craft their own zoning solutions.  

In the City of Holland, the Planning Commission has been working on a rewrite of its zoning ordinance which would permit different types of housing units within its traditional residential zoning.  Options like adding smaller cottages on larger lots, apartments above garages, and/or basement units like ones promoted on HGTVs Income Property.  The Planning Commission and local housing advocates argue that traditional single-family housing development does not meet the needs of today’s consumers.  Families are not necessarily two parents, four kids and a Golden Retriever which require a minimum square footage requirement of 2500 square feet.  They can now be a single dad with a daughter and shitzu who need 1200 square feet.  Or grandparents that want privacy, but also want to support their daughter’s family by living in an attached unit.  Or newlyweds that wants to build an apartment over their garage to help cover the mortgage and provide reasonable housing for a college student, single adult, or senior resident until a time they are ready to use that space for a home office.

The pushback from some existing residents has been significant.  Yard signs say ‘No to Rezoning’.  Letters to the editor in the local paper claim that property values will decrease.  Another letter stated that they moved to Holland to get away from the terrible density of Chicago.  Recently, a letter noted that 1300 units are currently under construction in Holland to meet the housing demand so why make zoning ordinance changes that increase density and permit more rental units.  Moreover, the Holland Sentinel reported on February 18, 2021 that the Holland Planning Commission is considering revising changes to the rewrite to ensure incremental progress rather than having the proposed changes all lost.

Personally, I think the discussion about zoning ordinances, the type of housing needed, and what is permitted where is long overdue.  Additionally, the push-pull of the discussion is healthy if done well.  There is a need for a robust discussion about zoning practices, their impact on costs as well as clarity in purpose on why changes are or are not needed.  This is small ‘d’ democracy in action.  However, the problem is that the discussion is limited to ‘Holland’ because frankly what does Holland mean?  

Does it mean the City of Holland?  Or the City plus Holland Township and Park Township which together are commonly referred to as the northside.  Or what about Laketown Township, the City of Zeeland and/or Zeeland Township which are adjacent to the City of Holland and the northside communities?  Together they make up the Macatawa Area Coordinating Council (MACC) which is the regional metropolitan transportation area and in sum about 100,000 people.  And don’t transportation systems and patterns along with zoning have a symbiotic relationship with one another?   

By the way, where are the 1300 units under construction in ‘Holland’ that was referred to in the letter to the editor?  By eye-sight, I would suggest that the majority of them are in Holland Township whose population is larger than the City of Holland, and has its own planning commission and elected board.  Further, many of these proposed units will be in large apartment complexes rather than dispersed among a larger geographic region.  If history is a guide, they will become hot spots for police calls and the outside investors will not maintain them nearly as well as those that call West Michigan home.

One of the realities in Michigan is that there are over 1200 townships, 270 cities and 250 villages each with its own ability to create zoning ordinances.  This creates a haphazard pattern of development that does not promote cohesive land use patterns, limits the ability for productive agriculture, and basically creates a NIMBYISM (Not in my Back Yard) mentality.

My idea to consider for today related to Housing Affordability is this:  Local elected officials need to have the courage to jointly create regional zoning ordinances with robust public engagement.  

In the greater Holland area, I don’t think people want more 120th Avenue and 136th Avenue Apartment Complex development.  I don’t think people want traditional ‘duplexes’ either.  They want creative solutions to housing affordability that maintain architectural character, natural amenities, and connections to neighbors.  I think that can be accomplished through unique market-oriented solutions if zoning regulations become more flexible.  It’s time for leaders to lead together for the benefit of the 100,000 people that live in greater Holland and expand the conversation beyond the City of Holland geography.


One thought on “Ideas to Consider #12 – Housing Affordability

  1. Dar Baas says:

    Hi Matthew. Thanks for your insight in this. Interestingly enough, two of my three boys went into the trades… with my encouragement. For way too long, the message if having to go to college was oversold as the viable career path. Many college grads, now with debt and mediocre jobs should have chosen trades and manufacturing. Obtain the training and credentials… you’ll do well. Doesn’t mean a four-year degree.


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