City of Marquette’s Ad-Hoc Housing Committee releases final report

Work continues on the Gaines Rock Townhomes in the city of Marquette. (Journal photo by Ryan Spitza)

MARQUETTE — While the city of Marquette’s homeless population remains steady, so does the influx of luxurious condos going up along the lakeshore.

Homeless people are aided by efforts through local nonprofit Room at the Inn. Low-income housing is available through organizations such as the Marquette Housing Commission. Meanwhile, private developers continue to build housing units beyond the budget of the average city resident.

So, where’s the middle ground? That’s exactly what the city’s Ad-Hoc Housing Committee has attempted to figure out since its inception in January 2020.

The committee recently approved its final report in a unanimous vote at its June 8 meeting. The 200-page document is now available for viewing on the city’s website and highlights the local housing crisis and potential solutions in great detail.

Is it fair to say that Marquette has a housing crisis? Absolutely, according to Ad-Hoc Housing Committee Chair and Marquette City Commissioner Evan Bonsall.

“It’s definitely fair to call it a crisis,” he said. “We’ve seen significant increases in both sale prices for owner-occupied homes as well as median rent for rental units. There are a lot of reasons for that, there are a lot of factors that go into that, but the most fundamental problem is that for many years now, probably at least 10 years or more, there’s been very little new construction of more affordable or mid-range housing units. There’s been very little new construction of housing in general in the city — the new construction that has occurred, for example, some in south Marquette and some along the lakeshore — has really been almost exclusively luxury housing. Housing that’s at the high end of the market.

“So, those folks who are more middle-income or lower-income are left with fewer and fewer options in the city of Marquette.”

Which is exactly why the committee was formed, Bonsall added.

“The Ad-Hoc Housing Committee was created in January of 2020,” he said. “We held our first meeting in March of 2020, and I was elected the chairperson of the committee at that time. We had a pretty diverse range of community members on the committee. We had a landlord, a developer, a realtor, but we also had everyday community members of various ages, we had people who had been in the community for their whole life, and we had people who were relative newcomers to the community. We had strong representation from the Marquette Housing Commission, we had a board member from the Marquette Housing Commission on the committee and we also had a non-voting ex officio member, Sharon Maki, who’s the (executive) director of the Marquette Housing Commission, so we had that low-income housing perspective.

“We met once and then COVID happened. After that, we didn’t meet for a few months but we eventually were able to start meeting virtually and then met on a monthly basis. Sometimes we would hold two meetings in a month between August of 2020 and June of this year.

“In January, we released an initial report, which was really a polished draft. ‘This is what we’re working on, let’s solicit some community feedback, some feedback from the (city) commission.’ We listened to that feedback and we also held additional meetings. We held one-on-one interviews with different stakeholders and experts. We invited many experts and stakeholders in the community with special knowledge about housing to give presentations at our meetings, and we also listened to public feedback and feedback from the (city) commission. Taking all of that together, we were able to produce this final report which was unanimously approved in an 8-0 vote on June 8 and published on the city website a few days later.”

The eight-person Ad-Hoc Housing Committee was comprised of Bonsall, Dennis Smith, Jackie Stark, Antonio Adan, Robert Chapman, Mark Curran, Stephanie Jones and Wayne Premeau. The committee received additional support and contributions from city department heads, city staff and many organizations across the Upper Peninsula who deal with housing in one way or another.

“We did consult a lot of people and you can see that reflected in the report,” Bonsall said. “We really, I think, have addressed this issue of housing affordability in a very comprehensive way. That’s addressing needs of different populations in the community as well as different issues that are related to housing affordability, like sustainability and physical accessibility in housing and things like that.”

“Affordable housing,” “low-income housing” and “workforce housing” are three terms the committee clearly identified and touched on throughout the report.

The report defines “affordable housing” as “housing is considered ‘affordable’ for a particular household if that household spends 30% or less of their gross household income on all housing expenses.”

“Low-income housing” is defined as “housing that is affordable for households earning less than 80% of the Area Median Income in the city of Marquette.”

“Workforce housing” is defined as housing that is affordable for households earning 80% to 120% of the area median income in the city of Marquette.

The city’s current area median income is $43,977, according to the report which cites 2019 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The report also states that the median home value in the city is $220,000, a higher number than Marquette County ($195,000) and the state ($209,000).

Three main takeaways Bonsall mentioned are increased cost of living, low vacancy rates and overflowing demand for low-income housing units.

“Median sale price and median rent are going up; vacancy rates are quite low and there’s a clear correlation between the volume of housing that’s available and the price; and the Marquette Housing Commission properties (Pine Ridge Apartments and Lake Superior Village) and most private low-income housing properties are 100 percent full right now,” he said. “At Pine Ridge, they’re 100 percent full and if you’re a well-qualified applicant, you’re looking at probably six to 12 months on the waiting list. For a housing choice voucher, the waitlist is incredibly long, probably years long. That certainly identifies the need for more low-income housing.

“The main problem, as we discussed before, is that in Marquette, we have a shortage of both affordable owner-occupied single family homes and affordable rental units. We have a shortage of both middle-income workforce housing and low-income housing. We just don’t have enough housing units in Marquette to meet the needs of the community, and we don’t have enough of the right kinds of housing units in Marquette to meet the needs of that.”

Other notable statistics in the report highlight the fact that more than 51% of city residents rent their homes rather than owning them. Over a four-year period from 2015 to 2019, the city’s median monthly rent rose by 24.1% from $655 to $795. Approximately 54.2% of renters in the city spend more than 30% of their household income on rent alone.

Only 48% of the city’s housing stock is owner occupied, a significantly lower number than the county, state and U.S. The report states that median monthly housing expenses for homeowners with a mortgage were $1,298 in 2019, and that 20.9% of homeowners in the city spend more than 30% of their household income on housing.

So what can be done to find “missing middle housing?” The issue can’t be solved overnight, but the report outlines five recommendations for the city to review: defining the city’s role in affordable and missing middle housing, reviewing and updating city policies and codes, seeking partnerships with local organizations and agencies, community engagement, and implementation.

“As far as how we actually create more affordable housing, there’s not going to be any silver-bullet solution to this problem,” Bonsall said. “It’s a problem that the city can’t solve on its own. We don’t have the financial capacity to do so, and the city is certainly not looking to spend taxpayer dollars out of the city’s general fund or to become a landlord or anything like that, but we’re going to need to use all of the tools we have available to us at the city of Marquette and we’re going to need to look forth with all of the potential community partners we can, whether they’re private developers, various public entities, other local units of government, state government, taking advantage of federal and state grant programs that exist … so we’re going to have to tackle this issue from multiple directions.”

Bonsall touched on zoning, Brownfield Tax Increment Financing (TIF) and community partnerships as the three recommendations he feels are most vital.

“We have several recommendations that pertain to zoning,” he said. “So making accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and duplexes a permitted use in all of the residential districts in Marquette, allowing cottage courts as a special land use, adjusting lot sizes and parking requirements to reflect actual needs that help make it easier to develop some of those missing middle housing types, the ADUs, the duplexes, the cottage courts and the small single-family homes, so that’s No. 1 in zoning reform.

“No. 2 would be using Brownfield TIF and surplus city land specifically for affordable and workforce housing development. This would be in partnership with a public or private developer. It would be the city doing that development unilaterally on its own. That would also give us leverage to require a guarantee of what the price points in these units would be and also have some sort of guarantee for long-term affordability. The important point on that second one is with the Brownfield TIF and the city land, we’ve already done this to help facilitate market rate luxury residential development along the lakeshore and at Founders Landing and in other places in Marquette. All the committee is proposing is that we do the exact same thing, except we meet the needs of middle-income and lower-income residents in the community who are struggling to find affordable housing in Marquette. This is not some kind of unprecedented thing that we’re asking. The city hasn’t done this specifically for affordable housing before, but we have done it for market rate, higher-end housing. There’s maybe a distinction there, but it’s a distinction without a difference really.

“No. 3, there are a lot of recommendations in there about working with community partners like Marquette County Land Bank, like the Marquette Housing Commission, to take advantage of different opportunities that exist that the city couldn’t necessarily take advantage of on its own. For example, one opportunity that exists is the new modular housing construction techniques. They can build very high quality units very quickly and very affordably in a way that really wasn’t possible even a few years ago, and that could be potential means to working with a private developer or Marquette County Land Bank, who have experience doing modular housing development. Modular housing construction could be an opportunity to meet both the need for more affordable owner-occupied units and potentially more affordable rental units as well. Another example would be state and federal grants and other housing programs that might exist out there that we could take advantage of. The city, county and other local municipalities have all received large amounts of money from the federal government recently with the ARP (American Rescue Plan) funding. Affordable housing is an eligible expense for that money. There are other grants and programs that exist out there like the low-income housing tax credit. There are opportunities that would become available to the city when we get certified as a redevelopment-ready community. We could take advantage of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, the Michigan Strategic Fund and other things like that.”

At its regular meeting on Monday night, the City Commission voted unanimously to formally accept the committee’s final report. Now, it’s up to the city to implement the recommendations.

“This is the end of the beginning, it’s not the end of this process,” Bonsall said. “Community engagement is going to be critical moving forward. The City Commission needs to have public discussions and hold public hearings at public meetings about this report and about the recommendations in it. Some of these recommendations could be implemented very quickly. Others are going to require significant public input and planning and could be modified and could take years to implement.

“But the important thing is that we start now with that process, and that we don’t just take this report and put it on a shelf or say ‘OK, now we need to take another year and a half to just gather community input and do nothing else,’ we need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. We need to start implementing some of these recommendations in the near future while also engaging the community, educating the community, listening to the community and having discussions amongst ourselves in public meetings as commissioners.

“I know at some point we will consider adding this report as an appendix or an amendment to the Community Master Plan, and I’m sure that housing affordability and housing needs broadly, as well as the specific recommendations of this report, are going to be significant topics of discussion as we create the two-year strategic plan for the city of Marquette in the next couple of months, and over the next year as we create the next Community Master Plan which would cover a five-year period.

“Incorporating these recommendations into those plans would be critical, and also of course, the ball is really in the City Commission’s court. The ball is in the court of some other appointed boards in the city of Marquette. So the City Commission and the planning commission and the Marquette Housing Commission and other city entities are going to have to start having conversations about these recommendations and decide how to implement them.”

Other commissioners expressed their gratitude for the committee’s effort.

“I would like to just thank the committee for all of the hard work that they did to present this report,” Commissioner Jessica Hanley said. “It is amazing the information I found in it, and I’m very excited to start working towards meeting some of these recommendations that they’ve put forth.”

“I know this is the first step that the commission is taking in official action … recognizing the report and the efforts as they’ve been finalized,” Mayor Jenna Smith added.

“We will continue to have discussions on the recommended items through strategic planning, community master planning and maybe some additional measures as well.”

Bonsall finished by encouraging the public to take a look through the report on the city’s website and also thanked the Ad-Hoc Housing Committee for its hard work throughout the process.

“I’m very pleased with the final report,” he said. “I feel like we have a very forward-thinking, progressive final report here which is going to offer real solutions to this very serious problem that we’re facing in Marquette. I would absolutely encourage the public to read the report. It’s available if you go to the city of Marquette website and it’s right there on the homepage. There’s a clearly labeled link that will take you to the Ad-Hoc Housing Committee’s webpage where you can view the report, you can download it. The initial draft of the report that we released in January is also still available, so I would at least encourage everybody to read. It’s a couple hundred pages long with all the appendices, but what I think is important to note is really the meat of the report is in that first 20 pages. That first 20 to 25 pages, you can get all of the really important content, all of the recommendations, and the summary of all of the information that we received. Then if you want to dive deeper, feel free to do so. But I would encourage everyone to at least read through that first 20 to 25 pages and also … reach out to the City Commission. Reach out to me, reach out to my colleagues on the commission. Make your voice heard, whether it’s through an email or through public comment at a City Commission meeting or just messaging somebody on Facebook.

“As far as the committee goes, we had a fantastic group of people. We had a variety of viewpoints. We had some contentious debates and discussions, but ultimately, the important thing to note is that we all came together at the end and voted unanimously to approve this report. I think that’s even more impressive when you consider that the recommendations in this report are ambitious, they are recognizing the severity of the problem we’re facing with housing affordability, and if fully implemented, I think the recommendations in this report are going to go a long way towards helping make sure Marquette remains a place that’s affordable to live for people of all incomes.”

The full report can be viewed at www.marquettemi.gov/adhochousingcommittee/.

Ryan Spitza can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. His email address is rspitza@miningjournal.net.


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