Solving the housing crisis, starting at home
Hey, America . . . want to know how to solve some of our country’s most vexing problems? Stop by Hastings, Michigan, and notice how we don’t just sit around complaining and waiting for help. We get behind a good idea, roll up our sleeves, and get to work, knowing full well that, if we want something good to happen, we can do it ourselves.
We showed that last week, stepping up to address what may be the crisis most threatening to America’s future, the lack of affordable housing in every community in this land. When the Hastings City Council unanimously approved a property tax exemption package and a resolution in support of the Royal Coach Apartments last Monday, we showed the power of a community that takes care of its own.
The Royal Coach project will provide 73 apartments and 19 townhome-style dwellings on 8.2 downtown riverside acres previously owned by the Hastings Manufacturing Company. A big part of the development will be dedicated to providing homes for many in our community who are strapped for places to live.
That wonderful news followed the city’s acceptance of a proposal from the A.J. Veneklasen Co. of Grand Rapids for a four-story mixed retail and residential building on the former Moose Lodge property at 128 N. Michigan Ave. That project will include first-floor retail space and three floors of one-, two- and three-bedroom market rate-priced apartments and a 30-car parking garage on the ground floor.
This is just the beginning. With both of these projects getting the support of city officials – along with smaller but equally helpful projects underway or already rented in the downtown area -- Hastings is on its way to adding much-needed quality affordable housing. That’s the kind of momentum to which the entire country should be paying attention.
Lack of affordable housing, generally, and especially affordable housing for wage earners not able to keep up in an upwardly mobile economy benefiting the upper class, is akin to a forest fire in America. A recent national report on housing indicates a shortage of 7.2 million affordable and rental units for lower income people and calls for more investments by communities if we expect to solve the growing need.
“The lack of access to an affordable home has devastating long-term impacts on the lowest income families,” says Diane Yental, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “Affordable homes provide vulnerable families with the stability they need to thrive, to improve their health, education and economic outcomes. Housing instability increases the likelihood of job loss, eviction and homelessness, negatively affecting a family’s physical and mental well-being throughout their lives.”
The study indicates that 71 percent of low-income renter households spend, on average, more than half of their income on housing costs and utilities, putting more people at risk of becoming homeless. Most disturbing for communities like ours and for all residents who call Barry County home, is the experts' warning that getting major developers interested in investing in small towns has become even more difficult, especially when rents are half or more than half of what those developers and their investors are seeing in larger communities.
That’s why what’s happened here in Hastings in these past weeks and past few months is so important for any small community – and for the entire country. We’ve built a template of community development that may be the model for protecting America.
When local businessman Larry Baum bought the Royal Coach portion of property from Hastings Manufacturing, just across the river from City Hall and our public library in downtown Hastings, he razed one abandoned building and began cleaning up the site, but he discovered that finding the right partner to develop the property wasn’t going to be easy. After several years searching for the right developer, Baum decided to sell the property to the nonprofit Barry Community Foundation which had put together a proposal with a Wisconsin firm to take on the project.
The BCF, acting as Royal Coach Acquisitions LLC, purchased the property from Baum with the intention of then selling it to General Capital Corp. of Wisconsin which would then act as developer, marketer, and manager. The deal would return BCF’s initial incentive investment, would allow a profitable business opportunity for General Capital, and would make good on Baum’s original intent and the city’s efforts to solve the housing shortage.
“Baum was the heart and soul of this project,” said Ken Holbrook, president and chief executive officer of Hastings Manufacturing. “When I first came here, I saw the sign that said ‘Hastings on the Thornapple.’ Now we can celebrate and have something on the Thornapple that makes good sense for the city.”
General Capital’s plans call for renovation of the former Royal Coach building, with historical preservation as part of the design. It will raze the other abandoned buildings on the site to make way for two townhouse-style projects. The Royal Coach name derives from the 1890s when the site was used to manufacture parts for the furniture and auto industries.
Looking back now on these two momentous projects, we can document that the key to solving the housing problem is working with people who already reside in the community and who have a vested interest in seeing the community grow and prosper. The trick is getting everyone on board, providing the tools and incentives to make a project possible, and attracting the investors who see the need and are willing to invest in small towns.
That’s the formula Barry County was willing to embrace, bringing together the Baums, Hastings Manufacturing, city officials, the Barry Community Foundation and other investors to build a high-quality housing project along the Thornapple River that will attract people of all ages to find their new homes in downtown Hastings. Add to that the Veneklasen project for the former Moose property that will bring additional retail and housing along Michigan Avenue, and you have not only a community builder, you have a solution for struggling individuals and families hoping to find affordable housing near where they work and want to live.
Across the state, experts caution against a bleak picture for future homebuyers if nothing is done. Since 2012, the tight housing market we’ve experienced in recent years has driven up single-family home prices by as much as 70 percent statewide which has led to bidding wars, especially in sought-after neighborhoods.
“It’s going to validate what we’ve been saying for quite some time, which is that we are approaching a pretty significant housing crisis,” said Bob Filka, president of the Home Builders of Michigan. “Michigan is known for its housing affordability. That’s going to change if something doesn’t happen, and local communities are going to have to start working to find the housing investment they need.”
I’m proud that our community has prepared for such a crisis – and is responding to it in such an attractive way. The spinoff development to these recent project announcements is that, with the increase in apartments and townhouses, single-family residences will likely become available as homeowners sell their homes looking for the convenience of apartment or condo living. And with the focus on adding new housing downtown, it creates a more walkable community where residents can stroll to a local restaurant, do their shopping and reach those destinations without having to drive.
Plus, this type of planning will reduce land use and increase economic and tax benefits to the community. This isn’t some pie-in-the-sky dream – it’s moving forward and will become a reality because of the work of a number of committed citizens and some sensible polices of local government. Kudos to everyone who made it possible. We realized we had a problem, looked for solutions and put together a package that attracted investors who acknowledge that Hastings is a happening community.
Barry County is showing – to the entire country -- that it has just the qualities that individuals and families are seeking. Pay attention, America.
Fred Jacobs, CEO,
J-Ad Graphics Inc.