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Report highlights Michigan's housing shortages, especially in northern lower peninsula

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Many local officials across the state say their community is suffering from a housing shortage. Traverse City feels it especially hard.

Summer in Traverse City is officially underway. But while tourists head up north to enjoy the sights, locals are struggling to find housing.

As it turns out, this is a problem all across northwest lower Michigan, and to a lesser extent, throughout the state as a whole.

According to a report published Wednesday by the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan, 23 percent of local officials report a shortage of single-family homes state-wide. But in the northern lower peninsula, the numbers climb: about 30 percent of local officials say their community experiences a shortage of single-family housing, and 40 percent also think there's a shortage of multi-family housing.

Tom Ivacko, associate director of CLOSUP and one of the lead researchers of the report, said he isn’t really sure why northern lower Michigan’s housing supply is so short.

“It’s a bit surprising in some ways, because a lot of these small communities are losing population. Not just there, but you know, all across the state,” he said.

In Traverse City, officials think the shortage might be related to rising property values in the community and a lack of affordable options. Russ Soyring, the city’s planning director, said people who work in the downtown service industry are being priced out of their homes.

“If there's like a small chain of restaurants -- let's say they have like three restaurants in the area -- they're closing one or two of those stores because they can't get enough servers,” Soyring said.

Some restaurants aren’t opening their patios this summer because they’re so short-staffed, and Soyring wonders if this will start to effect the city’s tourism industry, too.

To remedy this, Traverse City is piloting a free bus system this summer for downtown employees who have found affordable housing a few miles out of town. Soyring said 170 people have signed up for the service so far.

The bus service is a start, but surely the problem will require bigger solutions, likely on the policy end. However, according to the report, 51 percent of local officials think their community’s policies are not to blame for their housing shortages.

Soyring counts himself among that group. He says Traverse City has made their policies more accommodating recently, changing their zoning regulations, and offering incentives in an effort to increase construction. And it hasn’t changed much. For now, Soyring and his colleagues in Traverse City will begin working with non-profits and continue to adjust zoning ordinances as they look for more effective fixes.

Ivacko told Michigan Radio he thinks local change will be important in fixing this problem, but agrees that it probably won’t be enough.

“Chances are, what local governments can do is only going to be relatively small part of a solution to what's going on out there. There's decent support for a range of actions that the state government can take too.”

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