SOUTH HAVEN — Sandy McComb likes living in this lakeshore community, but she’s afraid she may have to leave.
“My rent has gone up every year. I need some affordable housing,” she told South Haven city council members earlier this month during public comment.
McComb said she came to South Haven in 2011 after she retired.
“I thought it was a wonderful little town,” she said.
She found an apartment that her limited income could support, but her social security adjustments haven’t kept pace with the annual rent increases.
McComb is not alone in her concern over the cost of housing in the South Haven area.
Vikke Anderson lives in a large, older home in South Haven and rents part of it to three other people.
She said she’d prefer not to rent her home, but has found over the years that it has become more difficult for people living on social security to live in town.
“These people are low-income,” she said. “The average social security payment is about $1,000 a month. They cannot afford an apartment in South Haven.”
McComb and Anderson are among a growing number of South Haven area residents worried about the lack of affordable housing in the South Haven area.
It’s not a concern lost on the South Haven City Council and city administrators.
“It (affordable housing) sits on the top of our priority list,” Mayor Scott Smith said. “It continues to be an issue.”
But the tide could be starting to turn.
Two weeks ago, City Manager Brian Dissette and South Haven Township Supervisor Ross Stein met with a developer from Indiana interested in developing housing in the South Haven area.
“The good news is this is probably the 10th meeting I’ve had with outside developers who are looking at this area,” Dissette said. “What we’re telling them is South Haven city is only 3.5 square miles, but we have 20 square miles where we’re providing water and sewer and electric. We don’t care if you build in the city or township.”
But if one of the developers does decide to build housing in this area, would it be affordable dwellings or more high-end structures?
Determining what constitutes “affordable” would help, according to several city council members.
“If we can define what affordable housing means we might get a better handle on it,” council member Steve Schlack said.
According to Ryan Kilpatrick, executive director of the Ottawa County Housing Next program, a person’s income dictates what housing they can afford.
Kilpatrick traveled to South Haven a week ago to talk about the obstacles and solutions confronting lakeshore communities that are seeking to create more affordable housing.
In Van Buren County, the majority of residents make an average annual income of $50,000 or less. Yet, in the South Haven area, the median price for homes sold so far this year is about $246,000.
To deal with the disparity between people’s incomes and homes prices, Kilpatrick suggests that communities take a three-prong approach that involves increasing the supply of all housing; providing governmental support for developers who construct housing that meets demand; and strengthening partnerships throughout the community.
“Affordable housing is not a standalone issue,” he said. “It is connected in a larger context to economic development, jobs, education, transportation and community issues. However, affordable housing is the gateway to economic development and jobs. Without affordable housing, economic development will not be robust and jobs will not be available, meaning people have to drive further to work. It’s like a double jeopardy.”
But if people want affordable housing, they’re most likely going to have to settle for smaller dwelling units, something that was quite common at one time, Kilpatrick pointed out.
“In 1979, the average size house being built in the United States was 900 square feet with 4.8 people residing in that house,” he said. “In 2010, the average size house being built was 2,600 square feet with 2.2 people living in that house. What that means is the development dollars are going to build large homes resulting in even less affordable housing being available for people who need it.”
It also means that developers aren’t as interested in creating what has now become a shortage of rental housing, single-family housing, attached homes and other types of housing that would be considered affordable.
“This shortage has caused the price of the limited supply to increase rapidly, resulting in an even more serious problem,” Kilpatrick said.
To entice more development of affordable housing, Kilpatrick thinks cities need to look at their zoning ordinances to make sure the minimum lot requirements don’t discourage development of attached homes or other types of housing.
“Consider allowing for narrow lots with narrow houses,” he said. “Affordable housing should make for efficient use of space.”
But he issued a word of caution for lakeshore towns.
“Keep people who want luxury high end housing in that category,” Kilpatrick said. “Work to make sure you can support luxury housing because if you don’t, wealthy people will begin to move in to buy lesser cost housing and spend hundreds of thousands to improve that property. When that happens, you weaken the supply of middle income housing, resulting in price point pressure.”