Photo by Paul Kapischka

The House Hunters

Where will people live?

On my journey to pick up lunch, I pass help-wanted sign after help-wanted sign. Employers can’t find workers—more evidence that the housing pinch is being heard and felt from every corner of our community. A week doesn’t go by without another local headline about the struggle to find housing and workers in the Traverse area. With so many compounding factors limiting what can be built, rented, or sold, businesses and communities will have to get creative to make a dent in affordability and supply. If not, we risk losing our region’s greatest asset—our people.

Businesses in and around Traverse City were struggling to attract workers even before the pandemic craziness that was 2020. Liz Lancashire, general manager of Fustini’s, remembers telling an applicant a few years ago to call back once she got housing sorted out. “They were trying to secure the job first, and I had to break it to them that housing was going to be their biggest issue,” Liz said.
 
In the years since, the housing market has only grown fiercer. With cost and competition for local housing at an all-time high, employers are worried and say that it could be even more difficult to attract employees this summer than last.

Liz remembers a time when things were different. “It’s no longer possible for a group of college kids to come for the summer and rent a house together. Those options don’t seem to exist,” she says.
 
If they are short-staffed this summer, many businesses may have to reduce hours of operation to avoid employee burnout. Short staffing might even force businesses to put expansion plans on hold.
 
recent Ticker article about the region’s aging population explained there is great need for senior care housing and services but due to the lack of regional housing and daycare options, it’s difficult to attract the younger workforce that is needed to support that growth.
 
Limited housing supply also means that a business can lose a valued teammate when that person’s living arrangement falls through unexpectedly. That’s something that can happen when a landlord decides to change a property to short-term rental or sell the home. 
 
When that happens, people are left with making hard, stressful decisions. “Do I find a place to live an hour from work and commute? Can I even afford the fuel prices?” or “Do I accept a lease I can barely afford and work extra hours at my job(s)?” or finally, “Do I pack my bags and leave the community I enjoy?”
 
Many people already commute to Traverse City for work from towns 20+ miles out (I’m one of them, I too couldn’t find a home closer to the city). Since not everyone has the same access to a vehicle due to legal, physical, or financial barriers, it’s important that we support public transportation to outlying villages. That, too, is part of the housing solution.
 
As a community, we should work to reduce our collective time spent behind the wheel. More housing near downtown means less traffic congestion and less farmland being paved over—protecting watersheds from runoff and the air from car exhaust.
 
So, how can we expand housing options for our workforce?