Marquette Housing FAQs, Part 2: Housing is unaffordable. Why should we care?

DISCLAIMER: This blog is written by Marquette City Commissioner Evan Bonsall, who also serves as the Chair of the City of Marquette Ad Hoc Housing Committee. The views expressed in this blog are his own, and do not represent the views or imply the official endorsement of the Ad Hoc Housing Committee, the Marquette City Commission, or any of the individual members of the Ad Hoc Housing Committee or City Commission.

In Part 1 of this series, I explained why the City of Marquette’s Ad Hoc Housing Committee was created – a housing affordability crisis exists in Marquette, and it is getting worse every year. The median sale price of a single-family home has risen from about $175,000 in 2015 to $220,000 in 2020(i), and median rent rose 21% from 2015-2019 alone(ii). As a result, 1 in 6 Marquette homeowners and 55% of Marquette renters are “cost-burdened,” meaning they are forced to spend more than 30% of their income on housing(iii). For thousands of Marquette residents, homeownership is increasingly an unattainable dream – median incomes have risen 36% in Marquette County from 2000-2017, but during that same time period median home values rose 85% and home sale prices rose 68%(iv); the homeownership rate for Marquette residents ages 25-34 was just 8.9% in 2017, nearly 4 times lower than the national average of 34%(v); and there was mounting statistical and anecdotal evidence that young people and working-class families with children were leaving Marquette to find more affordable housing elsewhere.

However, some Marquette residents may look at these alarming statistics and not be very alarmed at all – they may see the rapidly rising cost of housing in Marquette and ask, “So what? Why should we care?” That is a big question, but in this blog post I will try to answer it as simply and objectively as I can.

Q: Why should we care that housing is unaffordable in Marquette? Why is that a problem?

A: Rising housing prices are not always a problem – in fact, they are often a sign of a healthy local community and a strong economy, and they allow many working-class families to build wealth through homeownership. However, when housing prices rise much more rapidly than inflation or local incomes (as is the case in Marquette), this can become a very serious problem for several reasons.

First, rising housing prices can effectively price people out of our community, especially (but not exclusively) young people and families with children. This has already been happening in Marquette for years, with the number of households with children declining by 7% from 2000-2010, meaning that for the first time in decades, families with children no longer represent the majority of households in the City of Marquette, even while the number of families with children has grown in neighboring communities like Negaunee (vi). Once they are gone, these residents may become rooted in other communities and never come back. Because our schools are mostly funded through state per-pupil funds which follow each child from school to school, this will mean less money for our already-underfunded public schools. It will mean fewer children using our City playgrounds and playing on our youth sports teams. It will lead to less vibrant neighborhoods and a decline in Marquette’s civic life, and because most entrepreneurs are young people (vii), it will mean less economic dynamism and less job creation. It will also make Marquette an increasingly unattractive place to go to school for cash-strapped NMU students, about 60% of whom live off-campus – this would not only hurt NMU (one of the largest employers in Marquette County), but our community as a whole.

Second, rising housing prices can hurt the local economy in the long run. Sure, the real estate industry might do great for a while and create some jobs in the short term, but eventually, if working-class people are priced out of Marquette, local employers will begin to find it harder and harder to hire qualified workers. This has already happened in peer communities like Traverse City, Petoskey, and Charlevoix, where rapidly rising housing prices have not only forced out low- and middle-income residents, but have also hurt local businesses (viii, ix). Having more people of all incomes living in the City of Marquette is better for the local economy. After all, who is more likely to shop downtown or buy gas or get their car fixed in Marquette – the person who lives within walking distance or a 5-minute drive of our downtown businesses, the gas station, or the auto shop, or the person who lives 30 minutes away in Ishpeming, which has its own restaurants, shops, gas stations, and auto mechanics? There is a lot of empirical evidence that allowing more people of all incomes to live closer to downtown districts increases foot traffic and revenue for local businesses (x), and that lower-income people actually spend a higher percentage of their income, with that money then circulating throughout the local economy. (xi)

Third, and this is just my personal opinion, making sure that Marquette is an inclusive, diverse, and welcoming community is just the morally right thing to do, and providing adequate affordable housing for people of all income levels is a vital part of achieving that goal. Rather than ask ourselves why we need affordable housing, we should ask ourselves whether we want to remain a community for everyone, or become a community only for those wealthy enough to live here.

Q: But aren’t these young people who want affordable housing just entitled?

A: It is understandable why some Marquette residents (especially those over a certain age) might feel this way. However, the short answer is no. Before accusing their younger neighbors of being “entitled” for wanting more affordable housing, Marquette residents should consider the following facts:

First, an often-overlooked fact is that young people are not the only Marquette residents who are struggling to pay rent or buy homes in our community. Many Marquette residents are retirees on limited incomes struggling to make rent or to maintain their homes. Many Marquette seniors are looking to downsize, some to smaller, more manageable owner-occupied homes, and others to rental units. In either case, Marquette seniors increasingly need housing that is both affordable and accessible, and ideally located within walking distance of basic amenities. As the Baby Boom generation ages and retires in the coming years, their housing needs will continue to grow and evolve, and to meet those needs we will need to expand the supply of affordable, accessible single-family homes and multi-family rental properties in Marquette, both through new construction and by renovating existing homes.

Nationwide, Millennials (i.e., people ages 25-39) are just as likely to be employed as previous generations were at the same age, and they work similar hours. Despite this, Millennials on average have slightly less accumulated wealth and lower incomes than Baby Boomers or Generation X did when they were the same age. They also have significantly more debt (mostly due to college loans), and are delaying marriage, homeownership, and having children until much later in life than previous generations partially due to these financial challenges (xii). The idea that Millennials are “lazy” or that they “don’t want to pay their dues” is false by any objective measurement.

As for Marquette, the median home sale price in the City of Marquette in 2020 was $220,000 – even after adjusting for inflation (xiii), that is 14% higher than in 2015 (xiv) and 100% higher than in 1985 (xv). In other words, aspiring Millennial homeowners in Marquette today have to pay twice as much for the same homes as their parents and grandparents did in the 1980s. Perhaps it is not surprising then that, as mentioned earlier, the homeownership rate among 25-34 year-olds in the City of Marquette is 4 times lower than the national average. Similarly, even after adjusting for inflation, median rent in the City of Marquette has risen 13% since 2015 (xvi) and 34% since 2000 (xvii). Health care, housing, and education costs have all risen far faster than incomes and inflation over the past 50 years (xviii), and inflation-adjusted median household incomes in Marquette County have actually declined slightly since 2000 (xix). In 1980, Michigan’s minimum wage was $10.42 per hour in 2021 dollars – today, it is $9.65 per hour, meaning that low-income Marquette residents are not only paying more for housing but are also earning slightly less to begin with (xx).

Q: Can’t these people just move out to the townships, Negaunee, Ishpeming, or Sawyer to find more affordable housing?

A: Yes and no. Housing has always been more expensive in Marquette than in the surrounding cities and townships in Marquette County, mostly due to a combination of our desirable lakeside location and the presence of NMU and the regional hospital. However, housing has not always been unaffordable for low- and middle-income people in Marquette, and housing prices have not always been rising so rapidly. And as was noted at a recent Ad Hoc Housing Committee meeting, moving out of town to find affordable housing may not remain an option for very long. For example, today housing is actually more expensive in Marquette Twp. than in the City (xxi); housing prices are already rising in Negaunee and Ishpeming due to out-migration of families from Marquette, with a modest $128,000 home in Ishpeming recently drawing 8 scheduled showings within 24 hours and a small modular home in Negaunee recently selling for $210,000; and Dennis Stachewicz, the City of Marquette’s Director of Community Development and a Forsyth Twp. resident, noted that nearly all of the housing at Sawyer that is fit for human habitation is already occupied, with some apartment complexes having long waiting lists and many homes in Forsyth Twp. selling or renting within days (xxii). Subsidized low-income housing in Marquette is no longer a realistic option either, with qualified applicants having to wait 6-12 months to get through the long waiting lists at Pine Ridge and Lake Superior Village (xxiii).

Finally, in my view, telling low-income and working-class folks (many of whom have lived and worked in Marquette for years) that they need to leave our community to find housing that they can afford is not a real solution – it’s a copout, a white flag of surrender, especially when there is so much more that the City could be doing to help make housing more affordable in Marquette. After all, why should the nurse, the teacher, the police officer, or the auto mechanic who works hard all day providing essential services to our community (usually for less pay than she deserves) not be able to afford to live and enjoy the fruits of her labor in the very community she serves? Rather than asking whether we should care about housing being unaffordable in Marquette, we should be asking what kind of community we want Marquette to be, and then take action to make that vision a reality.

Sources:

(i) “Neighborhood Report – Marquette, Michigan.” Upper Peninsula Assn. of Realtors and Stephanie Jones, Realtor. 8 Sep. 2020. Appendix B in Housing Committee Initial Report of Findings.

(ii) 2015 and 2019 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, U.S. Census Bureau.

(iii) 2019 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, U.S. Census Bureau.

(iv) “Housing Market Assessment – Marquette County.” Central Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Commission (CUPPAD), Dec. 2020, pp. 25.

(v) “City of Marquette Ad-Hoc Housing Committee Initial Report of Findings.” Ad Hoc Housing Committee, City of Marquette. 15 January 2021.

(vi) “2019 Five-Year Parks and Recreation Master Plan.” City of Marquette, Feb. 2019, p. 19.

(vii) “Young people are more entrepreneurial than ever – but challenges remain.” Centre for Entrepreneurs, 2021.

(viii) “High housing costs in Traverse City now hurting more industries in region.” VanHulle, Lindsay. bridgemi.com, Bridge Magazine, 15 August 2019.

(ix) “In Charlevoix and Petoskey, pricey housing leaves businesses without workers.” Beggin, Riley. bridgemi.com, Bridge Magazine, 28 August 2018.

(x) “Smart Growth and Economic Success: The Business Case.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Nov. 2013.

(xi) “Keeping up with basic needs: spending patterns over the past 30 years.” Boone, Graham. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, July 2016.

(xii) “Millennial life: How young adulthood today compares with prior generations.” Bialik, Kristen and Richard Fry. Pew Research Center, 14 May 2020.

(xiii) CPI Inflation Calculator, bls.gov, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

(xiv) “Neighborhood Report – Marquette, Michigan.” Upper Peninsula Assn. of Realtors and Stephanie Jones, Realtor. 8 Sep. 2020. Appendix B in Housing Committee Initial Report of Findings.

(xv) Closser, Bruce (retired appraiser). Cited in “Real Estate Boom and CBD Sales,” Cabell, Brian. wotsmqt.com, Word on the Street, 5 April 2019.

(xvi) 2019 and 2015 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, U.S. Census Bureau.

(xvii) 2000 U.S. Census, U.S. Census Bureau.

(xviii) “Millennial life: How young adulthood today compares with prior generations.” Bialik, Kristen and Richard Fry. Pew Research Center, 14 May 2020.

(xix) “City of Marquette Ad-Hoc Housing Committee Initial Report of Findings.” Ad Hoc Housing Committee, City of Marquette. 15 January 2021, p. 11.

(xx) “State Minimum Wage Rate for Michigan.” fred.stlouisfed.org/series/STTMINWGMI, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, 2021.

(xxi) “Region Dashboard: Borealis Beach.” mqtcoplan.org, Planning Division, County of Marquette. 2019.

(xxii) City of Marquette Ad Hoc Housing Committee Meeting, 9 February 2021.

(xxiii) Marquette Housing Commission presentation, Marquette City Commission meeting, 8 February 2021.

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