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Housing a puzzle we have to crack

Northeast Michigan, like many, many other places in the nation, has a very serious puzzle it has to solve: Housing.

As The News reported recently, Northeast Michigan lacks enough houses on the market to meet the demand, meaning some of our employers struggle to recruit workers from out of the area to move here and invest in our economy.

As News staff writer Julie Riddle reported last weekend, that housing shortage affects our lowest-paid workers hardest, with only about half as many available affordable houses as we need to put a roof over our poorest residents’ heads.

The puzzle has many pieces.

Among them, on the broader scope, huge chunks of our homes are tied up as seasonal or recreational homes such as hunting cabins or lake cottages. Because governments tax such second homes at a higher rate, that makeup helps our local governments’ coffers, which helps provide important services for seasonal and year-round residents alike. But it also means fewer homes available for renters or buyers who want to move here.

For our lowest-income residents, developers are reluctant to build new housing for low-income residents, which means low rents and a longer wait to recoup upfront investment. As well, government grants tend to go to bigger cities, leaving rural residents behind.

Policymakers have a number of solutions available to them. Local governments could limit the number of new seasonal homes allowed in their communities (though lawmakers in Lansing have moved to prohibit such rules). State and federal lawmakers also could invest in targeted grants to help the problem in rural areas.

No matter what government does, the private sector must be willing to take the chance to invest in new construction (though high costs for materials have slowed such investments) to meet the demand.

Unfortunately, with so many other issues on the table, from infrastructure to pandemic spending to immigration, housing hasn’t seemed to enter the broader conversation in Lansing or Washington.

It must. Housing is a puzzle we have to crack — and soon — for the good of our economies and our residents.

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