Last month Kalamazoo’s City Commission cut down their lot size requirements in several residential areas. Notably, these amendments weren’t done in the name of permitting anything “new” in those neighborhoods—but to support and reinforce what’s already there and remove some headaches from residents.

These lot size amendments, one piece of the city’s “neighborhood zoning repair” work, are a great example of incremental code reform, and one that’s worth a look for any community with older residential areas, where overly restrictive zoning ordinances add burden to maintaining the traditional neighborhood fabric.

I had the chance to help Kalamazoo with this effort, through the League’s work in support of MEDC’s Redevelopment Ready Communities program: for the zoning and GIS enthusiasts in the audience, I’ve included some short methodology notes to help get you started with your own analysis.

These tree-lined streets of front porches and sidewalks are an important part of neighborhood sense of place. Too bad so many of them have been made illegal through zoning.

These tree-lined streets of front porches and sidewalks are an important part of our cities’ neighborhoods. Too bad so many of them have been made illegal through zoning.

The annoyance tax of mismatched residential zoning

Many of our favorite traditional neighborhoods predate the widespread use of zoning: Michigan’s first city and village zoning enabling act was in 1921, and the township zoning enabling act didn’t come until 1943. During the home construction boom that followed World War II, communities adopted zoning ordinances that reflected the current practices of the time—applying them broadly and bluntly not just to new subdivisions, but also to the neighborhoods that already existed, where they were”¦not a great fit.

A 1950s ranch home with a private driveway from the street needs a 50- or 60-foot-wide lot, where a 1920s two-story home with alley access or a shared drive can fit comfortably on a 40- or 45-foot-wide lot, for example. But apply that new 60-foot expectation to the older neighborhood as a legal minimum, and suddenly you’ve rendered wide swaths of homes non-conforming. While an “existing non-conforming” lot, structure, or use can be continued in perpetuity, the ongoing mismatch creates friction for the residents of that older neighborhood.

Non-conforming status can make it harder or more expensive to get a mortgage, or home insurance, or a home improvement loan—because the bank or insurer wants to know the lot will still be usable if the house burns down. Even where the local ordinance provides an escape clause (e.g. that any existing lot under residential zoning can be used for a single-unit house), buying or refinancing that historic house can require extra documentation of that fact.  Setbacks or lot coverage requirements might still make rebuilding challenging, as well as limit opportunities for additions, decks, garages, or other improvements. My friend David, a Realtor, refers to systemic hurdles like these as “annoyance taxes” that accumulate and subtly discourage people from living in these neighborhoods or from investing too much money or energy into their homes.

Where zoning renders the typical parcel "too small" for a home, houses destroyed by neglect, fire, or other catastrophe are hard to replace, leaving gaps in the neighborhood.

Where zoning renders the typical parcel “too small” for a home, houses destroyed by neglect, fire, or other catastrophe are hard to replace, leaving gaps in the neighborhood.

Kalamazoo’s neighborhood zoning repair

As part of Kalamazoo’s neighborhood-by-neighborhood planning efforts, the city’s planning staff has been looking for “zoning repair” needs—where the zoning doesn’t match the existing neighborhood context, and the existing neighborhood is valued as it is. When the League performed a “zoning stress test” for the city (as part of Kalamazoo’s Redevelopment Ready Communities technical assistance support from MEDC), I took a deep dive the zoning ordinance’s lot standards for the Edison Neighborhood, where local staff had identified repeated friction between the requirements and the existing neighborhood fabric. They then extended this approach to other neighborhoods which shared this challenge to finalize their recommendations to the City Commission.

First, I looked at lot sizes, finding that two-thirds of the residential parcels in the neighborhood were “too small” under the existing zoning. In parts of the neighborhood, every home on every block sat on a non-conforming lot, because of the lot sizes used in the initial plat.  In other areas, century-old lot splits created more scattered non-conforming parcels. (Using GIS, I selected all parcels within a given district, then did a “select by attribute” on those parcels to identify lots with areas below their zoning district’s minimum, and set a non-conforming flag for those; then repeated this for each other district.)

Before the update of lot size requirements, two-thirds of residential parcels in Edison were below the minimum lot area for their zoning district.

Before the update of lot size requirements, two-thirds of residential parcels in Edison were below the minimum lot area for their zoning district.

The next step was to test a few new lot size thresholds to see what would bring the zoning into compliance with neighborhood patterns, and suggest some revised minimums that would fix most problems, leaving only a few outliers that might need separate solutions. (This repeated the above process using a few different test lot areas and flagging each parcel for the lot size threshold that would make that parcel conforming. For simplicity, I used thresholds that were already in use within the zoning ordinance, either as some other district’s minimum or as a per-unit minimum in districts that allowed duplexes.)

Green-striped and red-striped parcels would be made conforming by lowering lot size requirements by different degrees.

Green-striped and red-striped parcels would be made conforming by lowering lot size requirements by different degrees.

Moving on from lot area, I next looked at lot width: again, over half the homes in the neighborhood sat on parcels that were “too narrow” under the existing zoning, having been platted for smaller lots. (If you have a parcel layer that includes a frontage or width attribute—possibly from assessing data—you can filter on this; without this, or in the case of irregularly shaped lots, you may need to approximate by drawing bounding boxes around your parcels and then filtering on the widths of those.)

The 60-foot minimum lot width of the R-5 district made nearly every Edison parcel in that district non-conforming.

A 40-foot minimum lot width fits the neighborhood's original pattern much better. (Apologies for color scheme change; few enough reds left they were hard to see!)

A 40-foot minimum lot width fits the neighborhood’s original pattern much better. (Apologies for color scheme change; few enough reds left they were hard to see!)

As applied, in Kalamazoo and in your community

Kalamazoo’s staff repeated my analysis for a few other neighborhoods to calibrate the thresholds, as shown in their presentation to the Planning Commission. The City Commission adopted a package of lot size and coverage amendments at the end of January. While significant, as the staff memo notes, these are not the last word on these neighborhoods, but a temporary patch: “These amendments are intended to relieve the pressure of the large quantity of nonconforming lots that exist throughout while City staff work to thoroughly update all the residential zoning districts in the first half 2019.”

Kalamazoo staff created this amazing overlay of a 1958 Sanborn fire insurance map on a current aerial photo of part of the Northside neighborhood, showing how much of the historic neighborhood pattern had been lost over time.

Kalamazoo staff created this amazing overlay of a 1958 Sanborn fire insurance map on a current aerial photo of part of the Northside neighborhood, showing how much of the historic neighborhood pattern had been lost over time.

In some neighborhoods, this ongoing work might mean additional tweaks; in others, more significant changes to the zoning might be needed to bring it in line with the neighborhood’s vision and plans. In general, these lot size amendments won’t bring any dramatic changes to Kalamazoo’s neighborhoods—where they enable new homes to be built on vacant lots, they will be reinforcing the built patterns already in the neighborhood. What they will do is peel away one layer of annoyance tax from residents already living there, an important piece of enabling people to love where they live.

Kalamazoo isn’t alone in facing this challenge—Muskegon also recently reduced the lot size requirements in some neighborhoods to better fit the existing neighborhood patterns. Not coincidentally, fixing out-of-scale lot requirements is the #1 recommendation for neighborhood form in the User’s Guide to Code Reform that we produced with CNU and MEDC. Both Kalamazoo and Muskegon provided input to that project about their code hurdles, and I used an early draft of the Guide to target my work with Kalamazoo.

While the GIS analysis certainly provides attractive maps, there are certainly ways to take on this zoning repair activity without it. For example, in smaller areas, comparing the minimum lot size in the zoning ordinance to the original plat map for a traditional neighborhood is an easy step. The plat will include lot widths and depths that can be used to quickly compare a “typical” parcel’s size to the zoning ordinance’s minimums.  Alternately, just looking for any place your zoning ordinance applies a 60-foot minimum lot width or 6,000 square foot minimum lot area to a neighborhood built pre-World War II is a good indicator that you have an issue.

Okay, you’re right. It costs the earth to build new in Michigan or do a significant rehab. But don’t immediately rush to load up the U-Haul and venture off to cheaper climes. All is not lost. The summers are too good here in Michigan, our quality of life is outstanding, we have some of the most highly rated universities in the country, and you’ll really want to hold onto your stake here once you read up on climate change. If you do your research, you’ll also find that it’s not necessarily any less expensive in most places elsewhere. At least for locations that folks might want to choose, and in many cases, you’ll find that costs of living are higher.

Now that we have examined some of the underlying factors contributing to increased construction costs, and determined that staying in Michigan is still a pretty good bet, let’s address some of the challenges facing communities that reflect these factors and provide some strategies for successfully pushing back into the market.

Ypsi_Cycle_Rehab_2018

The former Ypsi Cycle building in downtown Ypsilanti, undergoing a complete gut and rebuild.

Strategy One:
Acknowledge that construction, new or rehab, is going to be expensive.

The first step is always to admit there is a problem. We have all heard the grumblings: “New construction is so expensive, developers are building only luxury lofts to turn a profit.” As discussed in a recent Strong Towns article, acknowledging that something is expensive is not necessarily a criticism. It is, however, a requirement for realistically tackling the problem that even when new housing units are created, they are often out of reach for working Michiganders.

Prioritization of supports to incentivize new workforce housing by reducing land acquisition costs and providing predevelopment technical legwork can help set the stage for the creation of new missing middle housing units. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Redevelopment Ready Communities (RRC) program aims to help get cities prepared to attract and accommodate appropriately scaled development in the heart of cities, with built-in walkability and connections to existing community amenities. The League has provided several cities with predevelopment assistance through this program, with success stories reported out on our Developing Great Places page.

We cannot make building cheaper. In fact, we should advocate for lasting quality of construction in city cores regardless of occupants because of the value of creating a durable building stock which can pivot in use over time. We can, however, also focus on shifting costs such as utility hookups, environmental remediation, site prep, and even in some cases, architectural design work, to public entities to remove barriers for desired development formats in targeted locations in our existing downtowns. We can lower costs to purchase municipally owned vacant or under capitalized buildings. We can incentivize historic rehab of aging building stock with the re-establishment of the Michigan Historic Tax Credit and the upcycling of our aging industrial and commercial buildings to housing use.

As advocated by the National Development Council, we need to persist in clarify public interest in targeted growth, which could be alleviated with the easing of public bonding limitations and the promotion and expansion of housing-focused CDCs. Another tack is to watch as Michigan’s community capital investment scene continues to grow and expand while explicitly voicing our interest in local investment opportunities underwritten by local people, as enabled by Michigan’s MILE Legislation.

In the meantime, while such policies and instruments are being built, we can keep working our local economic development networks to convince those with the cash to free up capital to invest and traditional banking institutions to give developers the financing instruments they need to do the projects we want.

Strategy Two:
Make friends with people who know how to build stuff. Then scaffold your way up and support and advocate for skilled trades training programs.

Get it? “Scaffold” your way up? It was just too good of a joke to plaster over.

Every builder must balance the price of materials with the cost of time and labor. In some cases, the investment is in time and experience through apprenticeship programs and on-the-job training. Even a simple bathroom remodel or rec room addition can bring into stark light the lack of skilled tradespeople in some Michigan markets. Many experts departed our communities in the dark days of the Recession and the gap left behind has not yet been filled.

According to advice from the Incremental Development Alliance, a group of developers working to promote small-scale construction and rehab in existing city centers, working with local community partners for a common vision goes a long way toward cultivating a culture of slow and steady growth in small and medium sized contractor companies.

As shown by IncDev’s work in several cities across the United States, this type of approach works best when projects are patterned after regionally familiar building forms to fit into existing neighborhoods where housing is wanted by the community and called out as desirable in updated master plans. These projects are just-right-sized to get done by smaller crews and provide relatively stable and predictable demand for growing a construction crew one person at a time. And these types of projects tend also to fall into the not-quite-so-scary scale when seeking approval through local planning commissions. In the case of Chattanooga, Tennessee, a rapidly growing tech hub, “city administrators are collaborating to find ways to fast-track the proposed Missing Middle housing and minimize some of the risks and expenses which disproportionately stymie small multi-unit developments.”

Once developer confidence is built through municipal support and market analysis, sometimes all it takes is to start with one experienced contractor. Bring them in to get started with one site, gradually add team members, and set up a pipeline of projects to keep them in steady work.

Strategy Three:
Know your community’s data and demonstrate pent up demand.

Our state’s demographics are rapidly changing. In 2018, according to the American Community Survey, Michigan’s average household size is only about 2.5 people. Only about 22% of all Michigan households include children 18 years old or younger. To parse it another way, people in their 20s and 30s are choosing to prioritize education or careers and delay or entirely opt out of traditional marriage partnerships and childrearing. In older age brackets, we have a growing segment of longer-living, healthy seniors over the age of 65, many of whom are no longer partnered due to loss, divorce, or choice.

What does this mean? While nearly half of Michigan’s households have two spouses or partners living together, many households have only one adult. Even if you don’t want to live in a small apartment or a modest condo, many people do.

We are experiencing a rising demand for smaller housing options because people simply don’t desire or cannot afford that much space, but they do want to be connected to others in walkable neighborhoods. While a four bed, three bath Colonial with a pool and a 20-minute drive to town may be perfect for some of our households, the data tells us that large-lot, car-dependent housing options are abundant in many markets yet are probably not the best fit for the majority.

As we continue to witness these changes in our communities, in the lives of our own families and friends, we must track and present data on the pent-up demand for the creation of affordable and middle-income housing in walkable, real places. And if they’re connected to public transit to reduce car usage, all the better. When we think of who wants these kinds of housing – your 27-year-old daughter who finally finished school and just getting her career off the ground; your best friend who would rather pour her heart into being a pet parent than manicuring her lawn; your 70-year-old dad who has chosen to buck tradition and not decamp to Florida like his parents did; or maybe just you – we can and will respond to these needs with a more personal urgency.

Keep Thinking About the Why.

By setting proactive public policies and developing incentives to prioritize the expansion of these market segments, we’ll not only be taking care of our economy, we’ll be caring for the people we care about, too.

Yet with these factors in mind, we can continue to focus our efforts on building collaborative relationships with all involved to mitigate the underlying cost factors and make these projects not only worthy of investment but also creatively and appropriately financed. We can accomplish these goals by seeking more accessible financing instruments, encouraging reasonable expansion, holding a focus on appropriate density, elevating examples of right-sized builds, promoting the cultural and ecological sense of building reuse, and helping demonstrate the need for growth in skilled trades programs to carry out this work.

In the end, the most important thing to remember is that when we engage in conversations about the high cost of construction, both new builds and rehabs, there are many reasons behind those price tags. And there is also a myriad of reasons why quality construction needs to take place when thoughtfully building quality 21st Century Communities.

Read more on how to plan and do these kinds of projects in our Placemaking How-To toolkit at:  http://placemaking.mml.org/how-to/

Michigan’s roads took center stage (as if they ever leave it?) in this past November’s election, as now-Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s “Fix the damn roads,” slogan struck an obvious chord. While the need for pavement maintenance is obvious, it’s only one part of our state’s broken transportation system.

Beyond filling the potholes, Michigan is overdue for actual innovation that addresses our mobility needs holistically. Decades of experience have shown us that neither is a pavement-only approach fiscally sustainable, nor does it address our critical health, safety, and equity needs.

We know that we simply can’t afford to just double down on our road system.

In past years, we’ve built so many lane-miles, bridges, and interchanges that the state’s maintenance needs are now overwhelming even the hundreds of millions of dollars in general fund subsidy that we’re pumping into the roads each year.

As a new Senate Fiscal Agency analysis shows, even this diversion of funds away from other pressing needs is only enough to slow the decay. A functioning road network is essential to moving people and goods–but the decades of expanding our maintenance liabilities so much faster than our population or economy have grown has caught up to us with a vengeance.

While our population growth has been sluggish over past decades, we've spread out rapidly, taking on massive infrastructure maintenance costs (also known as "potholes") in the process.

While our population growth has been sluggish over past decades, we’ve spread out rapidly, taking on massive infrastructure maintenance costs (also known as “potholes”) in the process.

We know that roads alone are not sufficient for all of our residents’ mobility needs.

A third of Michigan residents cannot drive a car due to their age, a disability, or other factors; others are forced to drive uninsured because they cannot afford insurance and have no other options available.

The challenges in metro Detroit are well-documented, but are reflected around the state: Region 9’s Michigan Works! Agencies noted in 2015 that transportation was a barrier to finding and keeping a job for half of the customers they served, and lack of transportation is also the leading factor in missed medical appointments. With these challenges falling most heavily on people with disabilities, people of color, and low-income residents, a focus only on roads presents clear equity problems.

We know that our local, regional, and inter-city transit gaps are barriers to talent attraction.

In addition to lower-income workers’ job access, lack of transportation options limit Michigan’s high-skill, high-wage jobs as well. Amazon aside, consider Ann Arbor-based Duo Security, which recently became Michigan’s first-ever “unicorn” tech company when Cisco acquired it for $2.35B: founder Dug Song has previously cited a lack of transit options as one reason that the company opened satellite offices in other states.

There’s a ton of talent in Metro Detroit that we just don’t have access to because it’s too far for them to consider the commute…and that’s why we’re opening a California office. We’ve sped up out there because really, the talent is easier for us to pull from given the BART, given the CalTrain, than it is here.

You know, having to split up the company and do more in other places, I wish we could grow more here…We’re just very strong supporters of regional transit. I think it would be very helpful if we had trains that went to Detroit, the airport at least, to Grand Rapids, down to Columbus…Our challenge is we just need more access to talent.

Dug Song, then-CEO of Duo Security, to Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development (2015)

And we know that a roads-first focus threatens public health and personal safety.

The state of Michigan and metro Detroit have the dubious honor of placing among the most dangerous regions in the country for pedestrians, with traffic crashes killing over 1,400 pedestrians in the past decade. In total, over 1,000 people have been dying in Michigan traffic crashes each year–another 75,000 are injured annually.

While only southeast Michigan made the national report, fatal pedestrian crashes touch every part of the state.

While only southeast Michigan made the national report, fatal pedestrian crashes touch every part of the state.

Outside of crashes, the impacts of air quality, stress, and simply sitting for long periods mean that an over-emphasis on cars and a lack of other options contributes to heart and respiratory diseases, reducing life expectancy.

Seniors, people of color, and low-income Michiganders are at greatest risk of being killed by drivers, and also tend to have the most exposure to hazardous air quality. Placing the greatest harms of our focus on roads on the groups of residents least benefiting from them adds injury to injury.

So let’s fix the roads–strategically, and for everyone.

We know that the roads do need work, of course. (After all, I drafted this while waiting for a dented rim and warped tire to be replaced…for the second time in as many years.)

What we need is to not pour money in the roads for the sake of action, but to ensure any transportation fixes are strategically and comprehensively improving Michigan’s health, economic opportunity, equity, and budget outlooks at the same time as we’re digging into our repaving backlog.

This means that at all levels–state, MPO, county, and local–we should,

Focusing too narrowly on the area between the curbs without thinking about the whole system can lead us into trouble.

Focusing too narrowly on the area between the curbs without thinking about the whole system can lead us into trouble.

  • Place a moratorium on any new roads, lanes, bridges, or interchanges, including those previously authorized–and using any reconstruction project as opportunities for road diets that reduce, rather than increase, the amount of asphalt we’re on the hook to maintain in the future.
  • Focus all business development incentives on locations already served by streets, and that offer transit, walking, or biking access to workforce: we can’t afford to “win” new business development in greenfield locations that add to our maintenance burden.
  • Ensure that all work on our roads is looked at for opportunities to serve multiple transportation needs, not just pavement condition. A mill/overlay project may not trigger legal obligations for new curb ramps or crosswalks, but the marginal cost of adding those improvements to an existing project may bring substantial benefits to equity, accessibility, and quality of place.
  • Use “tactical placemaking” to test-drive different options for our streets in advance of any construction project. Whether very temporary “pop-up” events or longer-term pilot projects, these let us experiment inexpensively before we commit plans to concrete. Where these pilots demonstrate that right-of-way can be rededicated from pavement to green infrastructure or pedestrian space, they can offer huge benefits over time, potentially even with reduced up-front costs. (And where they don’t, well, they didn’t cost much.)
  • Invest appropriately in all parts of our transportation system. It may seem counter-intuitive to apply limited dollars to transit, or sidewalks, or bike infrastructure in the name of fixing the roads, but those investments can pay off by providing access to destinations in our communities more efficiently (and equitably) than spending all of our money on roads, while also contributing to the sense of place that makes our communities worth living in.

If we don’t do these things, but instead just try to pay our way to smooth pavement, then we will end up making a massive investment in “fixing” our roads that bakes in the current liabilities and inequities, guaranteeing ourselves even an even greater repair bill the next time. Let’s not make that mistake.

Economic growth what-if scenarios are (again) a hot topic in the wake of Amazon’s location announcements, so I’ll throw my own—non-Amazon related—offering on the table.

For all the time Michigan has spent talking about things like “talent attraction” and “economic growth”, we’re not especially prepared to deal with success on that front. How do we handle the scenario where we actually get the growth we’ve been working towards?

Consider: since 1979, Michigan’s population has been essentially flat. Over almost 40 years, we’ve added only half a million residents—not that large a number in a state of almost ten million, the 8th largest at the start of that period. By contrast, some states are picking up that many residents every four or five years. In fact, Florida and Michigan were about the same size in 1979, but Florida grew by 1 Michigan of population in the following 30-year period.

Graph comparing Michigan and Florida populations from 1920 to 2015

Florida passed Michigan’s population around 1979, adding about a million people every 5 years since then.

Assume some combination of our talent attraction efforts with the push effects of hurricanes, flooding, and Zika super-mosquitos cause Michigan and Florida to exchange fortunes, and our population starts growing by 100,000 every year, instead of every decade. Where would Michigan’s new arrivals go?

Our bigger, core cities?

The easy, popular take, which I myself have offered in the past, is, “there’s plenty of room in Detroit!” (Or Flint, Saginaw, Battle Creek, Lansing…) The challenge with this prescription is that there are also a lot of people already in those communities who aren’t feeling the benefits of our current models of economic development and growth: a flood of newcomers (or returnees) coming in from out of state will cause rampant gentrification, harming existing residents, if we don’t get better at development without displacement before relying on our larger legacy cities to absorb that growth.

Our suburban periphery?

Michigan’s classic strategy over the past decades has been to expand outwards—whether we’re growing on net or not. The state has expanded its developed land area by 50% in 30 years, a better (er, worse) than 5:1 ratio of infrastructure expansion to population growth. As we’ve found out, adding infrastructure so much faster than we’ve added new people to pay for it means that each of us has to pay more. This “strategy” has required higher gas taxes and vehicle registration fees, higher utility bills, and higher property tax bills, just to slow the pace of entropy.

Maps of Michigan comparing the built infrastructure footprint in 1980 and 2020

While our population growth has been sluggish over past decades, we’ve spread out rapidly, taking on massive infrastructure maintenance costs (also known as “potholes”) in the process.

Even if financial sustainability weren’t enough reason to halt our unproductive expansion, planning to continue putting our growth on our edges would degrade both the natural amenities so important to Michigan’s identity and the agricultural land that will be that much more important as drought threatens the irrigated farms of southwestern states—as well as missing a chance to reinvest in existing communities.

Our small towns?

Looking beyond the bigger metro downtowns and suburbs, the League has over 500 members, and most of those are small. Very small: the median League member has a population just over 1,800, and the average population is around 10,000. A great many of these smaller communities have lost population over time, and could probably benefit from having some new neighbors. But with some of these communities struggling with lost employers, others with tourist economies making housing scarce, and many suffering an aging housing stock that’s too cheap to get a mortgage and rehab loan for, simply moving a bunch of new people in isn’t a straightforward answer here either.

Graph of Michigan municipalities by population, showing a long tail of smaller places

Half of Michigan’s municipalities have fewer than 1,851 residents.

It’s not hypothetical

This isn’t just a thought exercise: there are some significant “pushes” that could bend Michigan’s population curve upwards. Consider the damage wrought by record hurricanes hitting the east and gulf coasts in the past few years, the apparent permanent state of fire in the west, and the long emergency of water shortages in the southwest, and the relative appeal those places have enjoyed starts to fade a bit.

In addition to the national baseline growth rate of a few million people every year, a disaster response expert recently pointed out to me that the US had seen 1,300 disasters since Katrina, that 1 Million homes are destroyed by disaster every year, and that many of those people relocate rather than rebuilding. Every week, there are people abruptly looking for a welcoming community to call home.

As we look out into the next few decades of climate change fueling the fires, floods, and hurricanes, this will only accelerate. As Popular Science noted last year, “Looks like we’re all moving to Michigan!” by 2100AD—but they advise people beat the rush, and “go nail a quality spot while the pickings are still slightly more plentiful.”

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QAJm13t6IH8[/youtube]

The White House’s new climate report echoes this in dryer tones, noting that the northern portion of Michigan “will be among the few places where the value of warmer winters outweighs the cost of hotter summers” for prospective residents, suggesting that this could “revers[e] long-standing trends in out-migration from the Midwest” and that changes in national migration patterns will contribute to population growth in the region.

The report agrees that we’re not quite ready for this to happen: “More research is needed to understand how cities in the Midwest might be affected by long-term migration to the region.”

The work to be done

Michigan is an entire generation removed from conditions of real population growth, and our elected leaders and professional staff generally lack experience operating in that condition. Unless we want to exacerbate the deficits of our overbuilt edge infrastructure, the loss of farmland and scenic resources, and the vast disparities of wealth and opportunity within and between cities, we’ll need to rebuild or adapt a number of tools to handle growth well:

  • Cover image of "Enabling Better Places" code reform guidebook

    Our Project for Code Reform collaboration with CNU, MEDC, and MAP seeks to bring good development codes within reach of small communities.

    Planning and building great places: the technical skills are probably the least difficult step and we’re already underway on some of these: the League and our partners around the state have been working on basic tools of placemaking, Redevelopment Readiness, and zoning code reform for the past few years.

  • Financing equitable development: a bigger lift is figuring out the mix of private, community, and public capital needed for healthy and equitable placemaking. We need some combination of reinvigorated affordable housing programs; cooperative ownership, investment crowdfunding, and other community investment models; rehab loan loss reserves for weak housing market areas; PACE, net metering, and similar energy finance programs. All of these exist in some form, but are tiny fractions of the public and real estate finance domains.
  • Narrative and consensus-building: the hardest piece in any community is likely to be figuring out which directions to work in. Many of our industrial communities saw an economic peak decades ago—some lumber and mining towns a century ago—and have been dealing with decline for much or all of their memory. A number of our suburban municipalities have existed almost exclusively in the flat portion of Michigan’s population curve. Many places talk about themselves as “built out” and having no place left to add new residents or businesses.

A growing Michigan would mean each of hundreds of places across the state will need to have new and unfamiliar conversations about their local opportunities and cautions, adopting a particular local blend of tools to support that scenario. It’s a challenging hill to scale—and of course relies on the state both supporting local efforts, rather than preempting any creative program, as well as fixing the structural problems with our municipal finance system.

Ultimately, though, this is work that will lead to a much more positive growth scenario than “winning” Amazon.