Commission Candidates Discuss Affordable Housing

A shortage of affordable housing is a problem nationwide, and it’s also being felt in southwest Michigan communities. During a forum with candidates for the St. Joseph City Commission this week, the candidates were asked how St. Joe could encourage housing development. Michael Sarola said the city should look at its zoning and try to find developers interested in areas where there currently isn’t much housing.

“I think there’s an opportunity to create more housing in areas that right now are underutilized, but yet would also add opportunities to increase the tax base in St. Joe.”

Tom Jennings said changes to zoning could encourage housing development, but he warned against the city owning any housing developments.

“We have one place right now where we have equity housing, which is the tower, and I know someone on the board. It’s a nightmare for the city to run that. So the city definitely doesn’t need to get involved in anymore ownership of real estate, to rent out home or to subsidize them in any way. That’s just a nightmare, and it’s not something the city commission should be involved in.”

Marc Williams also pointed to zoning as a way to encourage development. Ben Rimes said many people are being priced out of the housing market, and suggested the city get creative.

“I’m not suggesting the city get involved with development, but it would be amazing to take a page from South Haven’s playbook. They’re currently working with a firm from Chicago to redevelop older commercial properties into more affordable high density housing.”

In that case, South Haven is working with a developer to turn an old factory site owned by the city into apartments. Incumbent Michelle Binkley said the current city commission has taken action to increase housing availability.

“They approved the Main Street overlay so that zoning changed so that some of those businesses on Main Street can now have livable spaces upstairs, which makes it closer to living downtown which follows the master plan and makes it more affordable.”

Brook Thomas said rental prices have gone up substantially in recent years locally, and she suggested policies to encourage more renting to those with mid to lower incomes. The election will be on November 2.