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Communities Have a Right to Set Their Own Housing Policy

by John Jefferson
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It’s no secret that America is confronting a crushing housing shortage; pundits on the left and right point out that high housing prices exacerbate the birth crisis, keeping Millennials and Gen Z from forming families and flourishing. But policies ostensibly designed to create more housing come in many forms, not all of them good. Top-down attempts to fundamentally re-engineer communities in the name of “housing justice” are particularly dangerous. Devolution and localism are important principles in housing policy; a neighborhood in the Bronx might look different from one in Palm Springs, and communities ought to build homes in ways that honor the best of their character and history.

Harbor Springs, a vacation town in northern Michigan, is discovering this lesson first-hand. The town has ties to important moments in American history. Its Catholic church, Holy Childhood of Jesus, was established as part of the larger Jesuit missionary movement in the 1800s, serving Native American families and logging communities. Its train station is where Ernest Hemingway’s family would arrive from Chicago for their annual summer vacations in the surrounding area. Its forests and pines, home to foxes and bald eagles, are prized to this day for their haunting tranquility. And, its views of sparkling Lake Michigan are refreshing and clarifying. It is understandable that residents are protective of Harbor Springs, having seen the destruction of other beautiful, historic communities at the hands of “central planning.”

It is questionable whether Harbor Springs even needs more housing, given that the current homeowner vacancy rate, according to census bureau data, is 9.7 percent, meaning one in ten dwellings is available. But one proposal for building new housing in Harbor Springs, backed by the city government, involves Michigan’s Redevelopment Ready Communities, a program of the quasi-governmental Michigan Economic Development Corporation. The agency was originally established as a job-creation engine for troubled regions and to help diversify the economy where it was too heavily dependent on the auto industry. 

Immediately one wonders what relevance any of this has to flourishing and affluent Harbor Springs; this is not Flint or Detroit, but a town with an income per capita of $38,000 (versus $27,500 statewide) and 2.6 percent unemployment (versus 5.2 percent statewide). Relatively small and largely residential, Harbor Springs is also hardly the first place—or the 10th—that comes to mind for drawing new residents in the name of economic opportunity. If the state is serious about spending its finite money on cities that can actually be mobilized into economic success stories, rather than just looking to enact a power grab or punish a town it may perceive as being exclusionary or snobby, would not the funds be better spent in places like Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo?

A city overview published in March 2024 anticipates such questions. It asserts that the RRC program is not just for troubled communities but instead allows any community “to be proactive instead of reactive” with regard to economic downturns and perceived need for new development, to increase the transparency and fairness of government processes, and “to receive technical and/or financial assistance”—presumably from the state. This last function is perhaps what the Harbor Springs city government has primarily in mind here, as it is at pains to assert elsewhere in the overview that the proposed rezoning it seeks to pass has been devised independently of RRC. But how much can we expect the rezoning to diverge from RRC “best practices” when it is presented as part of certification for the program? And, more troublingly, how long can local independence in city planning be guaranteed if state funding is at stake? 

There is good reason to fear that state involvement in local planning is likely to turn into ideologically motivated strong-arming to the eventual detriment of Harbor Springs. Federal government programs have sought to push suburbs to build more apartment buildings and other multi-family dwellings, sometimes under pain of loss of necessary funding (road tenance, for instance); many on the Left have come to view single-family zoning as “racist” simply because many members of ethnic minorities are unable to afford homeownership. For such people, increasing density in a wealthy community becomes part of a moral crusade, whether or not it benefits those who already live there or even the disadvantaged they are trying to help. 

It is worth noting that Cabrini-Green, until its demolition one of the most notoriously crime-ridden housing projects in Chicago, was located not in the virtual war zones of that city’s West or South Sides but on the desirable North Side, mere blocks from some of the richest neighborhoods in the city. True, the North Side did not suffer for the proximity, but nor did the projects benefit at all for it in quality of life. 

Another example of government planning, driven by ideological concerns and theoretical constructs in diagnosing and addressing economic problems, is even closer to home for Wolverine State residents. In his book The Poor Side of Town, Howard Husock documents in harrowing detail how public housing projects helped ruin Detroit’s Black Bottom by displacing the neighborhood’s many black-owned business, residential properties, and self-help institutions in the name of “slum clearance.” 

It is against the backdrop of America’s many Cabrini-Greens and Black Bottoms that we should consider top-down initiatives spearheaded by unelected city planners and bureaucrats, imported from left-leaning policy programs, with questionable ties to the communities for which they make decisions that may have decades of effects. 

There is reason to be skeptical when city officials in a small town insist that, whatever local homeowners or business-owners say, zoning laws be changed to favor greater density and a wider range of businesses. What does it mean, for instance, when officials suggest that certain zoning laws are “out of date”? Could this refer to sex shops and residential treatment centers, both of which are permitted by default in certain districts under the proposed rezoning? Or the cannabis shops that are now ubiquitous in blue districts?

No doubt there are points upon which the zoning code could be legitimately clarified or improved, but if so, it should not be an excuse for squeezing in more contentious policies as a response to completely undefined future threats—policies that could very well draw developers with no connection or commitment to the area to undermine the very character that drew residents to Harbor Springs in the first place. Even where many parties have good intentions, extreme changes in density often bring a great risk of social unrest for the simple reason of clashing social customs or the introduction of problems a small community is not poised to handle. 

Part of Harbor Spring’s appeal, its quaint architecture, is a reflection of what has happened to the architecture industry over the last century. New developments, especially of higher density, are often, shall we say, aesthetically deficient. Historical preservation movements may not be the sign of a dynamic community, but they may be the only way to preserve something beautiful—and thus human-friendly—in a public life that is often grimly utilitarian. 

One hopes that this sad state of affairs comes to an end soon. But until it does, we must not let a poorly thought-out “luxury belief” impulse backed by state power further encroach on the surviving signs of a better way of living. 

City officials insist that the current zoning proposal preserves current regulations pertaining to architectural style and does not call for sale or development of city-owned land. The question is how far such assurances will go if the RRC connection leads to greater involvement or pressure from Lansing—and whether the city government’s interest in RRC is really motivated only by a desire for greater resilience and administrative efficiency.  

Undoubtedly, America does need some share of higher-density construction in order to combat its housing crisis and increase economic opportunity for those who would take advantage of it. High-density housing need not be ugly or create a low quality of life. (Who would turn up his nose at a townhome in Tuscany?) Nor, for that matter, is it necessary for state governments to assess and influence local zoning policy as a matter of course, as RRC effectively does through its best practices. In New York, for instance, the “Housing Compact” proposed in 2023 by Governor Kathy Hochul would have generally set housing growth rates for local communities while leaving it to them how to achieve these, only forcing rezoning in the vicinity of certain commuter rail stations.

But even so, we should remember that many Americans aspire to a quieter and more remote life in a beautiful setting, and if we cannot be proactive in preserving the communities that offer such a life, who will be left to benefit? Perhaps the state of Michigan should seek to make other communities more like Harbor Springs, at least in beauty and hometown pride, than vice versa—if it really wishes to offer a better life to those who need it.

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