ALPENA — When environmental engineer Mallory Miller took a job with Lafarge Alpena, she had no idea it would take her six months to buy a house.
Transferred from a Lafarge sister plant in Nashville last summer, Miller wasn’t sure she’d be able to take the Alpena job when multiple in-person and online searches turned up no homes. viable to buy and only one rental option that met his needs. .
Like many other parts of the country, Alpena faces a housing shortage as existing homes fill up and high costs limit new construction.
A lack of signs for sale is causing problems, employers say.
A recently formed task force on the region’s housing problems may bring relief, but such solutions may be a long time in coming.
In the meantime, some potential workers may be forced to turn down jobs at Alpena because they don’t have a place to live, Miller said.
“It’s sad,” she said. “Because there are great opportunities here.”
Jeff Scott, plant manager at Lafarge Alpena, recently obtained approval to post 20 new jobs at Lafarge, some of which would attract outside talent.
He fears he won’t be able to fill all the positions if people can’t find housing, Scott said.
With nowhere else to put them, the company may have to rent hotel rooms to house several interns who are expected to work at the Alpena plant this summer, he said.
Scott is right to worry. Employers in Alpena and northern Michigan are reporting candidates are pulling out after unsuccessful house hunts.
Missing out on this talent harms both the employer and the community who would have benefited from the new ideas the newcomers would bring and the dollars they would spend locally.
Miller recently found and secured a for sale by owner home listed on an online sales site.
If she had stayed in Nashville, where the prices are exorbitant, Miller said, she would never have been able to afford to buy a house.
Northeast Michigan’s relative affordability attracts people who have recently realized they can work remotely. With their move north, the stock of available homes has shrunk, shrinking further as more people buy homes to use as short-term vacation rentals.
NO QUICK FIX
The new construction does not fill the lack of available housing, said Rachel Smolinski, city manager of Alpena.
Smolinski and Alpena County Administrator Mary Catherine Hannah are part of an Alpena housing task force addressing the housing shortage in northeast Michigan.
Employers are struggling to operate and school enrollment is plummeting because young families can’t find the homes they need, Hannah said.
“This is perhaps the most important and critical issue in our community,” Smolinski said.
Elsewhere and locally, the cost of new construction is the biggest barrier to adequate housing supply, Smolinski said.
Even before supply chain lockdowns drove up the prices of lumber and other building materials over the past two years, builders couldn’t build homes at a price low enough for the buyer average can consider them, she said.
Before being hired as city manager of Alpena in late 2019, Smolinski worked with a coalition on the west side of the state formed to address the housing crisis there.
Smolinski and the other group founders — including Hannah before she moved to Alpena County in 2021 — initially thought they could find a solution quickly, Hannah said.
Instead, she said, they learned that the complicated problem would take years or more to solve, with change and education needed on many levels.
The Alpena Housing Task Force, only a few months old, is focusing the combined efforts of people with their fingers in the housing pie to find a solution to the housing shortage on the sunrise side.
Even with the efforts of the task force, a balance between the houses and the people who want to live in them could take five years or more, Smolinski said.
At its monthly meetings, the task force compiled a curated but ever-moving spreadsheet of issues impacting housing, contributing factors to those issues, existing resources, and possible next steps.
Task Force members must bring together current data and connect the pieces of the housing puzzle, ensuring that bankers, contractors, builders and housing advocates each know the role of others in creating a better housing landscape, Hannah said.
Local governments can energize new construction through tax credits, creative financing options, new partnerships, changes to zoning rules, land reserves and other tools, and the community can lobby for policy changes that open the door to new housing developments, Hannah and Smolinski said.
These potential solution steps won’t happen right away, but they are on the horizon and, through the concerted efforts of the task force and others, employers may one day not have to worry about that “request for help” posts go unanswered because workers can’t find a home to buy.
Until then, inadequate worker housing impacts everyone, Hannah said.
“If we don’t have it, people will go elsewhere,” she said. “If you can’t find people to work in your restaurant, if you can’t find people to work in your hospital, if you can’t find people to work at the gas station or fix the plumbing in your house or fix your roof, then no one is going to live here.