Developer Runs into Roadblocks in Affordable Housing Attempt

Take part in any conversation or meeting about Door County’s future and you’ll hear a lot of lip service given to the need for affordable housing. Unfortunately, most of the time, that’s all you get. One of the few developers seeking to provide an option in Northern Door has run into more roadblocks than one might expect, given all the interest in the issue portrayed by many officials.

John Holmes is the builder of MeadowWood, a development of manufactured homes a couple miles north of Sister Bay on Highway 42. He says he has struggled with zoning hurdles, perception problems, and red tape in turning his 55-lot, 18-acre project into a greater success.

“I thought it was a good opportunity to do something no one else was doing,” said Holmes, who has been building manufactured homes for nearly 20 years. He has previously worked in Chicago and Minneapolis. “It’s very rewarding when you help somebody buy their first home.”

But those rewarding moments are too often buried beneath piles of paperwork and battles to get approval and funds.

“If it stays this difficult I might end it,” he says. “It’s a lot of hard work.”

A home at MeadowWood wouldn’t qualify as a dream estate to many. With relatively small lots (about 9,000 sq. ft.), the homes lack the sprawling back yard and views many equate with Door County. But the ranch-style homes starting at 1,200 square feet are nothing to sneeze at for those looking to buy their first house.

“When you’re looking at the home, it’s what you get,” Holmes said. That includes kitchen appliances, ceiling fans, and other features. Buyers can choose to upgrade appliances and aesthetics if they choose, but by giving them the option of a complete home, he says he’s trying “to take away the fear of buying a home. All we leave for homeowners is the landscaping and phone and TV.”

It sounds simple enough, but things got difficult as Holmes tried to work with the state to provide affordable housing as part of his project.

“When we talked to the Wisconsin Department of Commerce they were ecstatic,” he says. “They asked ‘How can we help?’”

The plan they came up with would open 15 of the development’s 55 units for purchase by low to medium income (LMI) buyers. The state made a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) available to assist buyers with the down payment, providing no-interest loans of up to $15,000 to those who qualified. Buyers can earn no more than 80 percent of the county median income to get the loan.

To use the CDBG funds Holmes needed to find a government agency willing to administer the program. The Town of Liberty Grove refused, citing a lack of staff, but the County agreed to do it through the Door County Economic Development Corporation (DCEDC).

Holmes thought he was off and running, but he would soon find there was a perception problem. Some people immediately dismissed the idea.

“People think low-income and they conjure up bad images,” he said. “We are affordable housing, not low-income housing, a perception that’s tough to break.”

Like many others working on housing issues Holmes wishes there were a better name for such projects.

These hurdles didn’t derail the effort, however. To date, 21 homes have been sold, three of them through the LMI program. MeadowWood has been criticized as a failure by some for not yet meeting the goal of selling 15 units through the program. David Sautebin of the Door County Planning Department accused Holmes of misrepresenting the project to the Town of Liberty Grove as an affordable housing venture and said most of the homes have been purchased for retirement living. Holmes says that is a mis-characterization.

“When we said 15, even the state said that was a high goal, but we wanted to do it,” he said. “We’ve sold three, but we’ve had many applications. Some bought but didn’t quite qualify for the program, and some qualified but were denied loans because of income or credit history.”

Holmes said the lack of sales is not for lack of trying. He figures he has to meet with 160 people to get 40 applications, and of those maybe one will qualify for the program and the loan.

He also denies the project is a retirement community.

“Sixteen of the 21 buyers are permanent residents living and working in Door County,” he says. He provided a list of jobs held by his residents ranging from artists and teachers to nurses aids and ice skating rink supervisor.

“We’re helping working families move into the area,” he said, “but they’re not all reflected by the numbers who have done so through the program.”

Holmes also points out that the CDBG program has since been expanded to include the rest of the county and has thus far made $425,000 available in the area in the form of an ongoing fund for affordable housing.

“We’re not trying to help people buy a vacation home,” he said.

MeadowWood helps illustrate just how big the gap between buyers and affordable housing in Northern Door is. The lowest price of a MeadowWood home is just under $130,000. With the maximum down payment money from the LMI fund the loan amount needed would be $115,000. With the median income of a Door County resident between the ages of 25 and 35 hovering around $26,000, that price tag remains about $25,000 beyond their reach if they don’t have debt or credit problems. And MeadowWood represents the area’s best effort to date at addressing the problem.

“They need to make it simple to do,” Holmes said

Sam Perlman, economic development coordinator for DCEDC, said making it simpler starts with addressing zoning and inserting flexibility into the equation to encourage builders.

“We made an effort several years ago through our attainable housing committee where we reviewed the zoning for Sturgeon Bay,” he said. “We made several recommendations and over the course of a couple years Sturgeon Bay has adopted about a dozen of them.”

He said this has opened the door to developers willing to attack affordable housing.

“Sister Bay has recently shown interest in doing something similar,” he said, but other communities have yet to jump on board. Perlman said DCEDC is waiting until the county is deeper into their Smart Growth plan to move on a larger basis.

Perlman said the type of tweaking they suggest is relatively minor and would allow for higher densities and smaller lot sizes in certain areas to encourage the building of affordable housing.

Holmes is a proponent of manufactured housing (it was his father’s business, too) but realizes many have a bias against it.

“Manufactured housing is the most affordable way to build a house,” he says. “If affordable housing is what people want here, then what is Door County doing to promote more of it?”

Maybe all that talk about affordable housing is little more than what we started with, lip service.

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