‘Boomerang’ Michigander sees potential of granny flats addressing Lakeshore’s housing shortage

Housing shortage. Lack of affordable housing. High mortgage rates. 

There are a lot of words thrown around the topic of living situations and how difficult it can be to find not only available housing, but housing that’s affordable, let alone safe, clean, and well-maintained. That’s especially true in Ottawa County, where a lot of people want to live. 

“Northwest Ottawa County is a desirable place to live. Access to abundant natural resources, proximity to the Lakeshore, consistent value-added employment opportunities, and exceptional institutions have contributed to a historically high standard of living and income,” says Rory Thibault, senior planner for Grand Haven Township. 

“Grand Haven Township, specifically, is the second-fastest-growing municipality in Ottawa County, Michigan’s fastest-growing,” he says. “People want to live here, people want to work here. However, that has become a mutually exclusive proposition for many.”

As the township’s senior planner, Thibault reviews land development proposals, in coordination with other departments and government agencies, in light of local ordinances and the community’s Master Plan. 

“Serving as professional staff for the township boards and commissions, I manage and facilitate the presentation and review process for those proposals to the public,” Thibault explains. “I serve as the municipality’s floodplain coordinator for FEMA’s Community Rating System program, and work on contract with the Village of Spring Lake along with our associate planner, Cassie (Chaphalkar). Working with the Public Service Department, I plan and write grant proposals for the improvement and acquisition of our parks and pathways.”

‘Boomerang generation’

Thibault is part of the “boomerang generation,” defined as young adults who return to live with their parents after a period of independence, typically as a result of difficulties in finding employment or affordable accommodation. He was raised in Grand Haven, then attended Washington University in St. Louis, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture and environmental science and a master’s degree in landscape architecture.

Now back in Grand Haven, Thibault sees first-hand how problematic the lack of good, affordable housing is for all ages. 

“I live with my family in a converted cottage and attached accessory dwelling unit, otherwise known as a granny flat, in-law apartment, or carriage house,” Thibault explains. “This is the same house that my great-aunt and -uncles lived in together. 

“Returning home is an increasingly frequent occurrence for young professionals. The privilege comes in that I have a healthy relationship with my family, access to a generational home, a livable wage, and a desire to realize the demonstrable benefits that come with multigenerational living. However, this arrangement is often not considered desirable, but rather an economic necessity as it takes multiple independent incomes to afford a stable and safe living space. As a result, it is increasingly common to see multiple individuals cohabitating and forming a household in situ by necessity.”

A frustrating issue

There is no single answer to the issue of affordable housing. Nor is there a single voice. 

“(The lack of affordable housing) can be incredibly frustrating. However, I seldom hear this concern from residents voiced in a public forum,” Thibault says. “When new housing is proposed, the most vocal are typically those in opposition. People rarely will attend a Planning Commission or Township Board meeting in support of an issue. 

“What drew me to working at the local level of government is that this is where elected officials are structurally the most accessible and accountable to their constituent public. To paraphrase former President (Barack) Obama, ‘Don’t boo, vote (and organize!).’ If you want to see change happen, you have to make it happen. Be present.”

Affordable housing options

Thibault shares that there are several options that the county could investigate when it comes to creating more affordable housing, from community land trusts and nonprofit developers to rent control and alternative nonmarket options. However, some of those require a change of legislation, which is never quick or easy. So, until there are more options available, Thibault is happy to stay where he is.

“Living with a familial social unit provides a source of support now and into the future,” he says. “Recognizing that living independently is certainly valuable for developing individual agency, life experience, and maturity, the focus on the self, on rugged individualism, ignores the fact that we are highly interpersonal beings.

“Contemporary society consists of interdependent people. Any basic social unit domiciled together is a microcosm of this condition, and my family is no different. What this affords is a reciprocal care network, or mutual aid. My living arrangement challenges the Western cultural propensity to have people age out of their homes, to have others provide elder care. However, just as much as my parents support and care for my dog and myself, mutual aid posits that this goes both ways.”

Priorities shifted

As the culture of society changes in America, as well as in this portion of Ottawa County, Thibault is not in a rush to move elsewhere. If anything, he feels challenged to find ways to create for others the same kind of livable system that he enjoys. 

“Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future. Five years ago, I did not necessarily see myself moving back here at this time, but the pandemic shifted my priorities,” Thibault shares. “Practically speaking, the location itself is ideal — 15 minutes to commute to work, 15 minutes to bike downtown, 15 minutes to walk to the beach — a majority of basic human services are easily accessible. 

“This is at the heart of what planners say when we want to create livable (walkable, bikeable, accessible) communities. The challenge — and duty — is to provide this access for all, regardless of income or protected class.”

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Read more articles by Kelsey Sanders.