Why breaking out of the housing trap begins with small changes

The housing crisis is an issue that most communities grapple with, whether fueled by rising rents or hyper-vacancy. 

These problems are symptoms of a deeper dysfunction, says Norm Van Eeden Petersman, member advocate at Strong Towns, who spoke about “Breaking Out of the Housing Trap” at the 2023 Tuesday Forum Series on April 25. 

Over nearly a century, often well-intended top-down policy interventions have turned a complex system that should be adaptive and self-correcting into one prone to a never-ending cycle of boom and bust, crises and overcorrections, he says.

Petersman advocates for addressing the dysfunction at the root of the housing problems, by moving away from a model in which large developers and centralized financial institutions have unprecedented sway over what is built to a more antifragile housing ecosystem in which the bar to entry is low, and every neighborhood can undergo incremental change over time.

He is the second-to-last speaker in the 2023 Tuesday Forum Series, a collaboration of the Chamber of Commerce Grand Haven, Spring Lake, Ferrysburg, and the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation. The final 2023 session, May 23, will feature speaker and facilitator Karen McPhee. Registration is required by May 16 here.

Discussing critical issues

The series was created to bring together area businesses, local leaders, and community members to learn about and discuss issues critical to Northwest Ottawa County and plan for a shared future through a six-part breakfast speaker series, “Envisioning Our Community’s Future.” 

Norm Van Eeden Petersman

Petersman says he hopes his presentation inspires attendees to take a fresh look at ways to examine housing problems that seem intractable. 

“We feel like we're defeated because housing prices are just going up, and there's no interest to do anything. And yet, there are so many things that can be done just at the local level. A municipality can lead the way or a local group can lead the way within their own community. If we really take that impetus to change our places for the better, what we end up with is hope, optimism, and some more economic activity,” he says.

“All of that serves the bigger goal of having places where people can prosper again. As our neighborhoods are changing, we can either decide whether are they going to become more exclusive and expensive. Or are they going to become more inclusive than diverse?”

By diverse and inclusive, Petersman says he means a wide range of income and backgrounds that create new opportunities for more people. 

Need for community buy-in

For Rory Thibault, senior planner with Grand Haven Township, Petersman’s presentation reaffirms the need for community buy-in for the master planning process.

Grand Haven Township Senior Planner Rory Thibault

The key, he believes, is creating a framework so the entire community can feel empowered to contribute to the conversation, and craft a plan that addresses both property development and the basic necessities of shelter and food for everyone.

“(Petersman) talked about Maslow's hierarchy of needs. If you don't have shelter, you don't have anything,” says Thibault. “So, how do we transition from housing as speculation and investment to housing as a basic human right? How do we encourage and provide an efficient and effective forum for people to feel like their voices are actually being represented in government and not just the select voices that reinforce the existing policies that are in place because those people are financially benefiting? And they have no investment to change that because it's working for them,” Thibault says. 

Part of the conversation

Petersman says he’s glad to be part of a conversation aimed at creating a more equitable community. 

“The different aspects of the things that your communities are struggling with is very consistent with what we talked about with Stong Towns — humbly observing where your community is struggling, and then resolving to do the next small thing to address that struggle in your community — not to try to launch big schemes or big plans, just begin with that process,” he says.

“I like the recognition that housing is woven into all of these other things, as well. And that those other challenges of inclusion, and economic opportunity will be, in many ways, addressed if you can find more humane ways to provide homes for people. I wish that this was happening in more communities.”

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Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.