John Bitely participates in Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce housing-focused forum

During a housing-focused forum hosted by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce on Feb. 16, Sable Homes President John Bitely was one of many West Michigan housing experts and developers who called on the business community for support during what they call an increasingly difficult environment for building attainable housing, reported Crain’s Grand Rapids Business.

Bitely said that when his development company formed in 1996, construction could start within the same year that a property was purchased. If he were to purchase property for a project today, his projections are at least three years out, he said.

“I can not get it approved and ready through all the agencies and regulations (in the same amount of time),” Bitely said. He explained how recently proposed residential building codes from the state’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) is a major obstacle if the regulations become law. LARA’s proposed changes call for updated insulation and framing aimed at achieving better energy efficiency, and mandating sprinkler systems for fire safety in all new residential construction.

During the forum, Housing Next Executive Director Brooke Oosterman led panel discussions with local developers and government officials in front of a crowd of about 100 people at the Chamber’s downtown offices.

Expanding project timelines is one of the biggest obstacles right now to get housing projects across the finish line, panelists said during the event. They attributed the extended timelines to multiple factors, including the need for more incentives and financing sources to make projects pencil out amid rising interest rates and cost increases across the board.

On top of that, community pushback and the growing number of approvals needed for developments and inconsistencies in the process remain ongoing barriers, panelists said.

The Homebuilders Association of Michigan estimates the proposed code changes would add about $20,000 to the overall cost of building a home, according to Crain’s Detroit Business.

More people who are buying homes have to start recognizing the complexities that go into developing a project for the problem to be solved, Bitely said.

“Free market development is becoming dead because we can’t get past all the regulation and all the resistance in our own backyard,” Bitely told Crain’s Grand Rapids Business previously.

The city of Grand Rapids’ planning and inspection staff was recently allocated more staff members to help review permits. The city also has three more positions in the building department to help with the intake process, said Grand Rapids Planning Director Kristin Turkelson.

“It’s a constant workload that is just not possible to accommodate, but we’ve brought on more staffing literally this week,” Turkelson said. “I think that’s really going to help.”

The additional burden that comes with the cumbersome permitting process makes zoning reform, community support for projects and any other way local governments can expedite the process even more important, said Kurtis Fritz, director of construction at Wolverine Building Group.

“Anything we can do to increase the amount of units (allowed) per acre and (increasing) building height for multifamily, that reduces the cost of price-per-square-foot and a per-unit basis,” Fritz said. “All of that helps and the more supply we can get the lower that makes it.”

Meanwhile, the Grand Rapids Planning Commission approved five changes to the city’s zoning ordinance last month that include easing restrictions on accessory dwelling units, reducing parking minimums in certain areas, adjusting group-living requirements and allowing for more small-scale residential infill throughout the city.

Planning staff are hopeful that the Grand Rapids City Commission will approve the changes, which is a necessary step in the approval process.

“We need people like you to advocate and support us to help prioritize housing and people in our city,” Turkelson urged attendees on Friday.

Read the entire Crain’s Grand Rapids Business story, here.