East Lansing’s Housing Study Never Did Start, and Now the Plan Is On Hold

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

The Abbot now under construction at the corner of Abbot Rd. and Grand River Ave.

City of East Lansing Planning staff never signed a contract for a housing study approved by Council on Feb. 25, Housing Administrator Annette Irwin told the City’s Housing Commission last night. And now, she says, given the cost of the study and massive uncertainty caused by the pandemic, plans for it are on hold.

In late February, Council approved a plan to spend up to $40,000 to hire Land Use USA to produce a housing study that would collect data on housing in East Lansing and create “a baseline for future analysis.” Council was pushing off some development decisions in anticipation of having that study within a few months’ time.

Irwin told the commission, which met virtually last night, that staff “will be reassessing our budget pretty closely and kind of making decisions about where our priorities lie” with regard to spending.

She said she had recommended to Director of Planning Tom Fehrenbach that staff wait “at least until fall” to start the study, “because so much is unknown now and what we have come September may look different from what we see today.”

Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens, who is the Council’s liaison to the commission, asked whether there could be some data collection and analysis done now. He said he is interested in leasing trends, vacancy rates, breaking of leases, and the like.

Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens at the meeting on Feb. 25, 2020, when Council approved hiring an independent contractor for a housing study. (Photo for ELi by Raymond Holt)

But Irwin said the study design had intended to involve things like “putting [people] in a van and driving them around town to talk about historical things in the city” in terms of housing, and now that is not a safe undertaking.

She also noted that during the last recession, “everything changed,” and  if everything is going to change again, staff want to have the data collected at a point that makes more sense.

Commissioner Larry Rosen agreed that everything could be up in the air for some time, saying that if MSU continues to have students stay off-campus, “anything we collect in the fall might be totally unrealistic or ahistorical.”

He thought it was worth holding off “until we get some stability in the community and see what is going on.” He said it is “very important to have these kinds of data to do any serious planning.”

Answering a question from another commissioner, Irwin said that when she started work with the City, “We had a different capacity back then, with a lot more people working in the area,” so that staff conducted their own housing studies.

Irwin repeatedly expressed the idea that City leaders might decide there simply isn’t the money anymore to undertake a big study using an external contractor. She told the commissioners there is “no doubt the City budget is not what it was when we earmarked this money.”

ELi has been reporting that the City’s revenues are plummeting, with no clear sign of when they will turn back around.

Irwin said last night that the focus now in her department is on trying to get the rental housing inspection system back up and running, as it has been essentially on hold for over two months. Her department has not been asking landlords for the fees associated with inspections because the City staff members aren’t able to do the inspections.

She also said there were concerns about keeping City employees in her department in jobs.

But Stephens made clear, “I don’t want this [the housing study] to be left behind.”

Meanwhile, the City Pulse reported earlier this week that the state-level Michigan Strategic Fund finally approved tax incentives for the Red Cedar project just over East Lansing’s west border, on Michigan Avenue. That project will add rental housing for about 800 students.

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