Long-Awaited Housing Study Introduced to Council

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

The East Lansing City Council received an introductory presentation to the long-awaited housing study from hired consultant Sharon Woods of LandUseUSA at this week’s meeting. City leaders and citizens have been hoping this study will answer key questions about whether East Lansing has a student-housing bubble, how to provide more affordable housing for families, and more.

Before Woods presented to Council, Director of Planning, Building and Development Tom Fehrenbach gave Council an overview of the next steps to come with the housing study. Woods provided an 88-page introduction for this week’s agenda packet, and City Staff expects to release a full initial draft of the study as part of next Tuesday’s Council agenda, Fehrenbach said. ELi will update this story with a link to that additional material when it becomes available. [See update at end of article.]

Fehrenbach indicated the conversation next week will dive into the data, whereas Woods’ presentation this Tuesday was more a cursory overview of what Fehrenbach called “this important study.”

In introducing herself, Woods explained to Council that she went into consulting in 2000, doing market studies for small towns before starting to work with Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) and Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) to do “target market analyses.” Woods said she has done around 120 of these around the state of Michigan.

“So, at this point, with that work under my belt, I’m not trying to brag, but I like to say I’m the consultant of choice for the Michigan state agencies on doing housing studies,” Woods told Council. “And I do use the target market analysis methodology for the vast majority of my work.”

After offering background on herself, Woods moved into the second phase of her presentation, where she went over Appendix One of the draft study, the part included in Tuesday’s meeting materials

Woods indicated that her main goal of sharing this appendix with Council was to introduce them to the terminology and prep them slightly for the fuller discussion next week. She wanted them to know that the “target market analysis” is different from other housing studies methodologies, although she did not explain alternative approaches.

Woods said the method she applies, using data purchased from the credit monitoring company Experian, allows her to study the preferences of different “lifestyle clusters,” rather than solely examining resident tenure and type: renter or owner. (“Tenure” refers to the length of time a person stays at a given address.)

Woods examined information for 71 defined “lifestyle clusters” in the United States. These are categories created by Experian, not her. For each cluster, she said, there’s an accompanying 20 pages of data breaking them down in detail from generic categories like family composition, income, and ethnicity to what car they drive and what they listen to on the radio.

The clusters have names that Woods herself said, on the surface, can seem “flavorful” and not very meaningful — Babies and Bliss, Cul De Sac Diversity, and Status Seeking Singles, for example — but they do correspond to real groups of people. American Royalty is the term used to refer to people on the top of the income scale, and Woods said that East Lansing has a handful of such households. Tough Times is the name for “the lowest income cluster.”

Examples of the “lifestyle clusters” being used to conduct the housing study.

“The power of this data is that I’m able to identify, for different lifestyle clusters, what their inclination might be, to choose to live in a detached house, or a duplex or a six-plex. And I can do that for both owners and renters,” Woods said.

Woods didn’t delve deeply into the East Lansing-specific data and findings on Tuesday, but did highlight that wealthier people like to live in detached houses and that students (people categorized as Colleges, Cafe) are by far the biggest residential cluster in East Lansing. She also said that renters in East Lansing have a very high movership rate — meaning students are likely to move to a different place when their leases end, rather than renewing. 

Woods also said she examines movership rates and ownership rates to try and determine who might not be living in East Lansing due to expense or other considerations.

After presenting, Woods took questions from members of Council. Some said they wanted to know what category they fall into and Woods said she could tell them outside of the meeting. (Mayor Aaron Stephens was absent.)

Council Member Dana Watson asked about what encompasses “ethnicity” in the analysis, as there was no mention of “race” in the material. (The only exception was that three clusters were described as “racially diverse”: Urban Ambition, Urban Survivors, and Suburban Attainment.)

Woods replied that she doesn’t include race and ethnicity in her analysis.

“I do not try to separate out the market potential or the gaps by race or ethnicity,” Woods said. “I don’t feel that – honestly, in my work, I’ve contemplated the challenge many times. I know that race and ethnicity are correlated with income. And I really made this decision to focus the analysis on income, recognizing there is a correlation and we know that our Black communities are — there’s inequality in terms of their incomes. In a lot of markets, we see the inequality and it really percolates through in terms of their income and what they can tolerate in terms of paying rents or being able to purchase a home. But I do not try to apply the market potential by race or ethnicity myself.”

Watson responded, explaining, “It’s important for us to know what races or ethnicities might be bypassing East Lansing, so that we can make sure that we are as anti-racist as we say we are. And so that we can make sure we’re creating a community that welcomes more than just people with money.”

Woods answered that addressing affordability is the clearest way to do that — saying that some groups are bypassing East Lansing for Lansing because prices here are too high.

“The way to address that is to really make sure the prices are attainable and that we’re providing a variety of housing choices for a diverse group of lifestyle clusters,” Woods explained.

When Watson was a Planning Commissioner in 2019, she had also indicated a desire to know how to provide more affordable housing, particularly for families, while Vice Chair Kathy Boyle wondered if the big new student housing complexes might be creating a bubble that could have a negative impact on the City. (See ELi’s reporting on that discussion.)

Council was told about these prior concerns in a public-comment call from Anne Hill, President of the Hawk Nest Neighborhood in the City’s Northern Tier. That area of the City includes large student-apartment complexes with units designed to appeal to students and few other markets. (They have, for example, four-bedroom, four-bath units with small kitchens and little common living area.) Many have asked what happens if students abandon those complexes in favor of living near campus in one of the newer apartment complexes.

Hill also reminded Council that the Request for Proposals issued for the housing study asked for consultants to examine conversion of neighborhood rental properties, developments in the Northern Tier, recent densification of downtown, and the impact of big student-housing projects just over the East Lansing border in Lansing, Meridian Township, and Bath.

Whether those areas of concern will be answered in this study remains to be seen.

UPDATE: The agenda is now out for the April 27 meeting and contains the full study.

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