EVART — Having affordable housing and local employment available for a workforce are vital for the sustainability of the City of Evart.

With a focus on those two factors, stakeholders met Wednesday morning for a housing and workforce development strategy session to look at a collection of data about those factors, brainstorm what those areas include and determine how to improve those areas with the resources already in Evart.

Those attending the session — employers, school officials, government employees and human services employees — all have a vested interest to address these concerns, said Sue DeVries, of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

"We're looking at housing and workplace development because when we first started interviews and research to start Project Rising Tide, those items kept coming up over and over," she said. "Now, we're trying to address those items so we can keep moving forward."

Project Rising Tide, sponsored by the Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development, is a program developed by Gov. Rick Snyder to provide communities with tools they need to design and build a solid planning, zoning and economic development foundation to attract new businesses and help existing employers grow.

Among the nine components that comprise Project Rising Tide, City Manager Zack Szakacs said officials selected housing and economic development with the hope it will change the face of Evart.

"If you drive through the city of Evart as I have for the last 10 to 12 years, you will see there are houses not painted or siding is falling off and it creates a perception," he said. "Addressing these issues, we can figure out how we can create a housing strategy to assist these people that struggle or have problems with maintaining their homes."

Michelle Bennett, a planner with Beckett and Raeder, highlighted a wide range of data collected from a survey and interviews done in October and the U.S. Census Bureau as indicators for the importance of creating a strategy.

Beckett and Raeder is a landscape architecture, planning, engineering and environmental services firm creating a new master plan for the city as part of Project Rising Tide.

"I want to show some context to these numbers we have," she said.

Among some highlighted factors, Bennett's presentation indicated:

  • renters comprise more than 50 percent of the city's population;
  • a higher cost burden for housing for residents;
  • a high rate of retail leakage, where locals are shopping for items outside the city; and
  • a median income less than half than the surrounding townships and the state of Michigan.

Bennett said her field work in October included an inspection of the condition of 530 homes within the city, and graded them from good to poor. Results indicated 419 were good condition, 99 were fair and seven were in poor condition, based on appearance of needed major or minor repairs.

"The number that concerns me, is 99 were in the fair category," she said. "That was six months ago and they could have gone from fair to poor since October."

DeVries added the visual inspections included only the outside of the house, and there are probably major and minor repairs needed that were not visible from the exterior.

Bennett received a lot of comments about substandard housing during interviews with residents and a survey.

Bennett and DeVries suggested the city may look to a rental housing inspection program as a tool to help set a standard for all rental units.

"If everyone knows what's expected of them, it will improve not only the appearance but also those homes, drawing more people to come to the city," Bennett said.

Midway through the meeting, stakeholders participated in a brainstorming session to determine factors to improve housing and workforce development.

Results showed a need for affordable and safe housing, and stable, well-paying employment which provides benefits and health care as keys to improve the workforce.

Bennett will now work on producing a vision statement and action plan. Stakeholders will meet again in the coming months to look for ways to put the plan in action.