By: Stan Maddux
What’s viewed as a landmark proposal to build housing at a price within reach of average wage earners with help from the school system and local governments outside New Buffalo has taken another step forward.
New Buffalo Area Schools Superintendent Michael Lindley has agreed to try and get the city and township to join the school district in the proposed public-private partnership.
Lindley said he will also attempt to get Berrien County government to contribute to the project in some fashion.
The price of the homes would be reduced from lowering the cost of construction.
No contributions are allowed to be in the form of cash, though, since it’s against the law to use property tax dollars to subsidize a housing development, officials said.
The homes would go up on about 20-percent of a 35 acre site owned by the school district, which has agreed to donate the land for the development.
The plan involves construction of 30 townhomes and two apartment buildings containing 32 units combined along Lubke Road across from New Buffalo Elementary School.
Another 15 lots would be reserved for single family houses that would be constructed over time with help from students in the New Buffalo High School building trades program.
Currently, the total cost of constructing 62 units is estimated at roughly $18 million.
Representatives from Progresses, a real estate development company based in Chicago and the Antero Group, a consulting firm also based in Chicago, are designing the project and outlining the steps involved to reach a ground breaking.
The companies are also making sure all of the complicated legal aspects are being followed for what could be a first of its kind housing project in Michigan.
Representatives from both firms gave an overview of the proposal during a school board workshop on March 15 at the high school.
Whether the development becomes reality hinges on acquiring enough financial support from the public or private sectors to reduce the cost of construction enough to bring down the price of the homes to a level average wage earners can afford.
Right now, Lindley said he felt the estimated cost is much too high and enough outside funding of some sort will be needed to make construction a reality.
“It’s imperative you look for any grant programs out there,” he said.
Local governments will be asked to do things like put in the streets and other infrastructure such as water and sewer lines at no cost or a discount from what a private contractor would charge.
Other forms of help to be sought include reduced fees for tapping into the municipal water and sewer systems.
Lindley said the idea is to bring in families with children now priced out of the local housing market to reverse declining enrollment.
He said another goal is to attract and retain more teachers by providing homes financially within their reach.
“We got to think outside the box and figure out how do we get these people to live here,” he said.
Lindley said he anticipates the new housing, if constructed, to be offered for purchase and rent.
He also emphasized what’s traditionally viewed negatively as affordable or subsidized housing is not what’s being explored.
School board member Lisa Werner said deed restrictions aimed at keeping the homes occupied by full-time residents in future years should be included if the development happens.
“We want some control so it just doesn’t turn into a second home development,” she said.
School board member Denise Churchill expressed a similar view.
“I want to protect the integrity, the reason we’re doing this,” she said.
Ed Gausselin, a representative from the real estate development firm, said reaching the desired price level will be a challenge especially from much higher construction costs and rising interest rates.
However, he said the design work is in the very early stages where it’s ripe for changes to reduce cost.
“There are ways of getting this where it needs to be,” he said.
Eric Neagu, president of the consulting firm, said construction could begin within a year if everything in the standard legal process that must be followed goes right.
He said the next steps should include a surveying of the land early in the spring and decision by the school district on any restrictions desired in the deeds.
Another workshop to further discuss the proposal is anticipated in May or June.
By: Stan Maddux