Ryan Kilpatrick hopes to lend his experience in economic development to a new housing initiative in Ottawa County. After four years as a senior community assistance specialist at the Michigan Economic Development Corp., Kilpatrick departed from the organization this month to become the first executive director of Ottawa Housing Next, a public-private partnership tasked with bringing more affordable housing options to Ottawa County, the state’s fastest growing municipality. Before making the transition, Kilpatrick spoke with MiBiz about how the organization hopes to tackle the need for affordable housing in the lakeshore community.
What attracted you to the position at Housing Next?
I’ve been having conversations with the Community Foundation (of the Holland-Zeeland Area) and the United Way for probably six to eight months, and I think the big attraction was the coalition that they have already built. I’ve been involved in the collective impact process that United Way launched for at least a couple of years ago now.
What has that work looked like?
They really brought all stakeholders to the table and had good meaningful dialogue. There was no sort of prescriptive plan for how they were going to press ahead and define the core of the issue. And then when they formed the leadership council between the chambers of commerce, Lakeshore Advantage and the community foundations in the county, it really just felt like a strong group of core principals that were going to be in charge of this role and the directions for Housing Next.
Given the number of partners working on the issue of housing in Ottawa County, is there a concern about having too many cooks in the kitchen, so to speak?
Yeah. I think there are absolutely a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but in this instance, it’s a big kitchen. Really, what this role is, it’s going to be a facilitator and a convener. I don’t know how much. I think we’re (going) create this as we go in response to needs as they arise.
What do you envision some of those needs will be?
A big function of this role is going to be taking a look at local regulations and working at the grassroots level with local municipalities, planning and zoning administrators, planning commissions (and) city councils to figure out how can we streamline the process, how can we improve local zoning in a way that continues to build on the character of the existing neighborhoods while allowing more housing to get built.
Cost has become a national issue as many cities try to bolster the supply of affordable housing. Are there specific attributes of Ottawa County that could make this initiative successful?
I think it’s the players at the table today. We’ve got lots of corporate partners at the table in addition to county units of government, local units of government, chambers of commerce, community foundations. Everybody has really defined this as a core issue for economic development — not just social responsibility, but economic development.
What does having all those different partners at the table lend to the initiative?
I think that that’s really key to the conversation of how we recognize that this is a systemic problem. It’s complex, it’s not going to be solved with any sort of silver bullet. It’s got to be everybody at the table contributing what they can. And frankly, I think Ottawa County has gotten to the point where they’re there. The conversation is really about how does everybody contribute to a solution and not just looking to one person or one organization to be a superhero.
By contrast, does Ottawa County have unique attributes that could present challenges to your mission?
I think Ottawa County has a long history of very stable neighborhoods, and a majority of those neighborhoods tend to be single family. They do have some neighborhoods with multifamily. I think part of the issue is a lot of those multifamily neighborhoods haven’t been neatly woven into the economic community.
What do you mean by that?
We don’t have a lot of multifamily neighborhoods that are walkable to the downtown, or are walkable to retail services, or schools, or employment centers. I think we’re going to want to try to do some work to weave those things back together again. Where less expensive housing is available, we can knit that housing into the fabric of the community where it makes more sense from a mobility perspective for people to be able to get to work, or get to the kinds of retail services that they need, or health care services.
As you begin this role, what is your message to the private development community who might be eying projects in Ottawa County?
Bring your ideas, first of all. I think we want to look at anything and everything that has some market potential. We can evaluate that together with local units of government and financial partners. And also, I think all supply is good at this point. Part of the issue that we have is that we’ve spent a good six or seven years post-2008 recession with very little supply coming online and a fair amount of in-migration to the community.
Are you in ‘build, baby build’ mode?
We’ve got an excess of demand and not nearly enough supply. And even if we’ve got developers who are looking to do higher-end, more luxury housing, that’s not going to be our focus, but I think we will absolutely be cheerleaders from the sidelines because as we increase that level of supply, it gives an option for folks who are in a housing unit that may not be their first choice to move out of that unit and into something that is their first choice. That frees up more housing in the sector below them. I would say that any new building is good.