By Tony Wittkowski | City Reporter | The Times Herald
Officials are projecting the number of empty homes in St. Clair County is trending down.
The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments estimates the vacancy rate dipped to 10.4 percent in 2013, down from a peak of more than 11 percent of homes in 2010.
Sirisha Uppalapati, a senior planning analyst for SEMCOG, attributed the high vacancy rates to a loss in population countywide. The vacancy rate in 2000 was 7.5 percent.
“The loss in population resulted in an increase in vacant units and as a result there was an increase in vacancy rates,” Uppalapati said. “While growth is happening, it is at a very slow pace and at very modest numbers. The region’s population growth is very much dependent on in-migration.”
Port Huron city manager James Freed said a high vacancy rate directly impacts homeowners as the values of their homes can decrease.
“It’s an indicator of a sluggish economy,” Freed said. “If there is a high vacancy rate, it’s because people can’t afford homes. Adversely, that would mean less taxable value.”
Greater demand on the housing market equates to housing values increasing. In the past 12 months, Freed said housing values have increased 4 percent in Port Huron.
Since 2010, the job market and economy in southeast Michigan has been improving, Uppalapati said. In addition, the region has also seen growth in population since 2011.
As a result of the population growth combined with a lack of new construction during the latter part of this decade, the housing inventory in the market is being absorbed resulting in fewer vacant units and lower vacancy rates since 2010.
When prospective businesses look at regions they wish to start at, the vacancy rate comes into play, Freed said. When the number of vacant houses is down it benefits the region, which sees a better quality housing stock along with more building permits and investments in the current homes.
Kathleen Lomako, executive director for SEMCOG, said the organization collects home and residential vacancy numbers in the effort of forecasting the future.
“We collect data because we think it’s the foundation for making good decisions,” Lomako said. “We work with elected officials in each region and as a result this information is used by private developers and businesses who are thinking about moving to a specific area.”
Uppalapati, however, warned that, “if there isn’t significant in-migration, there is a possibility that the county will lose more and more people and as a result vacancy may again increase in the coming years.”
Across the county
In Clay Township, the estimated numbers from 2013 projected a 30.7 percent vacancy rate.
However, the numbers for municipalities like Clay Township are skewed.
Chris Mazur, survey statistician for the U.S. Census Bureau, said in order to determine whether a residence is vacant, mail forms are sent out which are followed by phone calls through their telephone centers if no one is reached.
At that point, a field representative is sent out to determine if anyone lives at the specific location.
Mazur said the census also enacts a two-month rule on these visits. So, if the homeowner does not live at the house for more than two months, it is considered vacant by their standards.
Because Clay Township has many cottages and summer homes, the vacancy rate balloons larger than other municipalities.
Artie Bryson, Clay Township supervisor, said the community is making as much progress on the housing market as any other municipalities in the county.
“I know as far as the real estate market, the houses on the waterfront have gone up substantially the last year and a half,” Bryson said. “I know we have a trailer park that has 20 percent in capacity. That could also be taken into account for the abnormal vacancy rate.”
Port Huron has an 11.7 percent estimated vacancy rate for 2013 — down from a 12.2 percent rate in 2010.
Port Huron Mayor Pauline Repp said that people “have lost jobs and have moved away.
“Houses weren’t selling quite as quickly, so people were not getting the price that they wanted for their homes and held onto them. I think it all comes back to the economy.”
Freed said the economy has grown since 2010 and argues that the occupancy rate is less than what SEMCOG currently projects.
“I sincerely question the SEMCOG numbers overall, but it is the best way to gauge the trends,” Freed said. “We are seeing buildings being purchased.”
He said a 30 percent vacancy in the city’s industrial park in 2010,has fallen to less than 10 percent. Port Huron is running out of room for incoming businesses and the companies that made it through the recession are expanding, Freed said.
Kimball Township has one of the lowest vacancy rates in the county at an estimated 4.1 percent.
Rob Usakowski, township supervisor, said Kimball has a low tax rate that attracts home buyers.
“When you look at neighboring towns, we have a much lower tax rate,” Usakowski said. “From an owner’s standpoint, you don’t have to charge as much to make back what you paid for.”
He said the numbers are encouraging.
“We actually had 13 housing projects that had gone through the planning stages,” Usakowski said. “However, with the decline in the market none of it happened and it all fell through.”
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 25, 2014)