Leelanau News and Events

Larry Mawby Wants To Help Solve Leelanau County’s Affordable Housing Puzzle. Here’s How.

By Craig Manning | Jan. 24, 2022

Meet Leelanau County’s newest player in the fight for affordable housing: Larry Mawby. Of course, if you reside in or near Leelanau, you already know of Mawby, or his namesake vineyard, famous for decades far beyond northern Michigan for its sparkling wine. But Mawby retired from winemaking two years ago and has since been turning his attention to other passions. In 2020, for instance, he worked closely with the Leelanau Conservancy to preserve part of his family’s homestead

Now, Mawby is setting his sights on a new adventure. He recently formed Peninsula Housing, a nonprofit that will undertake a Community Land Trust (CLT) effort throughout his home county. The goal? Building more affordable housing in Leelanau County – and keeping it affordable forever.

A CLT is designed to own and hold land in perpetuity: Instead of selling land for development, a CLT leases the land long-term – typically for 89 or 99 years. Leased land can then be developed for purposes like housing.

The catch is that, while a home built on CLT land can be bought, sold, or owned, the CLT always maintains ownership of the land itself. Someone buying a home from a CLT would be able to get a more affordable price because they would be buying the house and not the land. In exchange, the homeowner agrees to comply with the terms of the lease: if they decide to sell the home, they must do so at a restricted price. This structure is what allows CLTs to lock in affordability.

CLTs are relatively rare: Most sources indicate that there are only about 225 in the entire United States. A few of those are in Michigan, but not many are in the northern reaches of the state.

“[CLTs] have existed in the country for a few decades at least,” shares Mawby. “There are several in Michigan, but there aren’t very many in this part of the state. The only really active one that I know of is up in the Charlevoix/Antrim area and has been around for 20 years.”

Despite their relative rarity, Mawby sees CLTs as a crucial tool for making sure affordable housing doesn’t disappear from Leelanau County. In his view, the flaw with much of the affordable housing dialogue that happens in northern Michigan is that, ultimately, those properties still end up being subject to the same market dynamics as other housing in the community. Since local real estate markets have been so hot lately, the inevitable outcome is that all housing prices go up – even on housing once designated as “affordable.”

“Most of the affordable housing that’s built in this area doesn’t stay affordable for very long,” Mawby explains. “It’s usually as little as five years, and you rarely see anything [that stays affordable] over 15-20 years. It eventually becomes market rate, and whoever owns it at that point can sell it for whatever they want. And so, my interest in starting Peninsula Housing was to make sure that the public and private monies that were being invested to provide affordable housing for families here, go toward housing that stays affordable, so that we don’t have to just keep doing this [planning new affordable housing developments] every few years.”

Mawby calls Peninsula Housing “a very young organization.” The entity incorporated in July, and is still in the process of filing “voluminous paperwork with the IRS” to operate as a 501c3 nonprofit. He has also presented the Peninsula Housing concept to the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners and the county’s Housing Action Committee, as well as part of a public webinar hosted last week by affordable housing advocate Yarrow Brown of Housing North.

Mawby is hoping to rally support throughout the county and beyond, including philanthropic investments that could help fund the purchase and development of Leelanau land.

“We are in the talking phases about several different sites in the Village of Suttons Bay,” Mawby says. “We picked Suttons Bay as the place where he wanted to begin, partly because I know the community – I live here – but also because we really feel that long-term affordable housing needs to be in or right on the edge of existing villages or cities.

“To make it really work and be affordable for people 50 years, or 100 years, or 200 years from now, it needs to be in a community. The facilities offered by a community – sewer and water, walkability to shopping, jobs, schools – can reduce the cost of living for people. If a two-worker family only needs one car to get to work, that saves several hundred dollars a month, and that’s really significant in making our communities affordable.”

Mawby says it’s not uncommon for 75 percent or more of employees at Leelanau County businesses – especially retail stores, restaurants, and wineries – to commute in from neighboring counties. Before he retired from Mawby, he recalls only four of the 50 employees actually living in the county.

Ty Wessell, a county commissioner and a member of the Housing Action Committee, believes that Peninsula Housing “has the potential to make a difference” in Leelanau County’s housing market – albeit as one tool in the arsenal rather than as the silver-bullet solution. Wessell notes that high demand and “the conversion of single-family homes to short-term and vacation rentals” have made it increasingly difficult for young families or service industry workforce to find places to live in recent years.

“Housing North’s target analysis report suggests that our county needs over 650 new units [by 2025], with approximately 45 percent of these units being single-family homes and 55 percent rental units,” Wessell says. “Tools useful to meeting this need include the CLT; nonprofit housing developers like Home Stretch, Habitat for Humanity, and Leelanau REACH; the Brownfield Authority; and the Land Bank Authority. Also useful will be getting our local communities housing-and-development-ready, by capturing state and federal housing grants, attracting developers, and addressing zoning challenges related to attached dwelling units, minimum lot size, and minimum unit restrictions.”

Yarrow Brown, executive director of Housing North hopes Peninsula Housing or other similar projects could eventually reach beyond county lines.

“A CLT is something that I always hoped for and that we always talked about, so I think it's a huge asset and need in our community,” Brown says. “And my understanding is that it’s starting in Leelanau County, but it will eventually cover other parts of our region.”

So, when could the first impacts of Peninsula Housing be felt? Mawby says the organization is in talks with landowners, the Village of Suttons Bay, the Leelanau County Land Bank, and other local entities to get the ball rolling. “These are not simple things to do,” he says of the early legwork. “But I'm hoping that within the next 3 to 4 months, we’ll be able to start talking about one or two projects and doing some serious fundraising.”

Photos courtesy Larry Mawby; marchmeena29 via iStock

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