Meet Peninsula Housing's First Homebuyers
By Craig Manning | Jan. 24, 2024
More than two years after its launch, Larry Mawby’s ambitious housing nonprofit has landed its first homebuyers. Last week, Peninsula Housing, the organization Mawby founded in 2021 to address Leelanau County’s housing challenges, handed off the keys of a Northport home to Kelly and John Kehl, a pair of Northport natives who had almost given up the hope of ever buying a house in their hometown. The outcome is almost the stuff of fairytales, given even more storybook sheen by the fact that it almost didn’t happen at all.
Let’s rewind: In 2021, Larry Mawby – founder, namesake, and former proprietor of Leelanau County’s longest-running winery – formed Peninsula Housing, a nonprofit aimed at increasing the stock of affordable, attainable housing in Leelanau County. It's is the first housing organization in Leelanau to operate as a Community Land Trust (CLT), a model designed to hold land in perpetuity.
Instead of selling land for development, a CLT leases it long-term. That leased land can be developed for purposes like housing, and a home built on CLT land can be bought, sold, or owned, but the CLT always retains ownership of the land itself. As a result, someone buying a home from a CLT can get a more affordable price than is typical in their market because they’re buying the house and not the land. In exchange, the homeowner must comply with the CLT agreement, called a “ground lease,” which can require that buyers be permanent, year-round residents rather than seasonal, or prohibit the home from being utilized for short-term rental purposes.
Since it started, Peninsula Housing has been acquiring properties throughout Leelanau County. While the organization has a growing portfolio of vacant land and existing homes, though – and while it has some tenants at various rentals – the nonprofit had not successfully moved any homebuyers through its program until last week.
For Kelly and John Kehl, being a part of that milestone – and getting the opportunity to buy a Leelanau County house at all – is a dream come true.
“We’ve been living up here our whole lives,” Kelly says, detailing the deep roots that both she and John have in the region. She describes herself as “a fifth-generation Traverse City dweller,” while John is descended from one of Northport’s original families. Despite those ties, the couple had mostly given up on the prospect of homeownership in their hometown.
“Buying a house really hasn’t been on our radar, because we actually didn’t think it was possible,” Kelly tells the Leelanau Ticker. “We’re working class: I own a business and John works at a local restaurant. We’ve always worked and lived in this area, but as we've watched it shift and change, our mindset and our expectations of buying a house changed, too. We figured we’d have to be okay with just being renters.”
In 2020, the Kehls even left their native Northport behind, reorienting their lives around Traverse City instead. An esthetician and herbalist, Kelly does business as Little Beauty Kitchen, which is located above What to Wear in downtown TC; she plans to relocate the business to Leelanau now that Northport will be home once more. John, meanwhile, works for the Honest Hospitality brand, which owns three restaurants – The Flying Noodle, The Burrow, and Mama Lu’s – in Traverse City.
Despite good jobs – Kelly says Little Beauty Kitchen is “thriving,” while John praises the ownership at Honesty Hospitality for their employee-first philosophy – the two have thought more than once about leaving northern Michigan in search of a more affordable place to live.
“I was thinking about switching over to being a Buffalo Bills fan and moving to western New York,” John laughs. “But it didn’t work out for the Bills this week, and I’m a Lions fan, so I guess it all worked out for us.”
Things “worked out” thanks in large part to Hillary Voight of Found Realty Co. of Five Star Real Estate, the Kehls’ real estate agent. Last summer, Voight caught wind of a home in Northport whose owners were in talks to sell to Peninsula Housing. Though Voight was unfamiliar with the nonprofit, she took one look at the house and knew it was exactly what the Kehls were looking for. She got in touch with Mawby, familiarized herself with Peninsula Housing, and positioned the Kehls to be the organization’s first buyers.
That deal fell through: The house appraised at a higher value than expected, which scooped it right out of Peninsula Housing’s price range. Knowing the news would break the Kehls’ hearts, Voight kept it to herself for a few hours, trying to think of different solution.
“It took me probably two hours before I had an insane idea,” Voight says. Just three weeks prior, she had sold a house in Northport to a couple who were preparing to retire to the area. That pair had settled for a house that didn’t check every box on their “dream home” list; they’d wanted something more Victorian, with a big wrap-around porch. No such house had been available, but Voight realized that the house she’d been trying to get for the Kehls – the house that would now be heading for the open market – “was way more their vibe than the house they had just purchased.”
So Voight orchestrated a house shuffle: Her other clients would buy the Victorian, after which they’d take the house they’d purchased three weeks earlier and sell it to Peninsula Housing. That house now officially belongs to the Kehls, who will move in this weekend.
Kelly and John say they have nothing but gratitude. And now they want to pay it forward.
“We know we’re now the poster children [for Peninsula Housing], and we’ve told Larry that we’ll do whatever he needs us to do to help him,” Kelly says. “A lot of people still don’t really know about this program, so helping get the word out is super important to us. And then I’d also just like to be more involved in affordable housing causes in general, especially in Leelanau County. That’s important to me, because John and I would not have been able to buy this house without this program.”Comment
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