How can Fort Wayne address the need for housing?

For many people, owning their own home is the ultimate dream. It’s a big milestone in many adults’ lives, but unfortunately, it’s not always attainable for everyone. The topic of home ownership and affordable housing is an important one, and it’s at the forefront of conversations for many city professionals, developers, investors, realtors, and families in Fort Wayne. 

President and CEO of Greater Fort Wayne Inc., John Urbahns, brings years of experience in economic development and community development to his role. He has managed and negotiated several key investments that have shaped the Fort Wayne community, including The Landing, Electric Works, and The Bradley boutique hotel. Urbahns continues to work on neighborhood development projects, redevelopment, and strategic planning.
John Urbahns, President and CEO of Greater Fort Wayne Inc.
Urbahns views the current Fort Wayne housing market as a tight one when it comes to product availability– but also a growing one.

“From a suburban perspective, if you really look at the significant growth that has happened in the Huntertown area, New Haven, there are a lot of new, single-family plots,” he says.

When planning future developments, it’s important to know what buyers are looking for, and what kinds of attributes they desire in housing types. Creating jobs is just one part of attracting talent– having homes for those new employees is crucial. Housing availability and type play a significant role in attracting new talent to the area. 

“From an economic development perspective, if you’re growing jobs and attracting people, your housing market needs to be growing as well,” Urbahns says. “Housing is a key component of our economic growth.”

Not only is it important to have housing for potential new residents, but Urbahns says a variety of housing types is important too. 

“That’s one of the things we’ve really focused on in our community, within our region,” he says. “You can range from living in downtown Fort Wayne to living on a farm. Downtown housing, urban neighborhood housing, suburban housing, rural housing, you have to look at all those factors. From an attraction perspective, we’ve got options across the spectrum.”

Urbahns says there are many kinds of housing models they’re looking at now that weren’t as common 20 years ago, including duplexes, shared-wall construction and condominiums. 

He says there’s also a gap in available units due to the long-term effects of the housing market crash. 

“If you look back 15 years ago when the housing market really crashed, and there was no development for a couple of years, we’re playing catchup on the number of units, to some degree,” Urbahns says. “We don’t have those 15-year-old houses out on the market, because they weren’t built for a few years when the market crashed. That’s one of the problems that we’re dealing with here. It didn’t just pop up overnight, it’s been building up over time.”

So how can Fort Wayne leaders address the need for housing?

Dan Watson, Director of Marketing for Greater Fort Wayne Inc., says it takes collaboration from community stakeholders.

“Housing is a nationwide issue, and it takes a village, it takes a lot of different stakeholders to do this right,” says Watson. 

Part of that village includes collaborations between many community organizations, working together to find solutions.
Paul Spoelhof
The City of Fort Wayne’s Division of Community Development Director of Planning and Policy, Paul Spoelhof, works on developing and implementing creative community-based strategies to enhance economic opportunity, build strong neighborhoods, and ensure a dynamic framework for quality growth and development.

“In the Planning Department, we focus on community engagement and research that defines and supports the vision residents have for our city,” Spoelhof says. “We document that vision as goals in a plan along with action steps that can help implement the goals.”

Recently, groups from the city’s Community Development Division, the Department of Planning Services, Greater Fort Wayne Inc., and other home builders and lenders went on a trip to Detroit to look at innovations in the housing industry. 

Citizen Robotics, a nonprofit that makes 3D-printed housing.“Experiments in the home building industry may be easy to read about, but they can be difficult to see and talk to the people working through the issues to find new and improved ways to deliver housing supply,” Spoelhof says. 

Leaders brought back many concept ideas, prompting further conversations on how to implement similar innovations here locally. 

“We went to Detroit specifically to see two innovations in action and to learn about a third that is still in the conceptual development stage,” Spoelhof says. “One innovation is construction that upcycles shipping containers. This is being done to produce single-family homes as well as larger commercial buildings and apartments. The second innovation is 3D-printed homes. While both are in an experimental stage, as the techniques are applied, efficiencies may be discovered.”

Spoelhof says he returned with a new perspective on different construction types, and how they could benefit the Fort Wayne housing landscape.

The Build Institute, a startup incubator, in Detroit, Mich.“It is easy to see the potential for both these construction processes to blend with more traditional techniques to deliver buildings that have advantages for some consumers,” he says. “I think it’s important to know what direction things are going so that we can adapt as necessary to apply new ideas in ways that improve our community.”

A Housing Market Potential study from 2021 shows that there’s a demand for different housing types and price points within the center of the City’s neighborhoods. The shortage in housing supply is far-reaching all over the nation. This puts a strain on low-income households that earn less than 60 percent of the area median income and are in need of affordable housing. 

“The housing that was already stretching a household budget may now break it; forcing impossible choices about bills that get paid and others that default,” Spoelhof says. “All additional housing in the market helps to curb this issue and housing that is affordable to low- and moderate-income households is especially important.”

Spoelhof says the local housing supply can be broken into two types: single-family detached homes and apartments in medium-to-large communities.

“While there are examples of attached single-family housing, townhomes, and buildings with fewer than ten apartments or condominiums, these types make up a very small segment of the market despite the evidence for growing demand,” he says.

As the demand grows, interest from small-scale contractors, developers and investors has grown too for delivering housing projects throughout Fort Wayne. 

Housing in Detroit, Mich., that utilizes shipping containers as porches and patios.But as demand goes up, so does the price. As the housing market has grown over the past 15 to 20 years, the cost of housing has also increased.

“Housing prices rose to a peak in the middle of 2022, delivering a fair amount of unexpected equity for homeowners,” Spoelhof says. “While many cities are seeing price increases slow and reverse, Fort Wayne appears to be holding steady. It may be too early to predict, but this may be a sign that the value increases reflect a reasonable correction rather than an overheated market or bubble. If the stability holds while the economy drives through the current inflationary roller coaster, that could send a positive signal to developers and investors in the coming months and years.”

Looking ahead, Spoelhof says the City of Fort Wayne is in the early stages of looking for opportunities to apply either of the innovative construction techniques locally. 

Realtor, broker, and owner of Sold by The Gold Inc. at North Eastern Group Realty, Beth Goldsmith, says despite the rise in median sale prices, there continues to be a low inventory of homes available for sale. 

Within the seller’s market of Allen County, Goldsmith says one factor of the demand for housing is due to the increase in net migration to the region. 

“Allen County has witnessed positive net migration for six straight years,” she says. “Another factor is the rising tide of Gen Z home buyers in 2020 and 2021 during the pandemic. The government stimulus checks, the pause on student loan debt, and the low-interest rates during the pandemic allowed this generation to enter the marketplace. The increase in prices and increase in mortgage rates have now made it much more difficult for first-time home buyers.”
Beth Goldsmith
Despite historically being an affordable place to live, Allen County’s affordability index has decreased for the past four years, says Goldsmith. The housing affordability index shows the median household income necessary to qualify for a median-price home at today's mortgage interest rates and is calculated by a percentage. 

“For example, an index of 120 percent means the median household income is 120 percent of what is necessary to qualify for the median-priced home,” explains Goldsmith. “A higher number means more affordability. The 7-county northeast Indiana region decreased by 23.7 percent over the last 12 month period.”

In searching for housing, location remains the number one guiding principle for home buyers, Goldsmith says. This includes the closeness to work or school, proximity to friends and family, parks, shopping, and health care. Buyers are also looking for homes with less home maintenance, and more amenities within their community. 

Goldsmith says local amenities like coffee shops and small businesses can create a sense of neighborhood pride. 

“Today's buyers are what we call, front-porch-friendly,” she says. “They want to know who their neighbors are and have a sense of community. The pandemic created greater opportunities for work-from-home, and thus one of the greatest migration trends in history is still occurring. It has also increased the number of multigenerational households.”

The demand for townhomes and condominium communities has also increased. While new downtown developments are leases only, Goldsmith says the substantial demand for carefree, downtown living also attracts buyers, not just renters. 

“The Townhouses of Cityscape Flats, the Anthony Wayne Condos, and MidTowne Crossing are the only complexes that are available to purchase,” she says. “Interestingly, the demand for downtown living is spread across generations. First-time buyers and retirees alike want the amenities of a walkable downtown community.”

Despite the demand, there are still barriers that exist, preventing residents from reaching the milestone of becoming homeowners. These barriers are even more impactful for women and women of color, says Goldsmith.

“Affordability will continue to be a barrier as prices steadily increase and wages are relatively low,” she says. “The increase in median income is important for the population to become homeowners. Sadly, the Allen County Women and Girls Study shows that 25 percent of full-time working women earn less than $25,000 per year. Women in Allen County have definite barriers to becoming homeowners, especially black women.”

Ideally, Goldsmith says she would like to see Allen County competitively market itself as a good place to live. This requires affordable housing in all quadrants and the continuation of lifting up existing neighborhoods and increased placemaking programs, like the new Curb Appeal Program.

“Allen County has done a good job with neighborhood revitalization programs,” she says. “Continued investments to revitalize existing homes can also fuel more affordable housing while enhancing the community pride and well-being.”
Fort Wayne, in partnership with Allen County, introduced a new Comprehensive Plan, All in Allen, a vision for the future, with goals reflective of the residents, business owners, developers, and community members.

“This work will involve preservation of existing homes, adaptive reuse for buildings that can be modified to meet housing demand, and building a variety of housing types that align with the goals to satisfy changing consumer preferences,” Spoelhof says. “Cultivating more choice in our neighborhoods will have the desired effect of increasing population and housing density levels so that other important components of community; the jobs, shops, schools, parks and services that make a place great, can grow and thrive as well.”

This article was made in partnership with Greater Fort Wayne Inc.
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