Housing starts signal Rochester Hills turnaround

Sold signs are easy to find in the Clear Creek subdivision off Sheldon Road.

Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett is comfortable being called an optimist. Even so, in his sixth State of the City Address last week, he sounded more upbeat than usual.

Four years into the economic downturn, his strategy for keeping his city “the preeminent place to live, work and raise a family” seems to be working.

“There isn’t any major criteria or metric out there that is going in the wrong direction,” he said a few days after the speech. “I think we still stand out among our competitors as an area that is doing better than most.”

One segment that is showing strong signs of bouncing back is residential housing. Take a drive north of Stoney Creek High School to the Clear Creek subdivision, and you’ll wonder where the recession went: Sold signs dot the landscape, and construction crews are at work on what can only be described as mini-mansions.

In his speech, Barnett said 116 permits for new homes were issued in 2011, up 127 percent from 2009.

“That’s 116 new families moving into our community, filling houses, shopping and dining at our establishments and enrolling in our schools,” he said. “It’s growth at the very core of our community and was validated by the last census.”

In addition, the average new home construction value, $360,000, put the city at the top in Oakland County.

Barnett said he’s talked to Realtors. “They say Rochester Hills is easy to sell,” based on quality schools and other amenities. Whereas prices might have been out of reach for many before the housing slump, “As things start to turn, this becomes a very desirable area,” he said.

The city’s planning director, Ed Anzek, has heard the same thing from builders who call his office, looking for buildable lots. Projects that went dormant during the housing slump are being rediscovered and revived, he said.

“We were told yesterday by a builder that our vacant (land) inventory is dwindling,” Anzek said. “Four builders who call me at least once a week ask me if I’ve found any sites where they can build. … They’d love to be able to build this year.”

Anzek said he’s hearing about cash sales and pent-up demand. “There’s no one real pattern as far as who’s buying,” he said. Some who are already city residents want to upsize, others who are finding jobs here want to move in.

The most surprising area has been Clear Creek, he said. In January of 2011, when Anzek drove through, he saw 28 homes actively under construction. “Active homes under construction in January is rare,” he said.

Barnett sees the linkages between housing values, good jobs and city services and amenities. During the downturn, the city largely managed to preserve services, cutting costs where possible while keeping the focus on economic development.

“You make some strategy decisions about where you want to go,” Barnett said.  “I believe most community issues can be fixed by a good paying job. It impacts your property values, the health of your school district, your service providers, and your crime rate are all closely tied to the number and quality of your community’s jobs.”

When it comes to unemployment, Barnett said the city’s numbers are “crazy:”  4.7 percent, as compared to the county (8.2 percent) and state (9 percent). The city has added 2,804 new jobs in the last four years and $119 million in business investment, he said. The vacancy rate is 8 percent, the lowest since the city began tracking it in 2005.

At least in part, it’s happened, he said, by maintaining a business-friendly environment. The city hired an economic development specialist last year and sought to eliminate some costs of doing business with the city.

“I wish I could tell you exactly how everything works,” Barnett said. “I just like reporting al this good news. …

“In 2012, our biggest challenge will be to continue to elevate our game.”

View the 2012 State of the City Address.

Speak Your Mind