Housing costs and Culver: where do we go from here? PART 1 of 4

Visit any number of businesses or entities in Culver during the day and observe who's at work there. Chances are by nighttime, they'll be out of town.

This includes both the smaller operations here, such as restaurants and retail venues, and the larger: Culver Academies (the largest employer in Marshall County), which employs more than 800; Elkay-Medallion, which employs around 260; Miller's Merry Manor, around 80; Culver Community Schools, nearly 90 certified teachers and staff (not counting a number of non-certified staff members). The vast majority exit the town of Culver before bed-time, leaving a community whose streets in the non-summer months seem marked by a majority of darkened, empty homes.

The problem is not a new one, of course, though it’s relatively new in the life of Culver (gaining the most ground in the 1990s and 2000s), and to a large extent it boils down to the housing market here: home prices are often too high for middle and lower middle income families and individuals to afford.

It's an adage often heard by anyone who's sought housing here: the same home selling for less than $100,000 in surrounding communities -- or even just outside the town of Culver or Lake Maxinkuckee areas -- may be marketed for $200,000 and higher in the town itself. This is partly, of course, because compared to housing prices in some urban areas within driving distance -- say, Chicago or Indianapolis -- Culver's prices seem cheerfully reasonable. However, only some of those purchasing homes here from those areas become permanent residents; many, instead, use their Culver abode as a second home for a summertime vacation spot.

The question of Culver's future as regards moderate-income housing is sure to play a visible role in the development of this year's comprehensive plan; it's certainly one of the priority topics for town manager Dave Schoeff.

Schoeff believes an overbalanced focus either on catering to vacationers to Culver or locals misses the possibility of expanding a focus to include both.

He's been involved in discussions of buying "blighted" blocks in Culver and seeking out a developer in hopes of constructing apartments or affordable homes.

"There's money out there," he says, "to give homeowners money to fix their homes up; there are redevelopment commissions that will do that."
Schoeff suggests "thinking outside the box" and considering whether the town itself could "take some risks" by buying properties currently overpriced and not moving, and facilitating development -- whether housing or commercial -- as an "investment in your community."

Some of the challenges in staffing versus housing in Culver come down to a "chicken or the egg" equation, adds Schoeff.

"Can I find a good, solid workforce to substantiate what I will bring here (as a potential new business or manufacturer)? If I need 50 employees, will I have trouble staffing what I need? So do you bring people and hope to bring industry? Medallion brought industry but it doesn't seem to bring a lot of the blue collar people here. One of our biggest hurdles is housing, so let's fix it. I'm not sure what the answer is, but sitting here on our thumbs isn’t it. We have to be creative and find ways to bring people here."

Rick Coffman, plant manager at the Elkay-Medallion factory on Mill Street, acknowledges that "a few" employees there live in Culver proper. The majority, however, do not.

"Being here, you're pulling from the tri-county area, which is part of the economic package for Elkay to come here. On the salary side, I pulled some different managers and supervisors in from different regions, including New York and Tennessee. Both would have considered Culver, but it didn't work out because of housing and other factors.

"They loved Culver and the community (but) either housing wasn't good enough, or it was way too expensive."

For Elkay's hourly workers, says Coffman, "it's not affordable for them at all. One thing I talked to the town manager about is, a lot of people I assume would consider living here if they had affordable rentals or apartments."

In that case, he adds, turnover would be lessened and workers' fuel costs reduced.

Greg Fassett, director of Culver's Miller's Merry Manor nursing home, acknowledges "very few" of the approximately 80 people employed at the facility live in Culver.

He feels increased options in affordable housing would "possibly benefit me as an employer," and he says he's "definitely in favor of it."

However, Fassett laments the same challenge as many others do: "If land in Culver is overpriced," he says, "how can you afford to build affordable housing?"

John Buxton, head of schools at Culver Academies, notes that 80 percent of the school's faculty and salaried staff do live within 10 minutes of the school, though many have chosen to live near -- rather than in -- town. The Academies' situation differs a bit, too, since the schools owns a fair amount of property in Culver (or within blocks of its eastern limit, adjacent to the campus) specifically designated as faculty or staff housing.

"(Faculty or staff) say, 'I'd love to buy a house in town, but they're asking too much,' so our people go outside of town. Or, we (the school) have to buy a lot of houses. But we're not interested in owning half the town.

"Just outside of town you can get enormous value -- maybe a third or a half more house for the same price," he adds, noting many faculty or staff members do indeed purchase homes within a few miles of Culver, which also affords them space for a few dogs and horses.

"It's not as though there's not enough housing within 20 or 25 minutes of Culver; the question is, if you're trying to attract people to live in Culver, what is the right kind of housing to put in to attract them? There's not much."

Buxton points to a phenomenon frustrating many in discussing moderate-income housing in Culver: "Everything has a 'golden ticket' mentality attached to it, so that there's the notion that, 'I could be sitting on a gold mine, even if my house is only worth so much. It's like trolling for the 10 pound bass. There's a higher price tag than there is value, but people are willing to take the risk.

"I don't think that's healthy for the town."

On the lower end, Buxton adds, "I've heard a lot of people looking for apartments, who are trying to downsize, and there's nothing available."
Of the hundreds of hourly employees working at the school, few live in the town of Culver proper, and those who do are often occupying houses they've owned for decades, before prices went up.

Among the faculty and staff living within three or four minutes of the campus, says Buxton, within about a decade that number has gone from around 90 percent to 80 percent.