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KEVIN LEININGER: Can’t find a new house? Taxes up on your old one? Sometimes, problems represent progress

With the demand for housing high and the supply low, signs like this are becoming common. (News-Sentinel.com file photo by Kevin Leininger)
Kevin Leininger

It’s been nearly four years since the launch of the “Road to One Million” campaign intended to add 225,000 people to northeast Indiana’s then-stagnant population by 2030 or so. But that ambition carries with it a classic free-market chicken-and-egg question.

Which comes first: the people needed to justify construction of new homes, restaurants and stores — or the facilities needed to attract, accommodate and house them?

For now, at least, the demand side seems to be stronger than the supply side.

You may have seen reports last week of a new study indicating that the same 11-county Northeast Indiana region behind the “Road to One Million” (excluding Allen) could support the development of nearly 16,000 new housing units, including up to nearly 11,000 apartments and 4,000 houses. “For a number of years . . . the 10 counties outside of Allen haven’t had enough new houses, townhomes and apartments built to attract new residents. Not only that, but the rehab efforts seen in places like downtown Fort Wayne and the West Central neighborhood haven’t yet occurred in large measure in our rural counties. This lack of growth has kept the value of existing houses low while the cost of constructing new houses continues to rise,” stated Michael Galbraith, director of the Road to One Million at the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership.

But the story is far more nuanced than that. Census data released in April indicates that northeast Indiana has grown by more than 30,000 people since 2010 and now stands at about 785,000 — still a long way from 1 million, but heading in the right direction. Especially encouraging is the “domestic migration” statistic that tracks the movement of existing residents. Last year the region lost 574 but gained gained 694 this year.

“This is remarkable news,” Rachel Blakeman, director of the Community Research Institute at Purdue University Fort Wayne, said in April. “Net domestic migration tells us how people are voting with their feet. The positive net domestic migration numbers . . . tell us that northeast Indiana is offering an attractive quality of place that is attracting new residents.”

Sure, but where will they live, work and play?

I have friends who are Realtors, and they seem to share a common lament: Sales are good — when they can find houses to list. Statistics from the Upstate Alliance of Realtors, which represents Allen ad five surrounding counties, show why: As of March, new listings were down 7.5 percent from the previous year, pending sales were down 12.1 percent and inventory levels were down nearly 19 percent. Not surprisingly, the scarce supply was helping to drive up cost, with the median sales price increasing 10 percent to $148,000.

Fort Wayne’s retail real estate market remains strong, too, but not quite so tight, according to a survey by the Zacher Co., the overall vacancy rate rose from 11.1 percent last year to 12 percent in the past year, but that was “a direct result of the closing of four big box retailers . . . (Sears, Carson’s, Toys R Us and Babies R Us) totaling 420,000 square feet, and not a reflection of the overall retail market conditions, which remain strong.” And the former Sears property at Glenbrook is already slated for redevelopment.

When I interviewed Mayor Tom Henry election night he was proud of the progress Fort Wayne has made in recent years but noted something few people stop to think about: The city has more jobs than qualified people to fill them. That induces people who are already here to stay and helps attract new residents seeking employment. That in turn increases the demand and price of existing housing and creates the market for more. Plans for two subdivisions in fast-growing Perry Township containing a total of nearly 125 homes were filed just last week.

For now, though, the low inventory of available housing is helping push market prices higher, with the assessed value of Allen County real estate increasing from $14.74 billion in 2017 to nearly $16.4 billion this year. Many people whose taxes were already at the maximum 1 percent of their home’s value may be paying more as a result.

Nobody really wants to deal with a shortage of employees or housing or higher taxes. Occasionally, however, such problems are the price of progress — and far preferable to the stagnation that induced Road to One Million in the first place.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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