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The picturesque small city of Holland, Michigan, is known for its proximity to the Great Lakes, a popular tulip festival and its Dutch heritage.

Some are adding a lack of affordable housing to that definition.

It’s a theme that rings true in a number of communities, but the Holland Sentinel had a vested interest in the issue: New reporters and staffers were having trouble finding a place to live near the newspaper.

In a YouTube video, Patrick Moran, the president of the Greater Ottawa County United Way, summed up the issue:

“It’s actually quite a simple concept, it’s just really hard to get done. We can’t everybody earning six figures or the companies would go bust. So we’ve got to have these different levels of income to be able to stay competitive. If we’re going to do that, then we have to create community opportunities that are priced for those individuals.

We need to have the houses on the lake that are worth $5 million that people who have earned that much can buy, but we also need to have two- and three-bedroom apartment rentals that are priced the way we know they need to be priced. It’s an interesting philosophy — what if we build neighborhoods that if 35 percent of our population earns below the threshold, can we build a neighborhood that 35 percent of its housing that is appropriately priced. We don’t mean subsidized? We mean appropriately priced and appropriately sized.”

So the Sentinel, which has a newsroom of 11, dug deeper into the topic, coming up with this series of stories that tackled topics like crime rates in rental-heavy neighborhoods, how the city’s downtown corridor could become a hotspot for housing, and detailed future projections for demand.

GateHouseNewsroom.com caught up with Sarah Leach, the Sentinel’s editor, to talk about how the multi-faceted project came to fruition. She led a project that featured the work of reporters Amy Biolchini and Curtis Wildfong.

GateHouseNewsroom: What was the reason behind the series — was this something you discussed as a group, or how did you come up with the idea?

Sarah Leach: As we have brought new employees into our organization over the years, we have had more and more difficulty helping them find affordable rental housing. We started to hear grumblings from local business leaders, too, that they were having a tough time placing new hires in the city, forcing many to live in Grand Rapids, the closest major city, about 40 miles northeast of Holland. Then local city leaders started adopting aggressive policies with the publicly stated goal of reducing rentals even further because they had and “unhealthy” effect on the community. This made us want to look at how the city has approached its housing policies and how these decisions might end up hindering growth.

GHN: Walk us through the reporting process. What obstacles rose up that you didn’t see, and how did you overcome them?

SL: We didn’t have a clear agenda when the project began, so it was more of a fact-finding mission at first to see what stories would emerge. That process was overwhelming at times for Amy and Curtis because they couldn’t see the forest through the trees, so to speak, and were frustrated with the lack of focus. Once we reviewed what we had and crafted a list of stories, however, they were able to systematically approach completing the project. One major obstacle is that we are a small newsroom, so having two reporters working on a larger project simultaneously is not logistically ideal. There would be weeks where Amy or Curtis were out of the daily grind in order to focus on furthering the project. When breaking news would occur or staffing challenges arose, we had to push the series back as the lower priority to getting the news of the day out. When we initially started, we were working on a six-month timeline, so that helped us keep the long-term goal in perspective and to not beat ourselves up too much when we couldn’t get much progress made in a given week.

GHN: The 6-to-4 law was an interesting piece of this, with Hope College being an integral part of the region. Explain what the law is and how you covered that story.

SL: The city previously allowed up to six unrelated adults to co-reside in any given dwelling (owner-occupied or rental). As Hope College continued to grow, it started building housing units with large apartments that could house up to 10 students. The city started discussing at its meetings about a higher rate of police calls for partying, which they said were a drain on resources. At the time the law was amended to four unrelated adults, it was not largely contested other than by local landlords who ultimately were grandfathered in under the old rule. We didn’t really think too much about it, but then our education reporter interviewed a Hope College official who made an interesting comment about how the students were largely used as a scapegoat to justify the 6-to-4 rule and that the city ultimately was using the law change to limit low-income housing in city neighborhoods. We started pulling police reports of “party” weekends at the college for the past five years and could find no statistical spikes in calls in the college area during those times. We then asked the city what data they evaluated from the police department when making this decision and they couldn’t give a clear answer. This was the first piece identified for the series and, although not the lead item, it was one of the keystone pieces from which we branched out to explore other tentacles of this topic.

GHN: A number of great digital tools were included in this package. How did you plan for these, and what tools do you think really helped illustrate the story?

SL: The copy largely was done about a month before we began publishing. I wanted that to be set so we could get a clear look at what visual tools would best support what the story said or supplement what we didn’t say. Maps were pivotal in a story like this because we largely were talking about distribution of property, crime calls, changes in zoning, etc. We worked heavily with G.W. Babb and the graphics team at Design House. One of the challenges of working with a design team remotely is trying to convey what you want them to do visually. So Amy and Curtis created Google map versions of what we wanted illustrated to share with the design team. This proved invaluable, because these interactive version are what we used in the digital publishing platform of the series and used the DH-created content in print. One of my favorite tools we used was Juxtapose. We pulled an old city plat showing the residential zoning from 1985 and one from present day. The DH graphics team created identical maps and when we put them in Juxtapose, viewers can see how the housing areas in the city have been eroded over time. It underscored the fact that the overall housing stock in the city had been reduced over the past 30 years. Using the enhanced article presentation in MediaWare and embedding images throughout the copy in the digital presentation (a “layered” approach, as Jean Hodges would say) also helped make very lengthy pieces more appealing to our mobile platform readers. So, we wanted to be intentional about how we presented this on all major platforms to increase the likelihood that readers would keep reading.

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