Major multi-million dollar partnership takes on Kalamazoo's need for more affordable housing

The City of Kalamazoo and Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) are launching a major multi-million dollar partnership to increase the amount of affordable housing in Kalamazoo, part of an economic revitalization effort between the city and the national nonprofit.  

The city's housing advocates are supportive and hopeful -- they agree that Kalamazoo's low-income residents are in desperate need of homes that won't force them to choose between paying rent and cutting back on necessities.

But questions arise: Will this effort include support services to help people stay in their new homes? Will this help the low-low income residents, who are homeless or on the verge of homelessness thanks to a record of evictions and debt? And where is this money coming from?

Thirty percent

This is the accepted standard of housing affordability: You should pay no more than 30 percent of your monthly income on rent or home mortgage payments.

The lower your income falls, the more unrealistic this standard becomes, and the more likely you'll end up on the street if an unexpected expense makes the rent late. 

"Illness, job loss, family breakup, the head of the household leaves..." Kathy Roberts, LISC program officer and continuum of care director, lists a small sampling of the disasters that can put a family on the street. 

The number of households in Kalamazoo that pay more than 30 percent of income for a roof and walls "is pretty shockingly high," she says.

People paying more than the standard make up 62 percent of the Northside neighborhood and 52 percent of Douglas/Stewart, Roberts says. Nationally and in Kalamazoo, "we've had the stagnant wages and income for a lot of years, while housing costs keep creeping up -- it's been tough."

LISC is active in cities, most larger than Kalamazoo, across the US. So, why choose Kalamazoo for this, a pilot program to grow affordable housing? Because "we have a lot of willing partners willing to jump in," Roberts says. 

"All the partners that come to the table, and all the collaboration that doesn't happen everywhere, frankly. So that's part of the advantage of having a smaller community rather than a larger one."

But the credit for this happening in Kalamazoo, "that goes to Chuck," she says -- Chuck Vliek, program vice president of national LISC and executive director of Michigan LISC, who has been working in LISC's Kalamazoo office for over 21 years.

"I think it's a combination of deploying local resources and matching those resources with national," Vliek says. "In Kalamazoo, there's a small enough community, with enough collaborators and partners, that we can actually get the work done."

'The ink just dried'

LISC's initial plan is that starting this May work will begin on affordable-housing construction.  

Roberts clarifies, "the ink just dried" on the memorandum of understanding with the city, and things are "still in the talking stages."

The plan at the moment is, ten new houses will be built, and 25 homes will be rehabbed, over a three-year period. LISC also has a goal to prevent at least 10 foreclosures. 

Further, into the three years, they'll work to open 80 multi-family units with low rent during an "affordability period... they must rent to low-income for a specified time, and when that time's over it can go back to the market," she says.

It will take time, Roberts adds. "Everybody is realistic about that." 

LISC won't be swinging hammers themselves; "we're acting as catalysts and conveners, and we are working with local agencies that do production," she says. They have a long list of initiative partners including the city, Kalamazoo County, Habitat for Humanity, Housing Resources, Inc., Kalamazoo County Land Bank Authority, Open Doors Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services and other organizations.

As for the money, the $43.5 million for economic development and affordable housing, coming from both the city and LISC as outlined in the memorandums of understanding, it's not all going to immediately flood Kalamazoo. 

Roberts points out that "the actual funding to LISC this first year was $1.5 million for housing and $2.5 for the economic development."  So, "it's more like $4 million this year. But then we will use (the money) to spur production capacity in the community," including years-worth of "lending and equity investments." 

Musical chairs
There is a huge need for affordable housing in Kalamazoo, executive director of Open Doors Rick Stravers says. But the problem of homelessness is more than "simply a housing problem."

"In real life, I view it as a game of musical chairs," Stravers says. When the music stops, there's always one player who has no chair -- or no home. Adding more homes will help, but, "the people that lose when the music stops are people who have some of these barriers," Stravers says. Barriers that include a major one -- a record of eviction.

People fall into the "homeless trap," where every-day emergencies can lead to an eviction record. "Once you're evicted, that becomes a huge barrier to getting another place to live." 

Another barrier for many is a credit rating that would lead to a landlord's rejection. "If you've been paying over half your income on rent, you're going to have been late on some things," Stravers says.  

Open Doors has a no-cost shelter program for homeless young adults willing and able to work, and 104 rental units that cost an average of 55 percent market rate rent.

Last year they served 170 people in their rental program, and 81 homeless people in their two shelters. But "The City of Kalamazoo estimates it needs 3,000 additional rental housing units affordable to low-wage workers and people who are disabled,” Stravers says. "For the whole county, I estimate we need 5,000 to 8,000 more units of rental housing affordable to low-wage workers and disabled people.”

"We have to find a way for people to get back into the system," he says. "We need a lot more than Open Doors can provide." 

The problem is not either/or -- a lack of housing or the homeless trap. "It's both," he says. 

"But I don't want to undercut the importance of the need for additional housing. Low-income housing is shrinking, so I'm so grateful to LISC and the City of Kalamazoo for prioritizing the need for more affordable housing. And we haven't heard that for a long time from anywhere. And we really need it."

'We can't build our way out of the issue'

Michelle Davis is the executive director of Housing Resources Inc., a non-profit that fights homelessness in Kalamazoo. She agrees that more help for people on or over the border of homelessness is needed.

At a March 14 meeting hosted by LISC about the affordable housing initiative, with Kalamazoo city officials, commissioners and homeless advocates in the audience, Davis stands to say, "Right now, our strategy for homelessness, until this ramps-up, has to be to keep people housed where they are." 

As houses and units open for new tenants, "we also need to keep in mind the very low-income (families), and not be satisfied with a three-year pot of money that gets at home ownership, and demand that affordable housing for that income level is in place."

Davis adds at the meeting, "If we don't have units to put them in, it won't matter.... It's a tough thing." 

We ask Davis after the meeting: Was she saying she was worried that the initiative was only focused on low-income people, versus very low-income people? 

She sits on the Kalamazoo Housing Collaborative board with LISC and the city, she reminds us, and is "very supportive" of the need for affordable housing. "But I also want to be clear that we can't build our way out of the issue," Davis says.

HRI runs 55 subsidized rental units around Kalamazoo for families where the head of the household has a disabling condition, plus all the low-income units in Pinehurst Townhomes, Summit Park Apartments, Rosewood and the Rickman House.

"We have many, many units that serve the very low-income population, but there's a difference between affordable housing and how you define it relative to homelessness," she says.

People who have fallen into homelessness often need more than just a nice apartment. "Affordable housing development specifically for that purpose (getting homeless people into homes) may look very different, and has built-in support services, and other things that people who are experiencing homelessness need to be successful when moving out of homelessness," she says.

"And what's being proposed currently is gap money for developers who want to develop affordable housing -- I won't say it's not going to happen, but we haven't yet gotten to the conversation of homelessness and the very-low-income."

NIMBY

What can complicate the issue is "that 'not in my backyard' conversation," Davis says. Established residents are sometimes haunted by the old specter of high-rise projects, large urban buildings of units warehousing low-income people. 

Stravers says, "That concern arises out of the old '50s and '60s style of low-income housing that was super segregated, tons of poor people, and only poor people living together, and nobody promotes that model anymore." 

He continues, "everybody wants dispersed housing.... nobody wants to build the 'projects' that people have in mind when they think of low-income housing.... You need to help create a neighborhood." 

Davis points to HRI's Rosewood Community on 12th Street. "There was quite the uproar from the neighbors and everybody who thought this would be a horrible thing," she says. Now, "people drive right past there every day and don't even know it's affordable housing." 

LISC of Michigan's deputy director Charlotte Smith says that, for the Kalamazoo initiative, they are focused on making "homes that blend in with the character of the neighborhood... that look like the other homes, that are good quality so that neighbors and other people may not even  know -- not just tract houses that you throw up in a neighborhood just to get something on that lot." 

Stravers reminds us that people in need of low-income housing are also a major part of Kalamazoo's community.

With talk about "the projects" and other old-school methods of low-income housing, "you start to create this monolithic scary poor person. But the fact is, we're interacting with these folks every day. I know, because they live with us, and I know that population. They're the ones serving us at hotels and restaurants and gas station delis -- but they're having a very difficult time trying to find a place to raise their children. And to live a decent life." 

Some answers
By email, Second Wave asked Kathy Roberts, LISC program officer and continuum of care director, the questions raised by those we spoke with. She responds:

Will this effort include support services to help people stay in their new homes?

Roberts says this initiative does not have specific support services provided at this time, but there are a number of local agencies -- such as Habitat for Humanity and Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services -- that provide counseling, support, and financial literacy. Some of the proposed multi-family development projects will likely have supportive services attached. 

Will this help the low-low income residents, who are homeless or on the verge of homelessness thanks to a record of evictions and debt? 

Foreclosure prevention, to keep people from losing their current homes is the strategy that is currently planned. There is $2.2 million in Continuum of Care federal funding through the Department of Housing and Urban Development that provides funding for services to the homeless. Agencies seeking such funds can work with LISC who serves as the applicant for the agencies in the county. 

And where is this money coming from?

The Foundation for Excellence, created by the City of Kalamazoo and private donors to address the city’s long-term fiscal stability, includes an Affordable Housing Initiative. Roberts says this "allows us to leverage and subsidize existing efforts and projects and ramp up production of affordable housing in general."  LISC also has financial and personnel resources that can be used to help organizations "do the actual work."

Since 1992, Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist based in Southwest Michigan. He's covered a bewildering variety of subjects, from diversity in law to invasive species control, thrash metal bands to Broadway musicals. See more of his work here

 
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