State grant boosting housing on Bay City's West Side

Residents of a Bay City West Side neighborhood may have a little extra money to spruce up their homes this year thanks to a state grant.

Community Home Solutions, a Bay City-based non-profit organization, received a $50,000 grant from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority to help homeowners in the neighborhood near Realtor Park, which is located on the Northwest side of Veterans Memorial Bridge. The money is earmarked to assist with exterior home improvements. It’s similar to a grant Community Home Solutions used last year to improve an area along Grant Street on the city’s East Side.

“It’s designed to give a little spark, to provide funding in distressed neighborhoods and to enhance the neighborhood from the outside,” said Wenda Dziwura, the president and CEO of Community Home Solutions (CHS). “But it’s really a way to start the engagement with the neighbors so that it becomes an organic process of them improving their neighborhood and talking to each other to find out what their vision is for their neighborhood.”

Community Home Solutions applied for the grant in January, and MSHDA confirmed in April that it would award the money. Community Home Solutions will receive the funds early next month, but Dziwura and others have worked in the meantime to organize outreach programs to spread the word about the grant among Realtor Park residents.

The area targeted by the grant includes homes along Thomas and Jenny streets – the one-ways leading to and from downtown Bay City. It consists primarily of older homes. Approximately 22 of them – all single-family homes – can use grant money for improvements such as porch repairs, new windows, and even roof repair, Dziwura said.

“It’s the entryway into our city,” said Dziwura of the neighborhood.

A 2016 City of Bay City Housing Study conducted by CZB LLC, an urban planning and community development firm located in Virginia, identified the Realtor Park neighborhood as a distressed area.

“They literally came in and inventoried and scored every single and multi-family unit in Bay City,” said Dziwura. “It’s the greatest tool we have for bringing some of those distressed neighborhoods back to where they could be.”

The Community Home Solutions initiative isn’t the only recent project to target the neighborhood. The Bay Area Chamber of Commerce’s 2019 Leadership Bay County class chose to help beautify the Realtor Park area, including adding a 16-foot-tall steel sculpture created by Saginaw artist Jason Graham.

The 2019 class also raised money to add lighting, walking paths, benches and more in the park. Moreover, that project tied in with a Bay Area Chamber of Commerce beautification committee effort that has helped make improvements in the area.

Dziwura said the MSHDA grant application probably wouldn’t have succeeded if not for the efforts already going on in the area.

“With the Realtor Park revitalization that was already coming about, we took it as an opportunity to apply for the grant,” she said. “The leverage from the Leadership class (project) was extremely important. If we had just gone alone and said we needed money for houses, I don’t know if we would have gotten it. Instead, this grant was awarded with no questions.”

Paul Gaiser, the project leader for the Leadership Bay County Class of 2019, said he expects Graham’s sculpture, called “Before the Bay,” to be installed in early June.

Like Dziwura, Gaiser said that improving Bay City’s “entryway” is vital for a lot of reasons.

“There’s a traffic study that says that it’s one of the most heavily traveled areas in the state,” he said. “It creates an initial impression about Bay City and has a big impact on perceptions.

“While there are a lot of great things happening downtown and in Uptown, we’d like to see more things done on that (west) side of the river.”

Dziwura said the collaboration of different groups and agencies, and of the residents who live in the area, is a positive step that could help spur similar projects in the future.

“It’s not just us going in and announcing that we have grant money available,” she said. “Yes, we’re certainly going to tell them that, but it’s not going to be a big presentation. Instead, we want it to be something more conversational involving the residents.

“We want to find out their needs and let them decide what they want (the revitalization efforts) to look like.”

Trevor Keyes, president and CEO of Bay Future Inc., said the CHS project is an ideal way to help the area’s residents improve their homes and the overall appearance of the neighborhood.

“Homeowners may have the desire and willingness but the not the financial means to take on these sorts of projects,” said Keyes. “With CHS driving initiatives aimed at building robust and thriving neighborhoods, they continue to broaden the breadth and scope while cementing partnerships that result in increases economically, civically, and aesthetically throughout the community.”

Community Home Solutions, a 501(c)3 non-profit agency established in 1993, helps people of low to moderate income in Bay County buy and maintain homes. It provides financial literacy education, foreclosure prevention counseling, loans for qualifying home improvement projects. It also battles community blight with initiatives such as the Realtor Park grant.

“Our organization isn’t just about combating blight and offering revitalization efforts, but it’s also about strong home ownership,” Dziwura said. “It’s about homes that are not only affordable to purchase, but affordable to maintain while continuing to beautify them.”

The hope of Dziwura and others involved with the grant project is that the revitalization effort gains quick momentum as the neighborhood’s residents start to spruce their home’s exteriors.

“It’s been proven that there’s a flywheel-like effect once one neighbor fixes up their house, even if the other neighbors aren’t that interested,” she said. “But once one person does something, even if it’s just putting some flowers out, others want to do something, too.”

The Rev. Andreas Teich, the pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church located in the Realtor Park area, expects residents to take advantage of the grant.

“They’ve been very responsive in the past about things such as Habitat for Humanity revitalization projects, and it seems like more and more people get involved each year,” he said.

Teich said that Messiah Lutheran will be a “center” for the project once the grant money becomes available.

In the meantime, Dziwura and others will talk to neighborhood residents while starting to build momentum that leads to wide-reaching improvements.

“The philosophy is to start with a little push here and there, and then let it flourish on its own,” she said. “You want to create an organic grassroots groundswell in which (residents) say, ‘We want this to be a good place to live.’”

Click here to learn more about Community Home Solutions and its mission.



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