Midland is where the heart is: One woman’s journey home

This is the second part of a three-part series on housing. Last week, we discussed solutions to housing challenges Midland faces: low income affordability, neighborhood, and economic development. Next week, we’ll hear from Home To Stay and Habitat for Humanity.

Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood is Cheryl Purtell’s home — an 1100-square-foot, wheelchair-accessible, three-bedroom home with a modest backyard. She’s lived here, in an Affordable Housing Alliance unit in Midland County, for seven years.

“I should have moved years ago,” says Purtell. “If I would have known that everything would have been this easy and the housing would have been this nice, I would not have stayed where I was.”

The 1100-square-foot unit also has a modestly-sized yard.Before coming to Midland, Purtell lived in Pinconning for 25 years and in Standish for nearly 20. She was in a 300-square-foot unit. The toilet had been broken for three years, the window 15. 

Even so, she didn’t start seriously looking for alternatives until she was hospitalized. Her hip replacement had complications, leading to a MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) infection. She nearly died.

Her doctor urged her to move somewhere she could quickly get to a hospital if anything should happen. Purtell was born with cerebral palsy and can’t drive due to her lack of depth perception. Her family lived at best an hour and a half away, and at worst, across the country. 

“I knew that I needed to get out of where I was because I was still sick,” says Purtell. “I would have taken anything, even if it was a small, little one-bedroom … I would’ve taken anything at that point.”

To further complicate her situation, public transportation in Pinconning had to be arranged nine days in advance. In Midland, however, it’s possible to book a ride the day before and even the day of with Dial-A-Ride, according to Purtell.

“Everywhere I looked, I saw a bus. Everything is all accessible and awesome, and I thought, ‘yeah, I could really live here.’”

Purtell jokes that her kitchen is her car. Because she can't drive, she likes to invest her money into kitchen items.Finding the right resources was the most challenging part. At first, she called the Housing Commission for assistance. She called real estate agents and even wrote to Congressmen looking for resources or agency contacts. Purtell says, “It was hard.”

When she finally connected with the Affordable Housing Alliance, she was on a waiting list for four years before she found her home.

Not only can Purtell fit through the bathroom door comfortably, but there's also plenty of room to move around. The shower is spacious, too.“I probably could’ve moved in quicker, but some of them (handicap units) aren't as big as others,” says Purtell. “So I could fit in the door, but I couldn't get my wheelchair around in the bathroom or shut the door. What's considered handicap isn't always the same everywhere.”

While most everything is accessible in Midland, Purtell says, “a lot of the things that aren’t [accessible] are the apartments, for some reason. And I really don’t know why. … You kind of have to wait for somebody to move out of a handicapped unit to get one.”

Purtell was able to move in for about $500 a month. 

“I like it here — it’s city, but it’s far enough away from the city that you don’t feel like you’re crammed in with neighbors. … In my electric chair, I can get all the way to the Farmers Market when it was down here (by the Tridge), and it’s all sidewalk. You just take the RailTrail and do whatever you need to do.”

And while her old home in Pinconning had neglectful upkeep, it’s well-maintained in Midland.

“There is a stigma that it’s (affordable housing) just nasty or small, or they don’t take care of things. … I don’t experience that here.”

“You’ve waited long enough — you need to be able to call it home.”Happy that she was finally settled in, Purtell’s family gave her artwork and photos to decorate the walls. Her nephew gave her four wooden circles, each with a letter painted on them: H-O-M-E.

He told her, “‘You’ve waited long enough — you need to be able to call it home.’”

About the Affordable Housing Alliance (AHA)

AHA provides two or three-bedroom townhouses and duplexes, with monthly rent ranging anywhere between $300-600. To qualify, residents must have some source of income; many current residents work or are on Supplemental Security Income. AHA serves people falling between 30-50% of the area’s median income. 

Tom Wyatt, co-chair of the Housing Task Force, community development planner for the City of Midland, and board member for AHA, says that policymakers are beginning to look at transportation costs as a factor for cost of living.

“And so it's not just the 30% of your income counting towards housing that creates that housing instability, but all the other in-sync factors,” says Wyatt.

Purtell was born with cerebral palsy and can’t drive due to her lack of depth perception. She relies on Midland's Dial-A-Ride to get around.Kirsti Carlson, office manager and fair housing specialist at AHA, says the average applicant for affordable housing is a single white female between the ages of 25 and 35 with children.

“We do have a waiting list right now of over 200, and that's pretty consistent,” says Carlson. About 70% of applicants are from within the City of Midland, approximately one-quarter are from Midland County, and the rest are from outside the county, she adds.

Carlson echoes Purtell’s challenge with finding housing — there isn’t one, comprehensive list of housing options.

“They have to run around and get on all these waiting lists, and it’s a problem,” says Carlson. She hopes to solve this issue by working with Continuum of Care and the Housing Task Force.

The other challenges are financial resources — to build new constructions or to afford rent — and lack of available options. 

“We’re looking at what other communities have done to address the housing scarcity and affordability,” says Wyatt. “In some areas, it’s adding density.”

AHA wants to build more.

“In order to do that, we need to basically have almost free money to do it, and that has become very scarce for our organization,” says David Keyser, registered architect and board member for AHA. “... It’s very difficult to start a new project. I would really like to build another Grove Street Commons someplace.”

The Grove Street Commons, located near Dow Diamond in downtown Midland, was built in 1999.The Grove Street Commons, located near Dow Diamond in downtown Midland, was built in 1999. During recent city inspections, Wyatt tagged along to see the units.

“I was really impressed. ... There were a number of residents that were present and we got to chat with them and they seem to be really happy with the housing conditions.”

The best way to contact AHA is to call or email Kirsti Carlson at 989-633-9910 or kirstic@ahamidland.org. You can also follow them or send a message via Facebook. A website is currently under development.

Next week will be the final part of our housing series. We’ll hear about the work Home To Stay and Habitat for Humanity does for Midland County.
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Read more articles by Crystal Gwizdala.

Crystal Gwizdala is a freelance writer with a focus on health and science. As a lifelong resident of the Tri-Cities, she loves sharing how our communities are overcoming challenges. Crystal is also a serial hobbyist — her interests range from hiking or drawing to figuring out how to do a handstand. Her work can be seen in Wide Open Eats, The Xylom, Woman & Home, and The Detroit Free Press. To see what Crystal’s up to, you can follow her on Twitter @CrystalGwizdala.