A pilot program for Kalamazoo renters expands as people struggle to make ends meet

To qualify, applicants must live in the City of Kalamazoo or be looking to rent residential space in the city. They also have to be at least 18 years of age.
Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's series on solutions to affordable housing and housing the unhoused. It is made possible by a coalition of funders including the City of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County, the ENNA Foundation, and LISC.

The need is great. So a program intended to provide limited-income working people with enough money to obtain rental housing has been expanded to help them keep up with their rent, utilities, and other costs as well.
One-time grants through the RentAble program, funded by the City of Kalamazoo and overseen by the Kalamazoo County Continuum of Care, are now available to help individuals and families offset rent increases and cover housing application fees. It can also be used to help them catch up on past-due rent, past-due utility bills, and other related expenses. And, as initially intended, the grants continue to be available to help people cover security deposits.
“The original iteration of the project was limited to (helping cover) just security deposits,” says Patrese Griffin, director of the Kalamazoo County Continuum of Care, a program housed at the United Way of South Central Michigan. “And it went through a third party.” 
Between a shortage in available rental housing,  the use of a third-party administrator, and the availability of COVID-19 relief assistance funds, she says the program was not widely used. But now, she says, “The primary funder of this program, which is the City of Kalamazoo, was willing to let us restructure and redevelop this program to best suit the needs of our community at this current time.”
“There were just two people who were signed into the program when I got here,” says Griffin, a former vice mayor of the City of Kalamazoo and an established advocate for fair housing. She became director of the Continuum of Care in April of 2022.
Patrese Griffin, director of the Kalamazoo County Continuum of Care, says the RentAble program has been expanded to help meet the needs of the Kalamazoo community.Griffin strives to help the Continuum of Care realize its vision — to make Kalamazoo County a place where everyone has equitable access to safe, affordable and dignified housing.
RentAble is a pilot program that is also intended to help Kalamazoo residents who have had difficulties obtaining rental housing as a result of:

• A prior eviction; 

• A previous incarceration or an arrest record;

• A poor credit history or prior bankruptcy; 

• And an experience with domestic violence or human trafficking.

It also helps those who plan to pay rent with nontraditional sources of income such as alimony, child support, or being self-employed. And the program is expected to help benefit individuals and families who are part of what is called the ALICE population (Asset Limited Income Constrained and Employed).
The program presently has about $160,000 in available funding. It provides one-time grants of up to $2,000 to qualified applicants, although the needs of some people may be less than that amount.
“A lot of people are working but the function of (the rising cost of) rent, gas, food, and electric is taking them down,” says Tanya Wilson, a Continuum of Care associate. “So they’re struggling to either pay their electricity bill or their rent. And they’re working people, working every day at decent jobs – not minimum wage; decent-paying jobs.”

That is a defining challenge of the ALICE population.
Since the RentAble program was expanded at the beginning of April, it has had more than 600 applicants. Wilson says that among them she is seeing a lot of African-American men, any number of whom are raising children.
“A lot of them are getting custody of their children,” Wilson says. 
Patrese Griffin, director of the Kalamazoo County Continuum of Care, says more than 600 people have applied for grants through the RentAble program.She says they can use grant money for “utilities, rent, to move into a new location … just to stay in their house. We don’t want people out on the streets.”
The assistance comes as special COVID-related funding — to help struggling families with their housing costs —  dries up. That includes millions of dollars that have been made available through the COVID Emergency Rental Assistance Program, called CERA. The economic slowdown caused by the pandemic resulted in many businesses closing and it left many people without work.
At the same time, a lot of the assistance provided by state and federal sources is available only for individuals and families who earn 30 to 50 percent of the Area Median Income.
“So we have a gap with those individuals who are higher than that,” Griffin says. “They make too much to access that state and federal funding. But not enough (to meet their needs).”
She explains, “What we’re seeing now is individuals and families who are working, who have incomes but are still not able to make those ends meet. And so this RentAble program is designed to fill the gap.”
The RentAble program is available to individuals who have annual earnings between 60 and 120 percent of the Area Median Income, which equates to $32,520 and $66,360. For a household of four, that would be $46,440 to $94,800.
To qualify, applicants must live in the City of Kalamazoo or be looking to rent residential space in the city. They also have to be at least 18 years of age. More information is available by calling the Continuum of Care at 269-343-2524 or by sending an email here.
“We’re just really excited to be able to fill a gap,” Griffin says. “We understand that there are more resources that are needed at every level. But this is a new opportunity and we’re always reviewing the program and will be making improvements as needed.”

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Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.