Washington Heights

Battle Creek's Washington Heights reaching new heights with affordable housing stock

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
BATTLE CREEK — A renaissance is happening in the city’s Washington Heights neighborhood driven not by wealthy developers or city officials, but by a local faith leader who has never lost sight of the needs she saw when she first came to Washington Heights United Methodist Church (WHUMC).
Since assuming leadership of the church in 2020, Dr. Pastor Monique French, who is also a Calhoun County Commissioner, has concentrated her efforts on broadening the scope and reach of it as a “Hub of HOPE” for the neighborhood and the city. Today (April 25) she adds one more spoke to that Hub during a groundbreaking ceremony at 2 p.m. on Greenwood Avenue, signaling the start of construction on 17 affordable single-family homes for neighborhood residents and those living nearby.

The initiative is being called the Recover Our Neighborhood Project.
“(Building these homes) is a part of our strategic plan because we look at ministry from a holistic approach,” French says. “Our area of focus is a 3 to 5-mile radius around the church. We saw barriers that were there. This has been a historically disinvested community. We want it to be a very thriving community.”
John GrapRev. Monique French, pastor of Washington Heights United Methodist Church, stands next to a poster showing architectural concepts of the planned property development.Through community conversations and assessments French and members of a subcommittee formed to address housing concerns “listened to the hearts of people and asked them what they want to see here in Washington Heights,” she says.
The homes will be a mix of two-bedroom, two-bathroom and three-bedroom, two-bathroom with an average sale price of $130,000. Homes for sale in Calhoun County have a median listing home price of $149,900.according to Realtor.com.  While the $130,000 price of a home may not seem unattainable by real estate standards, it is challenging for residents who may not have funds to make a down payment or afford a mortgage, French says.
The Calhoun County Land Bank Authority (CCLBA) has been working with the Washington Heights Neighborhood Advisory Committee to create a land-use strategy for properties in the Land Bank’s inventory, says Krista-Trout-Edwards, Executive Director of the CCLBA.
“The Land Bank has received funding to do some blight elimination in this community and they are the county’s biggest landowners,” French says. “We invited them here so they could share information with the community.”
The CCLBA owns just over 700 properties, with the biggest concentrations in the cities of Battle Creek (72%) and Albion (15%). Their inventory also includes a handful of sites in the townships, with the highest number in Emmett Charter Township (5%),” Trout-Edwards says.
John GrapWashington Heights United Methodist Church plans to develop vacant land in a block west of the church. The block is bordered by Hubbard Road, Greenwood Avenue, Jordan Street, and Moffitt Place.Follow-up conversations between French and the Land Bank culminated in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and purchase agreement that the CCLBA has for five parcels with WHUMC. The CCLBA also formed the Washington Heights Neighborhood Advisory Committee for their work which is named the Land Reuse Strategy Project.
The five parcels are adjacent to land that the WHUMC had already purchased from the city. That previous purchase was paid for using a portion of $360,000 in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) given to the church.
“As part of our MOU, CCLBA staff provided technical assistance to the church to prepare the site for development,” Trout-Edwards says. “This included providing clear title for the five sites in our inventory, assisting with surveys and redrawing of parcel lines, processing the land divisions at the city for all parcels, as well as coordinating variance requests to adjust the lot width on two parcels. We are also completing the environmental site assessments on the lots being purchased from CCLBA.”
An important first step in this process was gaining support from the Washington Heights Neighborhood Advisory Committee, Trout-Edwards says, “That committee created a land reuse strategy for the 250 plus sites owned by the CCLBA in the neighborhood and supported this project, which allowed staff to formalize its support of predevelopment work with other grant dollars.”

The pre-development work on the five parcels is being paid for through a portion of a $750,000 grant the CCLBA received from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) in 2020 which was focused on blight elimination through building stabilization, rehabilitation, and demolition as well as infill development and site beautification.

Trout-Edwards says the CCLBA team is uniquely able to solve property problems like cloudy titles and work through governmental regulations such as zoning and land division applications.
John GrapRobert Holley, left, and Aaron Cusic work on the flooring of the house at 238 Greenwood Avenue that Washington Heights United Methodist Church bought and is renovating.“In addition, we were also able to take the Land Reuse Strategy Project before the Advisory Committee early on and gain neighborhood input and support,” she says. “The Land Reuse Strategy, which is a big component of this work, helps guide the future reuse of vacant sites and thus identifies areas for future residential development.”

French says WHUMC’s pre-development work on its project was funded through a $365,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and a $50,000 loan from the Battle Creek Community Foundation that has since been paid back. These funds also paid for the construction of the first home.

Additional funding is in the process of being secured for the remaining 16  homes, but French says she doesn’t want to say anything publicly about the source of those additional dollars.
Once the new homes are appraised, gap funding will be sought to keep it affordable for the purchasers “so the cost is not put off on the person trying to buy the home. We’re looking at different ways to bring the cost down,” French says. These may include apprenticeships where volunteers will provide some of the labor.
While focusing on new builds, WHMUC is making minor repairs and increasing energy efficiency in 66 existing homes in the neighborhood. These efforts are being paid for through more than $500,000 in funding from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) Michigan Housing Opportunities Promoting Energy Efficiency program (MI-HOPE).
French says WHUMC also was able to purchase three homes and one four-unit apartment building using some of the ARPA funds.
“One of the homes we purchased has been gutted and rehabbed but is not yet occupied,” French says.
The financial support and partnerships that WHUMC has established are the result of follow-through.
John GrapA poster shows the architectural plans for property that Washington Heights United Methodist Church plans to develop.“We have demonstrated that we’ll do what we say we’re going to do,” French says. “Some of the barriers we’ve had to overcome we’ve looked at as opportunities. These new homes will be an opportunity for residents to create generational wealth and go from renter ship to home ownership.”
Taking the initiative to change lives
Although there will be a mix of opportunities to buy or rent, French recognizes the importance of coming alongside these buyers or renters to make sure they have access to resources that will set them up for success. Among these resources is Neighborhoods Inc. of Battle Creek (NIBC)  which will be providing Home Ownership classes.
The idea of churches getting into this type of economic development is not new and is necessary, says Quintin E. Primo III, Founder and Executive Chairman of Capri Investment Group, in a commentary for Religion News Service.
“Faith-based development is nothing new,” Primo says. “Most church-led development has focused on affordable housing and community assets for neighborhood residents, even as neighborhoods have changed and wealthier members have moved to more affluent areas. Without question, affordable housing is necessary, especially given the surging costs to rent or own a home and limited housing availability.”
CourtesyPhoto inside the house at 238 Greenwood Avenue before the church began renovating itBut, when it comes to the eroding of structural disparities and investment in Black and Brown communities, he says governmental action hasn’t been fast or effective enough. 
“Today, more than ever before in light of the events of the past few years, Black churches are primed and prepared to lead a new kind of movement, one centered on economic development and closing the staggering racial wealth gap,” Primo says. “Often among the few institutions that remain in underserved Black communities, churches are tapped into the community’s history, potential and needs and uniquely equipped to spur neighborhood development.”
Trout-Edwards says, “Dr. French and her team have worked tirelessly to bring this project to fruition and to think strategically about the varying needs of the community they serve. They have taken the lead on design and community input around the project ensuring that they could break ground with a successful build.”
This project, she says is the result of two community partners – WHUMC and the CCLBA – bringing their unique talents together to create new housing.

For French, it’s about more than new homes.
John GrapA sign in the board room at Washington Heights United Methodist Church indicates the motto of the church. 2 Rev. Monique French, pa“Our biggest asset in this community are the people,” she says. “I see the possibility and potential in each one of them. I hope this investment in our neighborhood will enable them to take pride in the place they call home.”

Those interested in contributing to the Recover Our Neighborhood project may contact French at pastor@washingtonheightsUMC.org.

For a brief history of the evolution of the Washington Heights neighborhood click on this LINK.
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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.