Behind the scenes: A process for developing, improving housing goes into place in Kalamazoo County

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's series on solutions to homelessness and ways to increase affordable housing. It is made possible by a coalition of funders including the City of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County, Kalamazoo County Land Bank, LISC, and the ENNA Foundation.

First Kalamazoo County voters in November 2020 approved a millage, known as “Home for All”, to help create housing to help address what officials estimate is a shortage of at least 6,000 affordable housing units.
 
Then the county sought public input on how the money should be used, including an online meeting in February of 2021 that asked for the community's input. County residents were asked: What types of housing they envisioned? What types of rental subsidies should be included in the millage funding? And what supportive services are needed?

Next housing developers were invited to submit proposals for project funding between Dec. 15 of 2021 and Jan. 15 of 2022.
 
And after that, County Housing Director Mary Balkema estimates it took her at least 40 hours to absorb all of the information in the 31 applications for housing project grants seeking funding through Kalamazoo County’s new property tax millage.
 
On top of that, she also shepherded the application process by which developers, nonprofit organizations, and service agencies sought shares of the $7.1 million that the millage will generate this year. Similar amounts will come in during each of the next seven years.
 
Kalamazoo Housing Director Mary Balkema addresses the County Board.The process includes a method for categorizing funding requests based on the county’s housing needs, discerning how much each of those categories should be allocated, and helping the 11-member County Board of Commissioners to score each of the requests through an online system to determine which should be approved.
 
“We have worked on it for over a year,” says Balkema, who served as county treasurer from 2007 to 2020. “We worked on getting the systems up and running, implementing the AmpliFund (grant management software), getting the grant-management, and getting the financials up. To get it to the finish line is very, very exciting.”
 
This is just a peek behind the scenes of local efforts to do what is possible to close the gap in affordable housing. Each of the approved projects has funding from other sources, which she says means the allocations made by the county will help leverage other investments in the community.
 
“I thank the county staff and Mary Balkema for helping us get through the application process,” said Garrett Seyfert, of PS Equities at a recent County Board meeting. “There was a learning curve but we made it.”
 
During a March 15 meeting of the County Board’s Committee of the Whole, Seyfert told commissioners, “I don’t think you know how important resources like this are.”
 
Mount Pleasant-based PS Equities is a specialist in developing affordable housing projects. Seyfert is a partner in the development of a $16.7 million, 64-unit affordable housing project at 530 S. Rose St. Through the new millage, it has received tax credits valued at about $1.2 million.
 
“I think you guys should be very proud of yourselves for taking the steps you’ve done to get these resources in place,” Seyfert said. “I’ve been in communities all across the state and I can tell you there’s a housing need pretty much everywhere. There’s a desire to help. But very few communities have taken the steps you all have to get the resources in place.”
 
Seyfert said they make the difference at the end of the day. “They get these deals across the finish line,” he said.
 
Balkema says it took “a good couple of hours to get through one application. And then, as the commissioners had questions, they submitted them to me and I submitted them to the applicant. And everybody received the answers. And so, it gave them an opportunity to say, ‘Mary, I don’t understand this acronym,’ ‘I don’t understand the project,’ ‘I’ve never heard of this organization or group. Can you give me more information?’ I did all of that work for them as well.”
 
The commissioners received training and scored projects using proven scoring criteria.
 
Balkema categorized the projects and organized them to be reviewed in stages, starting with funding requests for multi-family housing projects “because the MSHDA (Michigan State Housing Development Authority) tax credits open up in April and I wanted to be before that deadline.”
 
She says she also started with the multi-family housing category and budgeted the largest slice of the millage revenue to it (approximately $3 million) because she knew those projects would create the most new housing units. “We need units so desperately. You get to a higher count with multi-family than if you’re going to do scattered-site single-family (housing).”
 
Officials estimate that the county needs at least 6,000 more affordable housing units to accommodate the needs of area residents. The new millage, known as “Home for All,” is intended to expand on a program to help more people find affordable housing and first-time housing opportunities.
 
Members of the county commission reviewed and approved eight multi-family housing projects on March 15. Five of those projects are expected to create 481 new housing units. It approved 11 projects in three other categories on April 5: Approximately $1 million was approved for Single-Family Housing Rehabilitation projects; $1.1 million for Single-Family Housing construction projects (considered scattered-site housing because properties are not in any one place); and $500,000 was approved for Creative-Opportunistic housing projects.
 
The remainder of the millage revenue is set to be used to fund Supportive Housing Services.
 
“It looks like a paper bomb went off in your office by the time you’re done,” Balkema says of administering a multi-million dollar grant. “So we had to have a system where would have everything on there -- all the legal documents, all the criteria. So we purchased the rights to use the AmpliFund (grant management software).”
 
It also organizes some $52 million in American Rescue Plan Act money administered by the county. “And we’re going to put every single grant on there,” she says.
 
Using that to help manage the millage grant applications, she says, “Everything is in one place – the financials of the company, their letters of recommendation, their Duns number (their Data Universal Numbering System business numeric identifier), and their 990 (an IRS financial information form for nonprofit organizations). Everything is in one place for the commissioners, our auditors, and our finance department to review.”
 
Asked how she managed the effort to get the process set up, Balkema, who is also the former chairwoman of the Kalamazoo County Land Bank Authority, says, “I’ve always been passionate about community development and about housing.”
 
Working with partners, the Kalamazoo County Land Bank was the largest developer of single-family housing in the City of Kalamazoo since the economic downturn of 2008, she says. “And a lot of people don’t know that. The housing market dried up and then government began to work. Housing and community development is really my passion. It really, really, really is.”
 
She says she was thrilled when the opportunity surfaced to be the county’s housing director.
 
“There was kind of a methodology for it,” Balkema says of the project vetting process. “It’s not perfect. People asked, ‘Why didn’t you have a preservation category? We really need to preserve units that are coming off of their compliance period.’ The process is not perfect but I can say that by year four, the county board will hit their stride and it will be near to perfect.”
 
She estimated, “Right now, we’re at about 80 percent, and for a new housing millage and the deployment of funds, we are very pleased with the progress.”

Read more articles by Al Jones.

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.