Big plans for small homes where the houseless used to live in Kalamazoo


A Way Home — Housing Solutions: 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, the ENNA Foundation, Kalamazoo County Land Bank, and LISC.

As Kalamazoo police were clearing people from the Ampersee homeless encampment in late September 2021, Michelle Johnson met with a group of who were trying to live there.
 
She asked them -- around 26 people who were living in tents, who were growing food in the toxic soil of a brownfield -- what they wanted.
 
They wanted more than just shelter, Johnson, CEO of Playgrown and head of the Institute of Public Scholarship says. 
 
"They wanted to be able to be off the grid, to have geothermal heating and cooling, they wanted to have solar capabilities. They wanted smaller home opportunities, they wanted opportunities to own their homes, to be able to work for them, or to be able to pay them off over time. They wanted a safe community...."
 
Most of all, "They wanted to have a sense of ownership over those places." 
 
Mary Crosby, lead gardener, tends peppers at the community garden.This talk began the Home Start Initiative, plans to place a cooperative community centered on small homes on the vacant lots just north of where the encampment was, between Gull Road, Ampersee Avenue, Hotop Avenue, and River Street.
 
The plans, developed by Detroit architect Kenyotta Brown, seen here, feature 10 houses, from one-bedroom moveable homes to three-bedroom permanent structures. The county board of commissioners awarded $318,138 out of the Homes for All millage to the project in April. Johnson says they are about to purchase the two lots, are in the "final stages of raising the downpayment, and paying that in the next, probably, couple of weeks."
 
She is hopeful to see some visible signs of progress on the land by the end of the year, but there is still a lot of fundraising needed -- the estimated total cost of the project is $4 million.
 

The plans, developed by Detroit architect Kenyotta Brown, feature 10 houses, from one-bedroom moveable homes to three-bedroom permanent structures. Heating and cooling will be geothermal, and electricity will come from the site's solar panels. There will be park-like playgrounds and community meeting areas, and space for both individual and community gardens.
 
Residents will primarily be women and their children living at or below 30% of the Area Median Income. 
 
The ultimate goal is for the residents to have some ownership in their homes. Think of it this way -- instead of paying rent, people would pay into a membership in the community. If they move on, or decide to leave the membership as an inheritance, their investment goes with them or goes to their beneficiaries. 
 
Making homes, not projects
 
Tracey Crawdford is bringing her experience working with Chicago contractors to get the homes built. In an online meeting with some of the Home Start Team, Brown says she wanted the design to fit in with the surrounding neighborhood, to look as if "it's always been a part of the community, which is extremely important, to make sure that the people living there aren't othered, that they can feel like they fit in."
 
Contrast that with other Kalamazoo efforts and plans to place people without homes in pods or former motels, or in the old 1940s-1960s high-rise, Chicago projects Home Start's Tracey Crawford is familiar with.
 
Crawford is a construction manager in Chicago. She had a chance meeting with Johnson, where talk of expertise and ideas flowed. Johnson told Crawford of this plan for Kalamazoo's housing insecure. After, "I get a text message about, 'I'm serious, girl, about this.' I'm like, really?"
 
Crawford is bringing her experience working with Chicago contractors to get the homes built. 
 
The site for Playgrown Home Start project is surrounded by Hotop, Ampersee and Bridge street where an encampment of the houseless once stood."I see this project as something that's so needed for the community, for Kalamazoo," Crawford says. "I like the approach Michelle is taking to make sure that everybody feels like they're at home, through ownership, through community.... Not to have it look like the traditional building structure that looks like it's a (20th century Chicago) project instead of an actual home," she says. "Most people don't want to live on top of one another." 
 
Crawford is working with Kalamazoo's Room 35, an entrepreneurial development group. They have "11 contractors in the making," she says, who are learning how to become licensed and how to be professional as certified contractors. She plans to bring contractors from Chicago when the work begins on Home Start, to provide guidance and show "what it is to become a minority contractor."
 
Mary Crosby is in charge of what's already on the land, Playgrown's community garden, a partnership with the Institute of Public Scholarship. She'll be focused on that aspect of the plans, to have enough vegetables and greens growing that residents can save income spent on food.
 
The garden, now near Gull and Ampersee, is connecting with people in the neighborhood, she says. They hold planting parties, "just get our hands in the dirt... learning the importance of food security," Crosby says. Not only is gardening important for bodily nutrition, it helps improve the connection to the land, the community and to the self, "just to get up and care for something, to tend to something, be a part of something."
 
A radical idea
 
Some savings, for the residents and for Home Start, will come from raising their own food, and generating their own power and heat, Crosby and Brown say.
 
But one aspect takes on the biggest drain on people, the struggle to pay for a roof over their heads.
 
Crawford spoke about a crisis her sister is going through in Chicago, where a sister and her family have to live in a small hotel room. They have a place to move to, but her sister is trying to save up for first and last month's rent, plus there are moving fees, transportation to work and school, and, of course, rent at the motel. "It is money down the drain," she says. 
 
Renting can seem that way. It's a way for people to have literally no investment in where they live.
 
Home Start is planning on doing it differently, as a co-op. People will be able to buy into the community, pay what they can afford, and if they can't pay, they'll get a stipend to make payments.
 
Jennifer Mills, Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology for Kalamazoo College, and grant-writer for the project says, "it's really about investing in something that you know will be your home."
 
The Community Garden on the Ampersee and Gull side of the property, tended by Mary Crosby. In the way homelessness is usually addressed, Mills says, "We're really not looking at the structural issues that are creating that problem. We've got all kinds of agencies here in Kalamazoo that are supposedly addressing the housing issue, but not serving." 
 
With Home Start, they're delving into the causes of homelessness, especially in communities that have been disadvantaged for a long time. "Really trying to get at what we call in public health the social determinants of health. It gets at the root causes, redlining and the history that created disinvestment in communities over a long period of time," Mills says.
 
"What Michelle has envisioned is really trying to address those structural inequities in ways that projects born of some of these other agencies haven't been doing. It's why it's exciting. It's radical, lots of people look at it and go, 'what do you mean, you're going to give people a stipend and you're going to give them a home?' But I know from looking at the literature that this is the way."
 
Jennifer Mills, Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology for Kalamazoo College, and grant-writer for the project says, "it's really about investing in something that you know will be your home."Mills continues, "It's going to be imperfect, it's not going to have all the answers as Dr. Johnson said, but it at least is an experiment in addressing the root cause, and I think it has the best potential."
 
The team members say they are looking back 200 years of injustices. The project is meant to "repair harm" Mills says, to build an "equitable society."
 
Crawford puts it this way: Looking back to the end of slavery, "when we should've received 40 acres and a mule, they came up with the Homestead Act, and that gave 140 acres to white people, and also gave them reparations for losing their property, which were the slaves," she says. 
 
200 years
 
They are following "the concept of the 14 generation model," Johnson says. "Look 200 years back, and identify the harm that needs to be repaired, but also the strengths and strategies that have been manipulated, erased, coopted, that black and brown people have had for the last 200 years that are about sustainable economics, about sustainable relationships with one another." 
 
It's about systems that "build a community and don't extract from it."
 
Next, they're "thinking very far forward, 200 years, so that the folks who are living in these spaces will continue to have a stake in these spaces through their lineage and through their descendants," Johnson says.
 
Has anything like this been done before? Johnson points to similar models, like the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Coooperative, which has been buying up properties in Oakland, Ca., to turn them into affordable co-op homes. There's Africatown, Seattle, Wa., a land trust aiming to create affordable homes and Black-owned businesses.
 
Mills says there is research in the academic world that supports alternative efforts to build affordable communities that aren't based on a for-profit system, "but when you actually turn to people most-harmed, there are efforts to counteract that, to live differently, to construct things that are more-whole and health-giving."
 
"But the voices aren't amplified," she says. "The wisdom already exists, it's just not trickling up to the spaces that have the power to make that change or to enact that wisdom"
 
Support
 
They are holding onto the goal of breaking ground by Ampersee by the end of the year.
 
Johnson says they have grant proposals out, and are waiting for a response. 
 
Home Start has support in the City government. They have a "great relationship" with the office of Community Planning and Economic Development, Johnson says. 
 
The office has helped them navigate the environmental challenges of the brownfield area between Hotop and the railroad tracks -- Home Start will not be building there, but they have been doing research on the toxic soil, finding "outrageous levels of lead" in the corn grown by people formerly living at the encampment, Johnson says.
 
Mills adds that a lot of money flowed into Kalamazoo City and County from COVID relief. There are those "with pockets of money to support" projects, she says. "They need to understand that investing deeply in this kind of project is what's going to enable the wisdom and vision that is inherent within women, within black and brown folks, who haven't had access and power in those spaces, to be creative and envision what this could look like."
 
Crosby says, in her research on land use, notes that it's a given that converting vacant land into assets for the community is beneficial to society. "If it's so well-known, why do we have so much vacant land and property, and so much money flowing through the community and no one trying to plant the tree to shade the future generations?"

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.