County's Housing for All building momentum in Kalamazoo

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

KALAMAZOO, MI — Kalamazoo County Housing Director Mary Balkema says the county's Homes for All housing millage is building momentum toward meeting its goals.

According to data sent to Second Wave from the department, the total units the millage has helped to fund and build, or are under construction, are at 805 as of this summer. This number is part of a total of 1,167 project units funded. The remainder are on their way to breaking ground.

Despite the progress, the department is facing some inquiries from housing advocates who are asking about how many units opened are affordable for low-income renters and homebuyers. 

A 2022 countywide W.E. Upjohn Institute study, which the county housing department is utilizing to inform its goals, found that the county was 7,750 units short of all housing types. 

So, the goal of the department was "to build 7,750 units by 2030, 700 units at 80% and below AMI (Area Median Income), 175 units targeting households making below $35,000," Balkema says. (An annual income of $35,000 puts an individual at 50% AMI in Kalamazoo County, and around 35% for a family of four.) 

"Also part of the goals were to support rehab for existing housing structures, and increase supportive services," she says.

Willa DiTaranto, Kalamazoo County Housing Project Manager, and Mary Balkema, County Housing DirectorBalkema, along with Willa DiTaranto, Kalamazoo County Housing Project Manager, gave an update on millage progress to an online forum hosted by Housing Matters Kalamazoo on June 12. The recording can be found here

Members of Housing Matters — a group that facilitates conversation on Kalamazoo's housing crisis, and advocates for housing affordability —  pressed the county housing officials for details on how many units are being built for below 80% AMI or lower into the 30% range.

"I did some basic math based on the 2022 and 2023 numbers, so this doesn't include our 2024 funding round, but we have funded 514 units for 80% AMI and below, and 106 for 30% AMI and below," DiTaranto says.

"And then (of the) units that we have under construction that have already been built or will break ground this summer, we have 190 at 80% AMI and below and 81 units at 30% AMI and below." 

(Later data sent to Second Wave puts the numbers at 636 for people at or below 80% AMI (including 60% AMI) and 123 for those at or below 30%. There are 150 total funded units for people at or below 120%.)

DiTaranto continues, "Below 80% is one of the goals that we have. And then below 30% is the other goal." 

First, an AMI refresher

What is the Area Median Income? 

AMI is a metric, defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, that shows where an income-earning individual or family stands economically in their area. If someone has an AMI below 80%, HUD defines them as low-income. They are very low income below 50%, and extremely low at or below 30%.

People at 100% AMI are middle-income -— in the middle of the range between low and high-income earners in a specific area. In Kalamazoo, "for a family of four, 100% of area median income is $100,800," Balkema says.

"So when we talk about who is eligible for the housing millage and who do we help, we help those folks at 120% and below of area median income. A lot of times when you're talking about what is 100% of area median income, people would never guess that it's $100,800 for a family of four," she says.

Housing projects: 2022 to present

For the first year of the millage, 2022, "we thought that most of the projects would be in the city of Kalamazoo," Balkema says.

Housing started with millage funding ranging from the Lodge House's 60 low-income units to the senior housing at 530 S. Rose, and various single-family homes in Kalamazoo's core neighborhoods.

"The next year, however, you can see they're scattered much wider throughout the county, So we're encouraged that our impact is reaching further into the entire county," she says.

Mary Balkema, County Housing Director, speaking at a recent virtual meeting.Balkema listed work completed or underway, including the Lodge House, "an early win for us," four new North Side homes on Ransom Street, a Habitat for Humanity house on the Eastside, and another Habitat house being built on Ramona Avenue near Portage Road. 

Multi-unit projects range from a four-unit in Comstock to an 83-unit hotel conversion on Kilgore — both are expected to be completed this summer. 

Residences tied to supportive services for people in recovery or victims of human trafficking are also in the works. 

An example of the modular homes the County is purchasing. Ten will go to the Sugarloaf Mobile Home Park in Schoolcraft. They're for families with school-aged children, who are of 30% or lower AMI. Construction for the homes is underway.Balkema highlighted a project to get ten new modular homes into the Sugarloaf Mobile Home Park in Schoolcraft. "These are specifically for families with school-aged children that have experienced homelessness. So we're super excited about that project," she says. The project includes a public utilities upgrade at the park, a supportive services building, and a new playground.

"There's no free housing."

The Sugarloaf homes, which are "really nice... Some of them have three bedrooms, two baths, they're furnished with appliances, washer, dryer, full kitchen," Balkema says, are for families at or below 30% AMI.

But more housing millage projects built or under construction, so far, are meant for people at 120% and below, and 80% and below. The coming Rivers Edge project, for example, will have 44 units for people at 120%, and 244 for 80%, but none for 30%, according to data the county housing department sent Second Wave. 

The host for the June Housing Matters forum Sarah Cain is also the executive director of Kalamazoo Housing Advocates. KHA is a nonprofit that's received millage funding to help people who are homeless or near-homeless find and keep a place to live.

he Kalamazoo County Housing Department sent Second Wave a breakdown of housing millage-funded projects, state of completion, and units for 120%-30% AMI inhabitants. Cain points out that Kalamazoo has a large unhoused population, and asks, "It can be really daunting obviously, but I'm wondering, maybe you can kind of give us a little rundown of how difficult it is to develop housing options with the 30% AMI?"

Balkema ran through the math, using a millage-funded Ransom Street home for people at 30% and below AMI as an example.

It was "$480,000 to build... They make $24,210 a year, right?" 

To avoid being housing burdened, where one has to pay more than 30% of one's income to have a roof over one's head, "They can afford $7,263 a year," Balkema says. 

That means a payment of $605 a month. That would have to cover the "principal interest, taxes, and insurance. The taxes on it are going to be $500 a month, just flat out, given that’s what the city charges for taxes. So they're going to have $100 left to pay for everything else. So the 30%, it just — it doesn't pencil out no matter what way we do it."

Cain points out that people on disability are getting $943 a month. To cover a monthly rent of $600 is "a daunting thing," she says.

Balkema points out the reality is that extremely low-income housing needs a lot of subsidies.

Balkema says, "If we do all 30%-ers, we have such a huge subsidy that we're not going to do very many. And if we do 80%, do 120%, of course, the subsidy is a lot less and we'll do a lot more housing units."

"Even the mobile home park (Sugarloaf), when we look at putting the units on it, the rent is $400 a month for the pad, the utilities, and everything else. And so if that person is extremely low income, maybe we can charge $100 a month because we don't want you to be evicted because you can't pay the lot rent. So we're going to master lease them all so we make sure that the lot rent is paid," Balkema says.

"But that is an area of which we're all struggling with. And you know, there's no free housing," she says. 

Subsidies have to make up the difference. "With the cost of construction and a 30%-er, that will be a $400,000 subsidy for one house."

Balkema later points out the ten new modular homes for the Sugarloaf project cost $700,000. "I don't think I could get ten families into housing any other way for $700,000."

Projects breaking ground; projects in the queue

There are current and future stresses on Kalamazoo's housing stock, from people who are unhoused now to workers coming to the area for the coming BlueOval Battery Park plant in Marshall, Balkema, and DiTaranto point out. 

Currently, 9,000 to 14,000 workers commute between Kalamazoo and Calhoun Counties, DiTaranto says. "And there just is not housing stock really available in Calhoun County for the 1,700 new jobs that are going to be produced with this battery plant."

But they are excited about the future progress as a result of the Homes for All millage. 

In a discussion after the recording of the Housing Matters forum stopped, Balkema says, "I'm really encouraged by what the summer is going to bring."

She points to the Mt. Zion seniors development, with 70 units for people at 80% and 30% AMI, that is breaking ground this summer. Kal Recovery, which will have 48 80% units and supportive services for people in recovery, is progressing after being awarded MSHDA tax credits, Balkema says (and will likely break ground next year, DiTaranto adds in an email to Second Wave).

DiTaranto adds via email that the Kilgore Road hotel conversion into 83 affordable rental units is another project their department is excited about. "Most, if not all, of the units will be affordable to households making 60% AMI and below," she writes. The groundbreaking should happen this year, they expect.

Balkama says, "Coming up, we'll see a lot of projects in the queue, just that it takes a few years to get them to the shovel-ready stage. It takes a while to raise the capital and get their loans and get the grants all set up," Balkema says.

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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.