Fair housing ordinance passes unanimously in Kalamazoo

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

Access to housing is expected to become a bit easier in the city of Kalamazoo for individuals who have faced discrimination because of their race, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
Better opportunities should also be available for people who are seeking new places to live after facing eviction, are trying to return to regular housing after being incarcerated, have less-than-stellar credit scores, and are seeking a safe place to live as they leave abusive relationships.
Chances for better housing will also be more available to low-income, disabled and elderly people who use the federal voucher program to help pay for adequate housing. 

And everyone should also get a fair shake in landlord/tenants disputes under the watchful eye of a new civil rights board to be established to enforce the new and existing ordinance provisions.
Those are the hopes that many have for updates to the city of Kalamazoo’s housing ordinances. Members of the Kalamazoo City Commission unanimously approved the updates, or Fair Housing Ordinances, during their regular meeting Tuesday evening, Sept. 8. The updates, the first change in 10 years to the city's housing ordinances, are intended to alleviate discrimination based on renters’ past criminal convictions, evictions, sources of income, limited resources, and other limitations.

Before its adoption, there were 40 meetings with stakeholders including those in housing crisis, housing providers, landlords, property managers, and nonprofit leadership. The meetings were hosted by the city and others promoting the amendments to the housing ordinance. It was also open for input from citizens since the city commission took up the proposal at its Feb. 24 work session. Public sessions including a Landlord Fair in June 2019, a Housing Matters meeting in June 2019 and more than 1,700 doors were knocked on to talk to residents regarding the proposals. 

The city's move to stop discrimination based on a prospective tenant having been previously evicted or having been served with a notice of eviction that was not carried out is believed to be unprecedented. Many of those voicing their support for the ordinance changes noted the historic nature of the vote. 

The changes received support from more than two dozen community members who commented during Tuesday’s digital commission meeting.
“We live in a city that does not offer the same opportunities to all its residents. And we have seen this all the more so since March,” said Rabbi Simone Schicker, of the Temple B’nai Israel, urging city commission to pass updates. “I’m blessed to have a place to call home but not all of our citizens are able to do the same. You must act on behalf of all of our residents and enact the housing equity ordinance. Without a change in policy, we will never make a positive change in the lives of residents in this city.”
Douglas King, senior pastor of Grace Covenant Ministries, and a leader of ISAAC, also urged the commission to pass the ordinances, saying, “As individuals in the community, we can no longer turn our backs on the systematic obstacles faced by fellow community members around housing. Housing is a right and no one should be denied the opportunity of housing based on past evictions, convictions, or source of income -- which disproportionately impacts marginalized communities. We must not be a city of polarizing extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Poverty negatively impacts valued individuals, children, and families.”
Carrie Pickett-Erway, president and chief executive officer of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, said, “Currently Kalamazoo has one of the highest populations of homeless children in the state. And although Kalamazoo County is only 11 percent black, nearly 64 percent of the homeless population is black. Of nearly 700 people surveyed, eviction and convictions were the most named barriers (to adequate housing) after cost-related issues. Forty-one percent of our homeless population identified (themselves) as a victim or survivor of domestic violence, which is often associated with eviction.”

She urged members of the City Commission “to stand for equity and justice.”

A number of those making public comments to the commission referred to results of the Housing Equity Report Survey, which will also be included in the City of Kalamazoo’s HUD reporting.  Over a five-month period, both qualitative and quantitative data were collected from more than 900 residents in and around the City of Kalamazoo. This primary research was combined with existing data from local, state, and federal sources to offer a contemporary snapshot of existing conditions outlined in the Housing Equity Report. A total of 351 individuals responded that they themselves, someone they knew, or both have experienced discrimination as they sought housing. Among the findings, of those who said previous evictions were a barrier to housing, 60% were Black compared with 26% who were White, and of those who said previous convictions were a barrier to housing, 62% were Blacks compared with 23% White. (Data collection for the report and supplemental resources were made possible through a partnership funded by the Government Alliance for Race and Equity (GARE) Innovation Grant, along with additional resources provided by the City of Kalamazoo and Kalamazoo Community Foundation’s Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation.) 

During the public comment period, Sholanna Lewis, Director of Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformations (TRHT) Kalamazoo, a resident of the Kalamazoo’s Vine neighborhood and a landlord offered support for the housing ordinance “and all the city staff that have been working on this and commissioners, especially Vice Mayor Griffin. We have been working on this really hard on this effort for quite a while now. Just know that this is going to have such a huge impact on folks' ability to get housing in our community moving forward, especially knowing that it creates opportunities for folks of lower incomes who can’t afford the average rent in the area. I would also like to offer support for the equity work of the city and really living into those values, especially in housing but even in other areas such as policing and the management of the city as a whole, we are continuing to support the effort to push for that in any way that we can.” 

Kalamazoo resident Stephanie Hoffman thanked city commissioners for their anticipated yes vote in favor of the fair housing ordinances. “Your yes vote is sending a very loud message that everyone deserves a safe affordable place to live. Your yes vote will empower men, women, and children to hold their heads up knowing that our city has leadership that cares about them regardless of race, income, and social status. Kalamazoo will be a better city tonight than we were yesterday. Your strength, your courage, and your commitment to those who are left marginalized will speak volumes not only to our county but to our state.”

While most of the 26 who spoke on the subject – via prerecorded comments -- favored the ordinance changes, three did not. One was a woman who described herself as a landlord and said landlords were purposely left out of the process of helping to write updates for the ordinance and that “is unfair to the landlords.”

“The (ordinance) drafters saying that we housing providers were given an opportunity for input is a misrepresentation of the truth,” she said. “We were given an opportunity to react but not to help write. Their refusal smacks of hypocrisy.”

She said the ordinance changes set up outrageous fines and inane rules and “If this ordinance passes, you commissioners will have allowed the victims of some bad landlords to write unfair rules for us all. That is not justice, it’s discrimination.”

She asked that the proposed changes be sent back to the drafting committee and that the committee include at least two landlords.

Another detractor was a woman who did not fully identify herself but opposed changes saying she felt safe in her home with the city ordinances as they presently are. (That was an apparent reference to screenings being used as a means to exclude people who have had past troubles.)
James Brigante said he is set to buy a six-unit rental property in Kalamazoo but would not make that investment if the ordinance changes are enacted. 

“Quite frankly, I’m appalled,” he said. “I think it’s absurd. It makes it impossible for landlords to properly screen tenants. It’s a big burden for us rectifying damages after tenants who are not collectible move out.”

If this housing ordinance passes, he said, “I will not be purchasing rental property in Kalamazoo and I’m quite sure many other potential investors will take flight.”
Commissioner Chris Praedel said he felt that view was short-sighted and said, “We don’t have to lose something to give other people more rights.”
He praised the efforts of Vice Mayor Patrese Griffin who spearheaded the effort to help people find more equitable and affordable housing. The ordinance changes do not directly help to increase the availability of affordable housing, however.
The lack of more affordable housing was mentioned by several people who commented during Tuesday’s digital city commission meeting. According to previous reports, a full-time American worker who earns the minimum wage cannot afford a market-rate apartment. And rent payments eat up more than 40 percent of the incomes of more than 50 percent of all renters in the United States, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.
Many of those who spoke on Tuesday thanked Griffin who had started to work on fair housing four years ago. She, in turn, thanked a long list of individuals in the city government and the community, including supporters at ISAAC (Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy and Action in the Community), and TRHT (Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation).

“When you start talking about equity, it sounds really good,” Griffin said. “When you start moving into the work that brings changes, that’s when it gets hard.”

Excited to have successfully seen action taken on a cause she identified long before she joined the City Commission last year, Griffin said, “I’m just really truly honored. We worked through the doubts, the disrespect, and the discredit and we were able to just move power. I just want everyone to know how important your voice is. You don’t have to have a title to make an impact. You don’t have to have any of those things to make change. You just have to have a belief.”

Second Wave Managing Editor Kathy Jennings contributed to this story.

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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.