First-time homebuyer in Portage gets help from program funded with Kalamazoo County housing millage

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

Not a lot of 23-year-olds buy their own homes. Not a lot of young people are able to buy brand-new homes.

But with the help of KNHS, Blaise Boulding is the excited owner of a new two-bedroom on Oakland Drive in Portage.

As Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services, they primarily serve people of the core neighborhoods of Kalamazoo -- and Boulding did grow up in Edison. Most of the new KNHS homes are also built in the core neighborhoods. But with funding from the Kalamazoo housing millage, they're building new houses in Portage with more coming in other areas of Kalamazoo County.

Boulding's new home is a small one-story, on-slab house, but, "I absolutely adore it," Boulding says. "This one has a built-on garage, and a giant backyard."

Blaise Boulding is excited to have a big backyard to mow. She has plans for the yard: "I want to have a garden, and I want to have chickens." Maybe it's a bit of an exaggeration, but the yard looks like it's half a football field in size. "I want to have a garden, and I want to have chickens," Boulding says. She wants to host movie nights for friends, project films on the back of the house; host camping events for her church youth group.  

Mom's been hinting that Boulding should save up for a pool, so it's there for when her parents move in at retirement, she says. Mom's also been saying, "It's great when it's just you, but when you have a husband and kids, it's two bedrooms," Boulding says. "It'd be a tight squeeze." She speculates on building an addition.

The future is intimidating for a person in their early 20s, but for Boulding it's off to a secure start.

Home buyer education

Boulding grew up in the Edison neighborhood, on an intersection that felt safe to her. Other areas of Edison feel "iffy" to her, but she could walk to places she worked at as a teen, the Kik Pool and Loaves and Fishes.

Her parents had planned to move out of Kalamazoo, but when the Promise was announced in 2005, they stayed for their daughter.

Blaise Boulding's new house on Oakland Drive in Portage was a project of Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services, built with funding from the Kalamazoo County affordable housing millage.Boulding attended Lake Superior State University up in Sault Ste. Marie, where she majored in biology, with a concentration in food and ecology. After graduating in 2022, she got an entry position at Pfizer, as a "cleaning validation professional," writing up reports to help prevent cross-contamination of pharmaceutical ingredients.

She was living at home, but felt it was time to get her own place. Someone suggested she enroll in KNHS's homebuyer education program.

KNHS homeownership coach Apryl Munyanshongore taught her to give "every dollar a job," as Munyanshongore told us last spring. 

"Apryl is very kind," Boulding says. "Everyone in that organization is so ready to help."

She enjoyed the "fun workarounds," game-like rules to save money. Like, "Take a deck of cards, assign a value to each, and when you pull a card once a week, you put that money away."

Boulding learned about all the steps needed to get mortgage-ready. A helpful bit of advice for her was, when ready when there's an opportunity to get a house, act. 

Munyanshongore told her, "When you're doing anything in the home buying process, don't sit on it. That was very helpful because I'm a person that likes to sit on it and sit on it," Boulding says with a laugh. "Hey, this is happening!"

KNHS has new builds available for its homeownership class grads, or they will help in purchasing a non-KNHS house. 

Wiley Boulding, visiting his daughter, reminds her that she's still only 20 minutes away from Mom and Dad. Boulding's parents were thinking of moving out of Kalamazoo, but stayed so Blaise could get a Promise scholarship.She looked at a few older homes. One was obviously quickly flipped. "It looked beautiful, but as soon as you walked around, you started to feel all the floorboards aren't quite where they should be." 

At another, she recognized a bad sign when the real estate agent said, "It's only eight out of ten on the creepy meter." She looked in the basement, and had to ask, "What about the children's toys that are stuffed under the basement stairs?" 

Then she discovered the new build on Oakland and pulled the trigger. It was close to work, close to shopping. She moved in this fall.

Young people buying homes is a rarity

Boulding is "riding that line" with her paycheck from Pfizer, she says, but she qualifies for homebuyer assistance from KNHS.

Boulding likes being in Portage, near work and shopping. She grew up in the Edison Neighborhood. For her, being from Edison and Kalamazoo is "a badge for me. I like where I came from."Most of KNHS's clients are employed, “but lots are underemployed," and they simply can't buy a home in today's market, KNHS Executive Director Beth McCann says.

Rising interest rates are causing more stress in a market where there's a lack of affordable homes available. 

Many KNHS clients "come saddled with student debt -- when there were mitigation programs during COVID, that was great, but now the debt is back. And they're also facing rising rent," she says.

Ultimately, owning a home is cheaper than renting. "They need to get in a home because even at the higher interest rate, their rent payment is going to be more than a mortgage payment in most cases," she says. "And of course, they're building no equity when they're renting." 

The average age of a first-home buyer, in 2022, is 36, an all-time high. The average age of KNHS clients is late 30s-early 40s, McCann says.

"I think it's admirable when younger clients come to us and want to start the process of buying a home." 

Housing needed throughout Kalamazoo County

KNHS typically serves the core neighborhoods of the City of Kalamazoo, but they recognize that there are people who need homes in the rest of the county, and there are empty lots that would make good sites for a home.

KNHS's home buyer education program helped Blaise Boulding get mortgage ready. "Everyone in that organization is so ready to help."In 2022 KNHS purchased two vacant lots from the City of Portage for $500 each. A year later, two KNHS houses built by the Kalamazoo Attainable Homes Partnership were ready to move into.

The two builds were funded by the Kalamazoo County Housing Department, thanks to the 2020 housing millage. They're the first two KNHS houses built with millage money. Four more will be built in Kalamazoo Township over 2024-'25.

"I think there's a misconception that only affordable housing exists in certain areas in the city or in Kalamazoo County," McCann says. "There's a need for affordable housing throughout Kalamazoo County, and that's what the housing study shows. Portage is no different." 

One might think of new Portage housing builds as large high-priced homes on cul-de-sacs. But a lot of affordable Portage housing stock is aging, and there are neighborhoods with empty lots in need of infill,  McCann says. 

Recent and potential economic growth locally means more people coming to the area. That means employees are going to need more "teachers, medical assistants, retail people that need the support of affordable housing wherever they choose to be."

Before the millage, KNHS didn't have the resources to build outside of the City of Kalamazoo, she says. "So for us to build in Portage or Kalamazoo Township, that's fabulous because that gives folks in our program a lot more options for where they would like to live."

If KNHS received more funding, they would build in more areas of the county, "while not sacrificing what we do in the City of Kalamazoo. The City of Kalamazoo will always be our core focus." 

From Edison to Portage

"Blaise is a delightful gal," McCann says of Boulding. "She loves her house, and she shared all her plans and excitement. It's wonderful to see that enthusiasm." 

Back at her new home, Boulding sits on her used riding mower, and unlike many homeowners, is excited to be able to mow her big backyard. She grew up with a tiny one in Edison. "This is at least five times bigger."

She'll miss Edison, she says. "You know where Town and Country is? There's a lady who's been selling tamales out of her van down there. They are the best tamales I've ever had." She'll miss being close to the Kik Pool, "But I'll drive back down there, it won't be the end of the pool for me."

But now she's minutes away from work, and a short drive to Meijer. It's 20 minutes back to Mom and Dad's, and that's not too far.

"As long as jobs continue to keep me here, I'm happy to stay close to Mom and Dad," she says. For Boulding, Kalamazoo County "is home," and Edison is "a badge for me. I like where I came from. I like being able to say, I'm from Kalamazoo." 

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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