Funding for three basic but important housing programs gets Kalamazoo City Commission approval

​​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.
KALAMAZOO, MI – When money is tight, a lot of people find a way to ignore the drip they hear inside the bathroom wall, and they learn to co-exist with the cracked facia boards under the roofline of their house.
They figure they’ll just have to live with those things until they find the money to make repairs – sometime in the future. 
They manage that until they discover that critters and the elements are coming into their home via the cracked boards. And until they learn the small drip inside the wall was evidence of corroded and leaking pipes that have now developed into a massive problem.
Community Homeworks of Kalamazoo helps people of limited means make critical home repairs they would not typically be able to afford on their own. And it helps them continue to live in their homes safely.
“We see that as one of the core pieces in a thriving community,” says Kaylen Humes, deputy director of Community Homeworks. It was one of three nonprofit organizations to receive funding Monday evening from the City of Kalamazoo to help people of low and moderate means, as well as senior citizens, to live better lives.
Kaylen Humes, deputy director of Community Homeworks, says, “Everybody deserves to live in a safe and sustainable home."Its Critical and Code Enforcement Repair Program was approved to receive a Housing Development Fund grant of $156,000 to help low- and moderate-income households whose problems have been flagged by the city for housing code violations. Critical home repairs include a wide range of fix-ups, from the replacement of furnaces and water heaters to home renovations that involve electrical, plumbing, or carpentry work.
“Everybody deserves to live in a safe and sustainable home,” Humes says. “That should be the bare minimum. And so with that money, that’s what we want to be able to provide -- at the very least, everybody can have a safe and sustainable home to live in.”
The grant is expected to help fund repairs in 28 housing units. It is a result of the Kalamazoo Foundation for Excellence’s Housing Development Fund initiative, an effort to provide “resources to construct and preserve quality affordable housing that responds to our community’s vision described through Imagine Kalamazoo,” according to the city. 
Imagine Kalamazoo is the city’s 10-year master plan for growth and community development.
Founded in 2009, Community Homeworks is operating this year with a budget of about $929,400 and a staff of about 10 people including a two-person construction team that works with many local subcontractors. More than half of the people it serves are those earning less than 50 percent of the Area Median Income, with the average household averaging just over $23,100.
Founded in 2009, Community Homeworks is operating with a staff of about 10 people including, from left, Education Manager Jason Byler, Program Coordinator Zack Hunkins, and Education & Volunteer Coordinator TiAnna Harrison.Generally, the organization stands ready to help those who earn no more than 80 percent of the Area Median Income. That is a four-person household earning $69,250 or less per year, and an individual earning $48,500 or less per year.
“With our programs in general, it’s a lot of referrals,” Humes says of how people find their way to the nonprofit. “… For the Code Enforcement Repair Program specifically, those are referrals directly from the city.”
Helping seniors age in place
Another project approved for funding is the Critical and Minor Home Repair for the Elderly Program, operated by Milestone Senior Services (formerly called Senior Services of Southwest Michigan Inc.).
Members of the Kalamazoo City Commission approved a grant of $200,000 from its allocation of Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery/American Rescue Plan Act funds to Milestone “to ensure safe, healthy, code-compliant single-family homes for low- to moderate-income elderly households,” according to a report on the program by the city. The intent is to help seniors maintain their homes and safely age in place.
The funding is part of $38.9 million in federal funds the city received from the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Of that, commissioners have decided to spend $5.5 million to support affordable housing efforts, realizing that during the COVID-19 pandemic homeowners postponed lots of home repairs, especially in senior households.
The repairs are targeted at increasing residential accessibility for seniors and allowing them to continue to live independently. The funding may be used to help cover the cost of improvements to structural, electrical, plumbing, and heating systems, as well as barrier-free renovations such as ramps, bathroom modifications, and stair railings, according to the city.
New housing units
The third housing-related allocation Monday was the transfer of $100,000 from the HOME Investment Partnership Program -- set-aside Community Housing Development Organization funds -- to Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services. Created in 1981, KNHS is a nonprofit organization that strives to foster homeownership and neighborhood revitalization with a range of financial, repair, building, and educational programs. It is using the money to help build three affordable owner-occupied housing units.
KNHS works with the Home Builders Association of West Michigan to construct new housing in the city’s core neighborhoods. By the end of this year, contractors with the Home Builders will have built 16 homes during the 4-year-old partnership.“That’s going toward three homes on the North Side,” Matt Milcarek, director of construction services for KNHS, says of the houses, which are nearing completion. “We’ve got two right next to each other on North Rose Street next to the Family Health Center and one on Harrison Street.”
Matt Milcarek, director of construction services for KNHS, says funding his organization has received from the city of Kalamazoo has allowed it to add some ,features to three homes it is building for low- to moderate-income families.The total cost for those houses is expected to be $700,000 to $800,000. They should be completed by this fall and sold before the end of the year.
The city had entered an agreement in June of 2019 with Kalamazoo Valley Habitat for Humanity to do the project. But Habitat for Humanity underwent organizational changes that hindered its capacity to do the project. KNHS became involved about a year ago after it was approached by the city.
KNHS was already involved in the Kalamazoo Attainable Homes Partnership initiative with the Home Builders’ Association of West Michigan to build new housing in the city’s core neighborhoods. It built four homes in each of the first two years of the 4-year-old Attainable Housing Partnership program. They are in the Vine, Edison, Eastside, Northside, and West Douglas neighborhoods. The three homes that received additional funding on Monday are among eight the organization began in the third year of the program.
“We’re building homes every year for the city,” Milcarek says. But the $100,000 has allowed it to expand the architectural designs it is using. Based on feedback from residents of other properties and people who toured the homes it built previously, he says they were able to modify and enlarge floor plans to include such things as a larger living space on the main floor.
“So in the big picture, it allows us to experiment with changing the design, adding some features to meet the neighborhood character,” he says.
The Kalamazoo Attainable Homes Partnership initiative, which is intended to help home buyers with incomes that are 80 percent or less of the Area Median Income, receives funding from the city, the Kalamazoo Foundation for Excellence, federal programs, and other sources. And building partners such as members of the Home Builders Association work at a discounted rate.  
“One challenge we face every single year is the cost to construct goes up almost weekly,” Milcarek says. “It seems materials and everything are going up. And the funding doesn’t always rise with the cost of construction. So we’re left finding additional resources all the time. So this $100,000 was one of those additional resources that allowed us to experiment with these different models, which definitely would not have happened without these funds.”
Sharilyn Parsons, housing development project coordinator for the City of Kalamazoo, says the city is working with and through various organizations to help provide more housing opportunities. With the additional funding approved for housing programs on Monday night, the city is helping to maintain and improve existing housing.
“I think the big reason why they’re (the new allocations are) needed is we’re still experiencing a housing shortage,” Parsons says. “… For the homeowner programs themselves, the reason why those are so important is because while we’re looking to build more units, to create more units, we also want to stabilize the existing neighborhoods, while helping existing owners.”
She cited an ongoing lease-to-purchase program that is run by Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services. It helps families whose credit rating does not yet qualify them to purchase a home, but who are able to lease the home they want until things improve and they can buy.
Without the additional funding, Humes says, “It would lessen the impact that we could make. We would still do what we can but … with the more diverse funding that we have, the more families that we can take care of.”
The additional source of funding is important, she says “because it helps us diversify our funds so that families don’t slip through the cracks.” She says allocations from some funding sources dictate specific terms, such as income levels, or that the house needing repairs is occupied by the homeowner (rather than someone buying it on a land contract), or that the deed holder be the recipient of services (rather than another family member who has lived in a house for many years).
Milcarek says he thinks the community should know that things are moving in the right direction as far as the city and housing work is concerned.
“I’ve been at KNHS for 10 years,” he says. “The amount of resources the city had 10 years ago or five years ago, they pale in comparison with the resources the city has now. They’ve really revamped a lot of things as far as code, zoning, and their funding streams (are concerned) frankly because affordable housing does not happen without governmental subsidy. It doesn’t happen as far as new construction goes. So it’s a huge game change to see the city supporting this level of new construction in the community.”


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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.