Housing Matters Kalamazoo: Learning, dialogue, relationships based on affordable housing solutions

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 city of Kalamazoo, the ENNA Foundation, and the Kalamazoo County Land Bank.

Once a month a group of people, from advocates for the unhoused to county officials, hash out the issues surrounding Kalamazoo's housing crisis.

For almost 12 years, Housing Matters Kalamazoo has gotten all of the disparate players in housing on the same page, got them out of their silos so everyone knows what everyone else is doing, and has people who might disagree talking face-to-face.

We spoke with some of the founders about the history of Housing Matters and their perspectives on housing in Kalamazoo.

'Pull some ideas out of thin air'

Housing Matters forums serve as part talk show, part deep-dive into housing issues. Recent forums show the variety of presentations:

For Feb. 14, Luchara Wallace spoke on her daughter Layla Wallace's business, Layla's Cool Pops, and how Layla used housing millage funds to open a house for teens out of foster care.

Jan. 10, Sarah Cain of Kalamazoo Housing Advocates spoke on their efforts to help people maintain housing.

Don Jones is one of the founders of Housing Matters, formed 12 years ago.Dec. 13, the City of Kalamazoo's Christina Anderson and Sharilyn Parsons talked about the city's efforts to increase affordable and equitable housing.

The latest year’s worth of forum recordings are available on the Housing Matters site, older recordings are available on request.

The people behind Housing Matters are volunteers, with no one person in charge. Norman Young provides technical support and keeps the website running and the Zooms operating. "I find that the other members of our team are much more verbal, much more articulate than I am," he says.

Don Jones and Tobi Hanna-Davies are long-time housing advocates. They sometimes serve as forum MCs and were with Housing Matters from the start. "We're the last of the dinosaurs," Jones says.

They are not a 501c3, not a registered business. Young pays for the web hosting himself. When they met in the basement of Trinity Lutheran, donations used to mean "a basket folks would drop a few bucks into to pay for the pizza," Jones says, but that was before COVID moved their lunch-time forums online. 

There are about a half dozen on the planning committee, "and we come from various walks of life. Some are retirees, some have been nonprofit professionals. All of us have been from the human service sector," Jones says.

Norman Young provides technical support and keeps the website running for Housing Matters.Housing Matters formed in the spring of 2012 out of an effort to get a housing millage for the county on the ballot. The County Commission voted to keep it off the ballot. 

It was an uneven effort. Some housing organizations supported the proposed millage, some didn't. The problem was a lack of communication, Young says.

"We saw that we had a problem within Kalamazoo of the various housing organizations not really working together and not respecting each other, and really not understanding what we were doing," Young says. "One of the big problems was organizations thought that their funding would be threatened if other organizations received funding. And that funding would come out of their budget. That turned out not to be true at all."

Previously, there had been some communication among the orgs. Jones says the Kalamazoo County Continuum of Care had been holding open housing forums twice a year. "That was our community's conversation point to find each other and to talk openly about housing challenges in our community."

That year, those forums stopped. "And within two days I convened a meeting of folks in town to say, this might be really what we've all been hoping for," Jones says. "We can now come out from under constraints and restrictions of a federal superstructure, and have our own conversation, own it, and drive it the way we want in this community."

Housing Matters formed with the knowledge that they needed a space where all -- landlords to the unhoused, local government officials to advocates -- could speak.  

"We decided to have a politics-free, turf-free, competition-free space that we would build in this community, where all would be welcome," Jones says. "For-profit, nonprofit, governmental, folks experiencing homelessness and housing challenges, folks who've lived that experience, folks who work in the field. For us to find a common space that really was neutral, but also open and innovative and unconstrained, that was professional, that was respectful."

Jones continues, "To have education and dialogue and learning that could maybe pull some ideas out of thin air. To begin to move the needle in a positive direction on the housing challenges that are the greater Kalamazoo community faces."

'A wicked problem'

Since Housing Matters’ formation, "It was all about positives. And that's how it's been," Hanna-Davies says. "It was Don's brilliance, I think, that realized we needed to be better connected to each other, all of us who care about affordable housing."

Willa DiTranto talks about solutions for more affordable housing at a recent Housing Matters meeting."And that's worked." Hanna-Davies points to the 2020 "Housing for All" millage, "a big improvement" over the previous effort.

Thanks to the monthly forums, the Housing Matters committee has had a detailed look at Kalamazoo's housing situation for nearly 12 years. They’ve also worked intensely in their own roles as housing advocates.

Since 2012, have they seen progress?

They tell us there is no neat set of figures that can show more, or fewer, people are unhoused or housed. And the housing millage is a powerful tool to help, but it's still in its early years.

Jones has been the executive director of Kalamazoo Valley Habitat for Humanity, and program director for Ministry with Community. He's retired, but currently works as an independent volunteer, "boots on the ground," he says, helping people with Mothers of Hope and other organizations.

His long history dealing with the housing crisis has led him to declare it "a wicked problem," which is a term physicists have for a problem with "too many variables," he says.

"I am no closer now than I was when I rolled out of Habitat for Humanity (in 2016) after 10 years, to understanding the absolute wicked problem and the absolute complexity of this thing on a programmatic large scale level. I cannot figure this out."

Young points out that the costs of housing keeps going up, "especially in the last few years. The pandemic has really increased the cost of housing, and that'd be rents, building houses, remodeling houses. And so that has really squeezed a lot of people to lose their housing that they had."

"I suspect we have more homeless now than we did before the pandemic. But we also have a lot more affordable housing available than before the pandemic. It's just that economics are really hard on people right now," Young says. "I haven't seen the statistics on that, but that's my belief."

"I always feel like we're on really thin ice when we start making judgments about progress or not," Jones says. He senses frustration from the County Commissioners over the results of the housing millage. "And they're going to start reviewing what is up with the pipeline of producing affordable housing in this town."

Mary Balkema talks at a recent Housing Matters meeting about successes the county is experiencing in obtain more housing. Jones adds that County Housing Director Mary Balkema is a regular during Housing Matters forums, and is on their planning committee. 

"The millage is an amazing success," Jones says, with a funding "faucet" that's a "fairly good size for a county and a quarter of a million people."

"Now we're watching... what's the outcome of that millage, right? We're not seeing the results yet."

Hanna-Davies says, "there's still a lot of work to be done, but absolutely, yes, we're making progress."

"The effect of the millage that we have now, the Housing for All millage, over the last two years is an important way of measuring the success," she says. 

"Yes, it's not finished, it's not fixed, there's a lot more to do, but the progress is impressive. There are so many things that are either already built or in the works that would not have been built without the millage. And there are so many visions in different municipalities for improving affordable housing. Because they have the millage to help, and because we've helped sort of change the vision."

Hanna-Davies is the affordable housing co-chair for ISAAC. Before coming to Kalamazoo, she was on the Ann Arbor City Council in the '90s.

The focus in Kalamazoo County is now on creating more housing, and moving people out of a life of homelessness, she points out.

"I think in the past, the idea was to manage homelessness," she says, "provide day shelter, provide night shelter, provide clothes, etc. That's not solving homelessness or ending homelessness. I think our community's on the way to working on really solving homelessness." 

Hanna-Davies compared Ann Arbor with Kalamazoo. Ann Arbor, she remembers, had accepted money from the federal government to build public housing. "There were apartments with relatively small numbers of units in almost every neighborhood."

She suspects that Kalamazoo "didn't have any of that (because) Kalamazoo leaders persuaded the voters to say no to public housing. They had a fear of Cabrini Green" -- a large high-population housing project in Chicago notorious for its high-crime-rate -- "or some other terrible idea of what public housing would be."

Also, the federal government stopped providing funds for public housing in the '90s, and turned to a voucher system, which has its own problems, she points out. And then there was the ending of institutional support for people with mental illness. 

Homelessness is a huge national problem, she says. "And we are doing a great job compared to lots of communities who have the same problems. We're not doing it well enough. But we are the first county of Michigan to pass a millage to support affordable housing."

So far, the millage seems to not have had a huge impact on this huge problem, but, "we just finished the second year of the impact" of the millage, Hanna-Davies says.

Young says, "Actually, what excites me about what's happening in Kalamazoo in the last several years, that really started with the millage... is that more and more people are understanding that we have a homeless problem in Kalamazoo. And more and more people are willing to help out largely through their pocketbooks to create some affordable housing stock.”

Young says of that stock, "if you look over the last several years, it really has gone up enormously. The millage has helped, but then the grants that are coming through Kalamazoo, the City of Kalamazoo, they put a lot of money toward affordable housing, subsidized housing. So I see that is very positive for the community.

He adds, "The problem is that we have nowhere near the amount that we actually need so that everyone could have some sort of affordable housing.”

Powerful presentations

Housing Matters will continue to talk to the people who make the efforts and have solutions to improving the housing situation.

What forums stick out for the presenters, ones they would recommend to Second Wave readers? Thanks to the power of web publication, forum recordings are just a click away.

Jones says his favorite session was on March 8, 2023. Speakers from Integrated Services of Kalamazoo spoke about the millage-funded wrap-around services they provide to people in low-income housing. 

"It was a powerful session, and it was emotional," Jones says. "I came away just with this enormous pride -- a fistful of just four county employees working in a ridiculously complicated community mental health structure and organization, ISK.... They were able to bring their heart to their work every single hour of every single day and every single relationship they had with people. It was just so powerful."

Hanna-Davies hopes people will watch Sarah Cain's presentation on Kalamazoo Housing Advocates from this past January. "She talked about the support services that (Kalamazoo Housing Advocates) gives to help people get over their barriers, whatever their barriers are, to stay in the community, to stay housed, being able to succeed."

They also suggest Balkema's November talk on housing millage updates.  And, as she does for that talk, any forum with City Commissioner Stephanie Hoffman where she serves as Housing Matters MC. "I love that because she has 16 years of experience in leadership at Open Doors Kalamazoo before she came on the city commission," Hanna-Davies says.

After presentations, attendees have free-wheeling discussions on what's happening in Kalamazoo housing. Anyone can join in and be heard.

The spirit of discussion for all, face-to-face even if virtual, goes back to the beginning of Housing Matters as a "neutral ground," Jones says.

"We want the tent huge. We want it big enough so that those who were pro-millage and those who were against it could sit down and break bread together and be in the same room and have dialogue, right? Have dialogue, look each other in the eye, build relationships," Jones says.

"You know, if we have a tagline, as Norm wants to say, they're 'learning, dialogue and solutions.' Now looking over my shoulder over a decade I think one of the other words we could add is relationships," Jones says.

March’s Housing Matters forum, happening March 13 just before the publication of this story, will be a discussion led by Tobi Hanna-Davies on Finland's successes in housing the unhoused. The recording will be viewable here.

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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.