How environmental justice can factor into the development of affordable housing in Kalamazoo County

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 needs low-cost housing now. 
 
But the realities of building or rehabbing places for people to live in mean that homes are ready only after two or three years of work.
 
When considerations of environmental justice are included in a site plan, that may be another reality that could slow down completion and raise costs. But to ignore these considerations are not an option say those in Kalamazoo working to create affordable housing.
 
On April 21, the League of Women Voters of the Kalamazoo Area and the Kalamazoo Climate Crisis Coalition held a forum with Kalamazoo County Housing Director Mary Balkema and President of Hollander Development Corporation Matt Hollander.
 
Balkema heads the 2022 distribution of $7.1 million of the county's Housing for All millage. It'll be generating many more millions in the next seven years that will go toward projects to create affordable housing.
 
Hollander's company built The Creamery in Edison and has been developing affordable housing since 1979.
 
The talk was on environmental justice. Cybelle Shattuck, who teaches environmental justice courses at Western Michigan University as an associate professor for the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, helped develop questions asked, but was unable to attend.
 
We asked her what she thought about what was said. But first: What's environmental justice?
 
It's a movement that emerged in the 1980s, that "started with the recognition that environmental exposures, risk factors, are not equitably distributed," Shattuck says.
 
Research on where toxic sites -- dumps, factories, interstate freeways, etc. -- tended to end up showed they "ended up near low-income communities and people of color communities," she says.
 
This led to the question, "Why does this happen? And then you start to recognize the systemic factors that have to do with zoning regulations, and who has power in the decision structures of government and how that influences where we decide to locate industries and industrial facilities," she says. She adds that redlining, the practice of segregating neighborhoods via real estate, also had a big hand in putting people in toxic environments.
 
Kalamazoo County Housing Director Mary Balkema addresses the League of Women Voters of the Kalamazoo Area and the Kalamazoo Climate Crisis Coalition.It's a long history of, "Where do we put this thing? Oh, we'll put it where the property values are cheapest because we need to buy up land in order to put up a factory or whatever," she says. "Often the property values are cheapest because of historical inequities. Then you already have low-income people who are in that area, and they end up with a cumulative burden of exposures."
 
Inequities also happen when it comes to environmental benefits, Shattuck says. An example is tree canopy. The City of Kalamazoo recently conducted a tree study, which found there were more trees in neighborhoods like Winchell compared with Northside, she says.
 
"Trees improve property value, they mitigate the urban heat effect by providing shade.... they help with water filtration and help reduce flood hazards," she says.
 
Associate Professor Cybelle Shattuck teaches environmental justice courses at Western Michigan University in the Institute of the Environment and SustainabilityShattuck mentions the urban housing projects of the 1960s-'70s, large apartment buildings notorious for having "no greenspace, no parks. We know so much now about the access to greenspace -- even if you just have a view from your window that includes trees, it helps you function mentally." 
 
Having a voice 
 
"Ensuring that people of color, low-income people, actually had a voice in making decisions about anything being done that's going to affect the quality of their lives... where you live, where you work, where you play, where you go to school," is an essential part of environmental justice, Shattuck says.
 
"It was really encouraging to hear both Mary Balkema and Matt Hollander talking about how much citizen engagement they try to do in the process," she says.
 
In the forum, Balkema says the county held listening sessions in the planning of large developments. "Sometimes I go to these things with a preconceived notion, and we come out with a completely different plan. Many times the plan is much better than what the experts conceive of." 
 
Hollander said that public engagement is part of the process "most of the time." But it can be a lead to "NIMBYism, 'not in my back yard.' And there are a lot of stereotypes about poor people and people with a low- to moderate-income where people may recognize that we need significant affordable housing in our community, we just don't want to be next to it, because I don't want to live next to 'those people'.... This is a story as old as 'affordable housing' has been used as a term in the United States." 
 
Urban sites, contaminated sites -- 'Something has been there before'
 
Overall, what does Shattuck think of Housing for All's and Hollander's efforts to consider environmental justice?
 
"It really is wonderful," she says.
 
Matt Hollander"What the panel did so well is explain not only how hard they're working, but how complicated it actually is to do affordable housing and to do it well. Those of us outside the business, we think that it's a simple matter of will." Balkema and Hollander made it clear, "it's not just about wanting to do it, it's about figuring out how to do it."
 
In the forum, Hollander says he's long worked with the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA), a primary driver of affordable housing since 1986, he says. 
 
MSHDA has many regulations for developers in its low-income housing program. For example, no portion of new housing, from living units to parking lots, can be built in a 100-year floodplain. 
 
In rehabbing older housing, mold, asbestos, and lead-based paint need to be removed. Mold is nearly impossible to remediate, Hollander says. "You really have to tear a place apart to get at some of that mold growth."
 
MSHDA requires studies for lead and asbestos, which require the hiring of professionals to detect hazardous materials. If that leads to abatement, there are more costs for potentially hazardous removal work. It's all "incredibly expensive."
 
Balkema says, "We do not want to put families next to places that are environmentally toxic." She hears of families suffering from health impacts who live near the controversial Graphic Packaging plant on the Northside, so no projects near there will be considered, she says. "If we see such pockets, I cannot in good faith recommend any housing there." 
 
Hollander adds that MSHDA criteria prohibit using any contaminated sites, or any sites close to interstates, airports, or other sources of noise pollution.
 
Yet, affordable housing should be near grocery stores; on bus routes or within bikeable or walkable distances to amenities and services, and near employment opportunities. Those are all in "an urban context, and something has been there before," Hollander says. That means there's contamination of some sort. 
 
"And we have to manage that. It's not a case of just staying away, it's a case of adapting to what's on-site where we are, to get some of these other peripheral benefits. But again always in a way that is supported by science and is going to minimize any sort of effects on human health," Hollander says.
 
Making homes affordable to live in
 
A lot of income goes into renting or owning a home. And a lot goes into maintenance, electrical systems, heating, and cooling.
 
Environmental justice also means that to keep homes livable they must be affordable in the long run. It also is where what's happening to the environment comes into play -- flooding ruins homes with mold, swings in climate drive up bills in poorly insulated homes, and wasteful electrical systems lead to more fossil fuels burned. Electric vehicle charging might be a necessity in homes, soon, to help people stop putting paychecks in gas tanks. Homes must be prepared for climate change, and made more energy-efficient, to both help residents save money and to reduce stresses on the environment.
 
"Utility bills don't lie in the middle of winter in Michigan," Balkema says. Reducing bills gets "direct money" to people. A large chunk of income "goes into gas prices and food and everything else that makes a family sustainable."
 
Balkema says they're partnering with Consumers Energy to build energy-efficient homes in Kalamazoo and Portage "that are the super-efficient, all-electric new home. They're zero-energy ready, solar ready, EV (electric vehicle) ready"
 
Hollander is able to brag that his company is a "multi-year first place winner of the Battle of the Buildings" competition for energy use reduction. "We're on the cusp of that net-zero readiness," he says.
 
At The Creamery "every residential unit is heated and cooled by something called an air source heat pump or a mini-split system," he says. These are systems that take heat from outside air -- even in freezing temperatures -- to heat homes. The U.S. Department of Energy says that heat pump systems can save hundreds of dollars annually, compared with traditional furnaces. 
 
People in older homes have a long way to go to be energy efficient. "We have an older housing stock, and a lot of times our seniors, our moms with kids, are suffering in that very low stock that was built around the turn of the century," Balkema says. "I did put over a million dollars in that category (making homes efficient), because the need is great. And the goal, again, was to make it sustainable and lower the burden of the utilities."
 
Hollander credits Kalamazoo's Community Homeworks with helping people learn how to do minor repairs and insulation improvements themselves. He also brings up Michigan Saves, a statewide program offering low-cost financing for people to improve the energy use of their homes.
 
"It's still very expensive, it's still out of reach," for many, Hollander says. "We need a lot more resources towards it."
 
Weatherizing homes is an issue that's often left out of this discussion, he adds. "It has the fastest payback." And the highest costs if neglected -- "If you don't replace your roof, and you get water in your house, then you're going to get mold, then you're going to get sick, and then you're going to have to move." 
 
The money is there, but time is tight
 
Balkema says, "To get a project to the finish line takes two or three years, and we have an affordable housing shortage right now. We have people on the streets, we have people living in their cars, we have people at the Mission." 
 
"We need to take the long-term approach to it," Balkema says. "A lot of politicians are generalists," she adds, and calls for feedback from "the experts... on what's working, what's not working."
 
The county has nearly $51.5 million in ARPA funds, "we're also dedicating part of that towards infrastructure, towards housing and social determinants of health," in addition to the over $7 million from the housing millage. "I think we can do some stuff to scale this year, which I'm very encouraged by."
 
In order to meet standards of environmental justice, certain costs have to be covered. Shattuck says that, before the housing millage, funds were available, but they've been spotty -- for example, there's federal funding for weatherization, but none for big upgrades in electrical systems. 
 
"Can the city or the county take some of that millage money and set it aside to fill some of those gaps in-home repairs? That would then make it possible to do some of those projects that are so important, and for which we might be able to leverage federal funds," Shattuck says. "I'm sure that people like Mary Balkema can figure out how to do this, if she hasn't already. She's so good at this, she's been working at this for a long time." 
 
Overall, "Kalamazoo is doing something really innovative, having this millage. The fact that the voters voted for it is really impressive," Shattuck says.
 
"But the one thing I'm a little mystified about, is I just saw the census data for Kalamazoo, and in the last decade the population of Kalamazoo hasn't really changed that much. Why do we have such a shortage of housing? I've been trying to figure that one out," she says with a laugh. "We didn't have the same homelessness problem ten years ago." 
 
One issue not addressed during the forum, she says, "If you do have to remediate a property, where do you send the (polluting) stuff? They said, oh, we send it to landfill. A lot of that toxic waste, if it's really toxic, it goes all the way over to Wayne County, which is where the state has its toxic waste facilities." 
 
And who lives there? "That's historical discrimination, too."

 

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.