It's complicated: In cities nationwide, including Kalamazoo, barriers can keep people homeless

Editor's Note: This story is written by housing advocate and Vice Mayor Patrese Griffin who was a graduate of the On the Ground Community Correspondent Program in 2018 before running for public office.

You hear it all the time: The solution to homelessness and the housing crisis is a home. 

If only it were that simple. 

The reality is much more complex and the barriers to getting a roof over one's head are many. Renters and would-be homeowners each face different obstacles. 

Let's look at the rental market.

Barrier 1: Rental prices and income mismatch

To put the problem in perspective, in the United States there is not a single state where a full-time worker earning minimum wage can afford a market-rate apartment. According to a study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University over half of the people who rent in the United States pay more than 40 percent of their income towards rent.

The Fair Market Rent for the Kalamazoo-Portage area for 2019 as determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is $795 for a two-bedroom and $1,085 for a three-bedroom apartment. The market area includes all of Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties, including the cities of Kalamazoo and Portage. And 35 percent of households in Kalamazoo County rent. Of those, 49 percent are rent-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their household income on rent. The situation is not unique. Nationwide, the entire United States is experiencing a shortage of affordable housing.

In an attempt to offset the lack of affordable places to live, HUD offers Section 8 vouchers to provide opportunities and housing choices for people with low incomes. But only one in four eligible households actually receives a subsidy and the wait-lists are multi-year. Currently, 2,002 people are on the Section 8 waiting list in Kalamazoo County. A Vote Yes 4 Kids Millage approved four years ago provides rental assistance for families with school-aged children in Kalamazoo County. This subsidy was intended to get 100 families a year housed.

With that millage set to expire, Kalamazoo County commissioners recently approved seeking approval of another millage. It is calculated that a Countywide .75 millage would raise approximately $6.2 million annually for eight years. The cost to a homeowner with a house that has a market value of $100,000 would be  $37.50 a year. The request will be on the Nov. 3 ballot. It would serve 200 each year families with rapid rehousing and rent subsidies and allow for a partnership with housing developers for the creation of 900 units of permanent affordable housing in Kalamazoo County over the course of the eight-year millage. 

Barrier 2: Being denied housing based on who pays you

Refusing to rent to a person based on how they pay rent is called "source of income" discrimination. This includes paying rent using a Section 8 voucher or another type of housing subsidy. People who live in Kalamazoo County are currently not protected from this type of discrimination.

Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Jackson, and East Lansing are among the cities in Michigan that have Source of Income protection. It doesn’t require a landlord to rent to a person if they have a voucher or assistance, however, the landlord cannot refuse to rent to a person who otherwise qualifies. 

Across the U.S those with subsidies are often refused rental leases as landlords cite the bureaucratic process and make stereotypical associations of voucher holders and people who get a housing subsidy. 

Andrew Chopandra, the Truth Racial Healing Transformation (TRHT) Separation design team lead says, “Vouchers aren’t easily used. Landlords won’t take the voucher as income that’s dedicated to rent and it excludes people from housing. Vouchers aren’t easily used in better and fair housing.” 

Barrier 3: Blanket policies denying leases to certain people

Unjust rental policies often keep people from having housing choice and limits upward mobility. “People don’t have social mobility to move and make room for more people so the issue is compounded," says Chopandra. Blanket policies through which landlords refuse to rent to a person based on criminal background, eviction history, or credit score create what is known as a disparate impact. Disparate impact occurs when a neutral policy has a discriminatory effect. Overwhelmingly that group of people facing discrimination is Black and Latinx. And in this community, they are more likely to have children. This is part of the reason why Kalamazoo has the highest rate of homeless students in Michigan. 

Add to that a punitive system that allows landlords to reject rental applications for those with a criminal history and people who don’t have high credit scores and it becomes clear why some people cannot find housing.

Many landlords and property management companies in the Kalamazoo county have blanket policies that refuse to rent to a person if they have an eviction filing on their record, regardless of how long ago the eviction took place, if the person was actually evicted or eviction was merely threatened, or the circumstances surrounding the eviction. An eviction filing does not mean a person was actually evicted. 

Prior to 2016, there was no national research done on evictions. Matthew Desmond, Harvard professor wrote the New York Times bestseller Evicted. Eviction Lab, his brainchild, developed at Princeton University, combed through eviction records in 48 states. In the City of Kalamazoo, an average of two evictions are filed each day and nearly five a day in the County, they found. 

Outside of job loss and the subsequent inability to pay rent, one of the major contributing factors to eviction is domestic violence. Kalamazoo County has an eviction diversion program that works to help tenants avoid eviction, however, in order to receive help you have to be ordered to appear in court. That filing will subsequently limit housing choice.

Credit scores have long been used as a tool to determine creditworthiness. The rating determines the interest rate or if you qualify. Employers, insurance, and landlords all use this information. It is not uncommon to see a policy that says one must have a specific credit score in order to qualify. This eliminates someone who can otherwise present themselves as financially responsible. 

A blanket policy that refuses to rent to a person based on criminal background is a violation of Fair Housing Law, yet every day people are still denied housing in Kalamazoo county because housing providers have such blanket policies. 

The height of this barrier to being housed is elevated by the fact that mass Incarceration is a problem in the United States. The U.S. makes up only 4 percent of the world’s population and has 25 percent of its prisoners. The Center for American Progress reports that nearly half of all children in the United States have one parent with a criminal record. 

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, one in three American adults has either an arrest or a conviction record. In 2016 HUD passed down guidance on the use of criminal background in the admission process, which states a housing provider may be in violation of the Fair Housing Act if they use criminal history information to deny a housing application. 

Barrier 4: Race

When you factor in race the impact is that much more devastating. What Black, Latinx, and many other People of Color have know and have been forced to live with and deal with for many years is now evidenced through various studies and reports. Policies rooted in racism and the unchecked systems our society functions in were and are the pathway to disparities. 

According to HUD, Blacks make up 13 percent of the U.S. population yet they make up 40 percent of the homeless population. Kalamazoo County is made up of only 11 percent Blacks, and the poverty rate amongst the same group is nearly 45 percent. The 2017 Annual Count reports that 60 percent of the county's homeless population is Black, with nearly 60 percent of them being single women with school-aged children.

Mass Incarceration is an issue that affects the entire United States, and Black and Latinx populations are incarcerated at disproportionately higher rates. According to research, single women of color are most likely to experience eviction. Black renters are evicted at higher rates than whites. 

Fifty years after the enactment of the Fair Housing Act, Black Americans are no further ahead than before. In fact, Black people own fewer homes and are more likely to be homeless in 2020 than in 1968, when the act took effect.

The National Fair Housing Alliance says the U.S. has a “dual credit market as a result of years of segregation, disinvestment, and discrimination.” And access to credit is based on where you live and not just your ability to pay. 

A white person can be convicted of a crime, have a low credit score, have prior evictions and pay rent with a housing choice voucher however their ability to secure housing in Kalamazoo county is much better than someone who is Black, Latinx or Native American with the same background, the Alliance says. 

According to HUD,  in 2018 in Michigan six out of 10 unsheltered individuals are white. One criticism of the attempts to solve housing issues based on the literal homeless was that People of Color were underrepresented. 

ISAAC at work
ISAAC  is a nonprofit, made up of over 20 faith-based congregations and other organizations committed to work that promotes social justice in the community. Every two years they have an issues convention to determine what they will focus on based on what the community tells them is important. Housing, among other issues, was selected at the 2017 convention. Since then, it has been researching different ways to address homelessness and other housing issues in ways that make a difference.

ISAAC has been working to find answers to the housing situation that has been plaguing Kalamazoo County for years and which came to the forefront with the month-long encampment of the homeless and their allies in September 2018. Through its Housing Taskforce ISAAC addressed these barriers head-on. 

Understanding that it will take the efforts of the City of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County, including Portage, Comstock, Parchment, Oshtemo, Texas Township and others to bring about real change, ISAAC asked standing city commissioners, county commissioners, and trustees at their bi-annual public meeting October 2018 to agree to commit to learning more about the history of segregation in this community and add source of income as a protected class and Fair chance housing ordinances that will open housing opportunities for the county's most vulnerable population. 

As the ISAAC task force worked on the affordable housing issue there were many eye-opening lessons learned.

“People were shocked to find out that even if we build homes, people still can’t get in,” says Toby Hanna-Davies, co-chair of ISAAC’s housing task force. Most low-income families receive no government housing assistance and are housed in the private rental market.” 

“I got more response after this meeting than I ever have,” she says of the meeting that took place Oct. 25, 2018. The public meeting drew more than 300 people and public officials from the City of Kalamazoo City, Kalalamzoo and Oshtemo townships, and Kalamazoo County Commissioners. 

“The information we (ISAAC) presented was shocking because it was invisible to most white people that unless you were white, (historically) you couldn’t get a mortgage. For all those decades people were restricted.” 

Redlining and racially restrictive covenants sanctioned by the Federal Government via the Home Owners Loan Corp. in 1936 legalized segregation. It kept anyone who wasn’t white from owning property outside of certain neighborhoods and was legal until 1968. This laid the groundwork for systemic racism that shows up today whether intentionally or not and created the wealth gaps we see today.

According to a study from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing, in 2016 white households' wealth ($162,800) was 10 times higher than that of Black households ($16,300) and eight times that of Hispanic households ($21,400). Property values in Black and Latinx neighborhoods are low. As a result, they have poorly funded schools, lack of access to jobs, and the paralysis of the economic viability of these communities. 

“The largest recipient of housing subsidy in the U.S. are homeowners, which are majority white," says Hanna-Davies. 

Stephanie Hoffman, co-chair of the ISAAC housing Taskforce, says, “It’s all about perception and how we frame things. The single mother who gets state assistance for housing gets looked down on, but the homeowner who gets a tax deduction doesn’t.”

The average HUD voucher holder (with an income under $20,000) gets an average benefit of $1,500 during a calendar year, while households with incomes over $200,000 benefit over $6,000 through the home mortgage interest deduction.

“All of these housing issues are compounded when you limit someone from being able to move,” says Chopandra, who is also a member of the ISAAC housing task force. People who get into transitional housing or a housing subsidy aren’t able to easily transition out. 

All in attendance at the ISAAC public meeting including Kalamazoo City Commissioners, Kalamazoo County Trustees, and Kalamazoo County Commissioners agreed to ISAAC's request to adopt additional protections to open up housing possibilities for people.

The face of homelessness

Historically, homelessness was believed to be caused primarily by mental illness, substance abuse, or personal failure. The images and narratives associated with homelessness are single men or women standing on the corner with a cardboard sign or the unsavory looking character walking up to you in the parking lot asking you for change. 

“The face of homelessness has changed due to a lack of affordable housing and racism," says Stephanie Hoffman who also serves as the Executive Director of Open Doors.

“The Image of homelessness is wrong," Hoffman says. “Everyday hard-working people are trying to make a paycheck, on the bus, trying to maintain life, and don’t know where they’re going to sleep tonight. It’s not just the person on the side of the road with the sign that says 'God Bless You.' It’s your co-worker, the cashier at the store, the little boy you just walked past. They’re staying with Auntie. They only have limited time because she has kids of her own and is in only a two-bedroom. 

“Families without housing affects employability, education of children, mental and physical health. Housing touches every part of an individual's being. Housing has become a justice issue,” says Hoffman.  

It will take more than the City of Kalamazoo to affect change. People deserve housing and housing choice. “In the eleven counties of Southwest Michigan, the issues of housing are the same no matter where you are," says Chopandra. If only one area addresses this housing crisis poverty will be reconcentrated. 

So how does this community begin to reverse the effects of years of housing discrimination and move forward? Understanding how and why this community is in crisis, municipalities, and organizations adopting policies that are developed through an equity lens, strong fair housing laws and enforcement, improving on what’s already in place, and trying to fill the gaps in the available housing services is a start. There is no one solution. The problems Black people face are different from Latinx community issues which are different from White people. You can’t cure cancer by treating an ulcer. The same logic has to be applied when trying to solve these issues.  

What’s in the works

Kalamazoo has proposed updates to Chapter 18 of the City’s Code of Ordinances that would strengthen protections for Kalamazoo residents related to housing. The proposal would also create the new Chapter 18A, which would directly address Fair Housing. A town hall to hear community input took place Aug. 10. The ordinance is expected to come before the City Commission in Septemeber.

The changes would expand housing protections to include educational affiliation, source of income, status as a victim of domestic violence, personal identification method, and prior arrests or conviction record. The proposal also protects renters against predatory application fees and strengthens enforcement for gender identity and sexual orientation. To enforce new and existing provisions in Chapter 18, the ordinance would create a Civil Rights Board to review allegations and violations of the ordinance.

The proposal was developed in collaboration with community partners including Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy and Action in the Community (ISAAC), and Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) Kalamazoo. If adopted, this would be the first significant change to address housing issues in Kalamazoo since gender identity and sexual orientation were added as local protections in 2009.
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Read more articles by Patrese Nicole.

Patrese Nicole is a Realtor/Housing Advocate and small-business owner who lives on Kalamazoo's Northside with her husband and children. "I've always enjoyed writing," she says. "I'm using my writing as a tool to change the narrative of those without voices."