Kalamazoo County board hears a new plan to address a critical need for more housing

​​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 County has a shortage of housing units at a number of different price points.
High construction costs, low rates of construction, increased demand from a
growing population, and housing costs that are increasing faster than wages, all contribute to the shortage and to affordability issues, according to the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.
Those contributors are spelled out in the preliminary draft of a housing plan presented to the Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday evening. (The board’s regular Tuesday night meeting was pushed back one day due to the statewide primary election.)
“I think it’s largely what we knew and it’s largely what we’re doing,” says Mary Balkema, housing director for Kalamazoo County, referring to efforts being made to create more housing in the county. But she says information included in the plan is a big deal to her because “it confirms everything we’re doing,” she says.
This spring, the county began awarding grants and loans to projects that created or improved more housing. They are a portion of some $7.1 million generated during the first year of a new countywide property tax millage. The millage was approved by Kalamazoo County voters in November of 2020 to support the creation of new housing.
Kalamazoo County needs additional housing units in all types and price points, but there is a greater need for homes that are consistently affordable for those making moderate to low incomes.“We went out with our housing millage and then people asked, ‘Why don’t you make data-driven decisions?’” Balkema says. “I said, ‘Because I don’t have the data. We don’t have the housing study.’ … So when a study confirms what we’re doing, I think that’s some good stuff right there.”
Lee Adams, director of community development for the Upjohn Institute
Lee Adams, director of community development for the Upjohn Institute, says ideally the plan will inform the county on its use of housing millage monies “and also we really hope to gain an understanding of the unhoused population, a population that really doesn’t necessarily have a lot understood about their needs. And that population is pretty significant.”
Among the housing concerns in Kalamazoo County, researchers found:
• Rising costs have put most moderate- and low-income earners into situations where they are paying more in rent or ownership costs than what is financially sustainable. That increases the chances for displacement, especially for those with fixed incomes, such as seniors, individuals with disabilities, or people trying to rebuild after homelessness, the plan asserts.
Goals outlined in the preliminary plan include ensuring that the housing supply is built to meet demand.• There are more than 15,000 overburdened renting households in Kalamazoo County. Of those, 13,000 households have annual gross incomes below $35,000. That level of income only allows for monthly housing expenses to be at or below $875.
• Kalamazoo County needs additional housing units in all types and price points, but there is a greater need for homes that are consistently affordable for those making moderate to low incomes. “The addition of income-qualified units could provide sustained housing at price points that allow occupants to achieve financial stability and potentially move to a more secure form of housing,” the plan finds.
It suggests that the county needs to consider strategies to help alleviate some concerns found in the county, and suggests that such strategies “are most effective when community partners band together and implement them as a cohesive unit.”
The 109-page plan includes input from Realtors, developers, housing nonprofit organizations, and citizens, as well as two surveys (one of county residents who are housed and one of the unhoused). The larger survey included mailing to more than 35,000 county residents and received responses from about 3,000 of them.
Kalamazoo County needs additional housing units in all types and price points, but there is a greater need for homes that are consistently affordable for those making moderate to low incomes. The plan was presented to the board by Adams. It was accepted without changes and is to be submitted to the board again at its meeting next regular meeting for final approval.
The document outlines a housing continuum – housing situations from homelessness to secure market-rate housing – in which people move from one situation to another as their needs change. For example, the continuum may include emergency housing when an individual needs help and an affordable apartment rental when a person loses his or her partner. It states that a healthy housing continuum “provides homes for those in a range of incomes or in different life situations” but finds that Kalamazoo County has a housing crisis.
It includes wage data related to housing. Of that, Balkema says, “The proportion of Black or African-American households that are making less than $30,000 annually is twice that of White non-Hispanic residents. So we can really see by population where the disparities are. And probably I would add that we need to over-invest in housing in those areas.”
Some interesting points:
• The county’s population has grown over the last few years and is expected to continue to grow through 2030. As of 2020, the county has had a population of 264,322 people, according to the American Community Survey (a product of the U.S. Census Bureau).
• The number of housing units produced since the Great Recession (2008 through 2010) did not keep pace with the population growth and has caused housing shortages.
Goals outlined in the preliminary plan include rehabilitating existing housing stock.• Many homes have issues that require repairs. That is exacerbated by the fact that much of the housing stock is more than 50 years old.
• Among unhoused people in Kalamazoo County (169 individuals provided feedback), 47.5 percent identify as White, 38 percent identified as African-American, 11.4 percent identified as being of two or more races and 3.2 percent described themselves as some other race.
Balkema says those who are experiencing homelessness are more traditionally BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color). While a little more than 10 percent of the county’s population is Black, nearly 40 percent of those who responded to a survey of the unhoused were Black. The survey was conducted by the Upjohn Institute with the help of the Kalamazoo County Continuum of Care.
Goals outlined in the preliminary plan include:
• Increasing rental housing opportunities, such as helping renters with cash-flow problems in order to reduce the number of evictions.
• Ensuring that the housing supply is built to meet demand. That may include incentivizing the construction of mixed-income housing to ensure that space is available at multiple price points.
• Removing barriers that prevent people from acquiring and keeping homes, such as coordinating with lending institutions to help low-income homeowners pay their mortgages.
• Rehabilitating existing housing stock. That may include providing grants and low-interest loans to homeowners regardless of their credit score in order to help them improve their homes.
• Embracing housing as a workforce development strategy. That may include creating workforce training and construction job opportunities for minority- and women-owned businesses, as well as individuals who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color.
• Increasing and coordinating supportive services, such as supporting rapid rehousing programs.
• Advocating for housing for all. That includes working with neighborhood associations and other community stakeholders to promote the development and preservation of affordable housing.
The plan includes a housing needs assessment, research on market demands, results from the countywide housing survey, and recommendations on goals, objectives, and strategies to move forward. It was compiled by the Upjohn Institute and the Southcentral Michigan Planning Council.
Balkema says the County Board will have to determine how the information helps it to move forward. She expects that will happen before commissioners make their next allocation of funding in December.
“The key findings are the county needs more housing," she said. "We need more units, desperately. Many households are overburdened. They’re paying more than 30 percent of their gross salary in rent, or payment-interest utilities. Housing prices are rising much faster than wages. We kind of know that. Renters are more burdened. We need additional paths to home ownership. And housing issues are not experienced equally by all segments of our county.”
Adams says, “The purpose of the plan really is to understand the needs within Kalamazoo County. There’s a myriad of housing needs. We want to try to catalog those, and dialogue with community members about what those needs are and try to come up with solutions for those.”

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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.