Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services: 35 years of finding solutions for homeowners

For more than three decades, Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services (KNHS) has been reacting and adapting to the ever-changing housing market and the evolving needs of low-income Kalamazoo homeowners and potential homebuyers. This year, KNHS celebrates 35 years serving the Kalamazoo community, and along with the 500 families it has grown to serve each year, my family is among those who hold deep gratitude for the work that they do.

Four years ago, my partner and I purchased a fixer-upper for the price of a used car. This place had "potential," which is realtor-marketing code for "a money-pit." Sure, the prior tenant's dogs had used every inch of carpet as their puddle pad, and every door post as their fire hydrant, but when you've spent the last six months developing an intimate bond with your realtor over traumatic house tours – like the time you were all cornered by snarling dogs in the backyard – that's nothing. 

This house had cosmetic issues, mostly, we thought. There was a beautiful floor under that mess. The roof needed to be replaced, but we could handle it, we thought. A couple of months in, our financial and emotional reserves, tapped dry, KNHS stepped in and offered assistance with completing our roof and assistance with electrical repairs.  

The impact on a family

In 2015, KNHS helped 61 clients purchase homes, helped 100 clients maintain their housing after seeking foreclosure counseling assistance, and lent funds to 42 households for home repairs. 

Jackie Hobson's family benefitted from the services of KNHS when they purchased their home in the Edison Neighborhood a decade ago. Jackie never thought that her family of eight would be in their own home. She says she was leery of home ownership because of prior experiences with other organizations who told her and her husband that they had to have a large down payment or they would contend with a high-interest rate and unaffordable mortgage payments. 

But, Hobson says, "KNHS didn't make promises. They showed us up-front what we would need to do and simply explained that by completing all of the necessary steps or goals that we would, indeed, be ready for home ownership. They also made me confident and comfortable because they never steered us toward something that went over the budget that we agreed we needed to stay within."

The Hobson's still live in the home they purchased those years ago, and Jackie attributes ongoing assistance from KNHS to not only attaining homeownership but also their ability to maintain that home. Over the years, KNHS has stepped in with assistance with home repairs, and even offered to help them refinance at a lower interest rate when Jackie's husband was laid off.

Corporate Attorney turned non-profit E.D.

Matt Lager is the Executive Director of KNHS. He has worked there for eight years – the past four as the ED. He says client stories, like that of the Hobsons', are the thing that keeps him motivated in his work.
Lager wasn't always in the nonprofit or even the housing sector. Prior to working at KNHS, he was a corporate attorney. Lager notably lights up when he talks about litigation – something he clearly loves. He says that the problem solving that happens when you have to think fast and on your feet in a courtroom is similar to the passion he feels and the skills he draws on in his work between mortgage lenders and clients.

Lager says, "We're looking at two entities –  the client and mortgage broker who wants to make a loan – who have a hard time meeting in the middle. We end up helping the mortgage broker as much as people (seeking loans). I really do have to provide a business rationale to the lending structures in our community. To me, that's why it's more engaging because here you're working with market rules which are flexible and have room to bend if you're trying to accomplish a goal."

"Homeownership and neighborhood real estate markets are really interesting to me," Lager continues. "The quality and character of our lives are so interwoven with the people with whom we are in close proximity. Even if we are not social with our neighbors, they influence us on a profound level. When a real estate market is low functioning (lending and sales and maintenance), it can change how we live in a negative way."

Lager says that a great number of the clients that KNHS works with go on to improve their financial life. He says that helping community members become homeowners, or maintain homeownership makes a cumulative, positive difference for Kalamazoo.

KNHS is not 'static'

At different times in its history, KNHS developed its own loan products and focused on new construction. These days, though, KNHS is very focused on working as closely as possible with market loan officers, rehabbing foreclosed properties, and owner-occupied roof replacement. KNHS has been able to not only find a lot of success for its clients in these ways, but further, home renovations have a big impact on neighborhood blocks. 

"The way we help clients always changes with the economy and with the ever-changing lending opportunities that are available for neighborhoods and low-income households." And, Lager adds, "Our outcomes remain consistent because we always work to provide access for underserved people to credit, to knowledge about finances, and to homeownership opportunities."

Lager says that homeownership is not a "silver bullet," but it is a part of a solution for making healthier neighborhoods and stabilizing people's financial situations. He says that those who purchase their homes have economic reasons to care more about what's going on around them. He says, "it's also a way for money to come into a neighborhood, which forces improvement in the neighborhood," and notes that 20th-century personal wealth came from home ownership. 

Lager acknowledges the disparity in exactly which kind of wealth came about – white wealth – which came about through racist government policy that allowed for discriminatory mortgage practices, including not granting mortgages to black people and black neighborhoods. The larger implications of the work of KNHS, and of any non-profit that offers services to marginalized people, is that their work creates paths toward a more equitable neighborhood and a more just society. 

Jackie Hobson says, "If it had not been for KNHS I honestly do not think we would be in a home, let alone an affordable home." She shares her story with as many people as will listen. She says it's her way of "paying it forward," because she hopes that other people will be able to enjoy the dream of homeownership, as her family has.

KNHS offers the following services to Kalamazoo residents:

• Online homebuyer education classes

• Credit building assistance

• Lease purchase program

• Homeownership coaching and classes

• Foreclosure counseling

• Mortgage and down payment assistance

KNHS is still in the planning stages of a community event to celebrate their 35 years, which will be held in October. 

To learn more about its services or keep an eye out for event information, you can visit the KHHS website or visit its new location, at the corner of Forest and Park Street in the Vine Neighborhood.

Kathi Valeii is a freelance writer, living in Kalamazoo. You can find her at her website, kathivaleii.com.
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