New Executive Director for KNHS leads a super busy nonprofit on the cusp of a growth spurt

Editor's note: 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 the City of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County, the ENNA Foundation, and LISC.

There is a lot of housing needed in Kalamazoo.

Beth McCann can't provide homes for all, but she's going to try to make a dent in demand as the new Executive Director of the nonprofit KNHS Home Ownership Services

McCann has been Acting Executive Director since February 2022, replacing Matt Lager. The KNHS made her position official for 2023.

She spoke to Second Wave while showing off KNHS' new duplex on Wall St. in the Vine Neighborhood. The roomy unit still had that new house smell, which McCann loves. 

The lot had been empty. Now there is space for three families -- including a separate ADU (accessory dwelling unit) with 500 square feet of living space. The ADU is small, but she says they will be a trend "as the population ages. What are you going to do with Mom and Dad?"

She points out the window to other KNHS builds on Wall and Rose streets -- a two-bedroom that fits ADA standards, and a traditional four-bedroom house. The duplex will be rented, but the houses will sell to low-to-moderate-income homeowners under 80% of the Area's Median Income. For Kalamazoo County, that's around $79,000 for a family of four and $55,300 for an individual.  

They're building rentals, also? Isn't Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services focus on home ownership?

Beth McCann is the new Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services Executive Director."Kinda' yes and no," McCann says. "The mission is fostering homeownership and revitalizing neighborhoods. So, really, 42 years ago KNHS started with the focus on getting people mortgage-ready." 

They expanded their services to include home rehabs, foreclosure counseling, downpayment assistance, and building new homes. 

"We say we fix homes, we keep homes, and we sell homes," she says.

And build homes -- "We're pretty committed" to the Kalamazoo Attainable Homes Partnership, with the Homebuilders Association. "We have a great group of builders that understand the mission of getting low-to-moderate income people into homes." With help from the City, KNHS can get new home prices down to "affordability level." 

It's all about infill -- finding empty lots and dilapidated houses and taking those Swiss cheese-like holes in the city to fill them with stable homes for people.

There is a desperation in Kalamazoo, from people who have no secure housing, to people who are unhoused.

This home on Albert St. is one of the many KNHS homes built each year."We get a lot of calls because it says 'housing' in our name. We talk to a lot of people that are houseless and really struggling. You know, there's not an easy solution," McCann says.

"We need, what, 7,000 housing units right now? I can't build 7,000, but hopefully, I can make a dent."

Kalamazoo born and raised

McCann was born in Kalamazoo 61 years ago and lived on Winchell Avenue. 

"I thought Kalamazoo was the Downtown Mall growing up." She has fond memories of seeing Santa at Gilmore's and shopping at Jacobson's. "It was a busy downtown at that time, and I loved it."

"When I was 11 it was Winchell School, playing outside, good friends. To do something special you went downtown to the movies or you had lunch at Gilmore's."

Then her family moved to Plainwell. "I thought we'd moved to the end of the earth!" The town had no stoplight in 1973, she says.

McCann grew up with a view of what it means to serve the community. Her mother was an active volunteer. "I learned a lot by watching her."

Her father worked for Upjohn, her brother became a healthcare attorney, and there are doctors in her family. McCann went to the University of Michigan with the goal to become a lobbyist in the area of healthcare. She wrote her senior paper on orphan drugs, drugs that can treat rare illnesses but wouldn't be profitable to pharmaceutical companies.

She wanted to do good on Capitol Hill, but "The grim reality is, what a lobbyist was paid back in those days was pretty slim." So she returned to Kalamazoo to earn a Master's in Marketing and Management at Western Michigan University.

"I was the first marketing person for Downtown Kalamazoo, Inc. Talk about a whirlwind!"

The next level

She had a near-decade stint with the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo, then she left for KNHS in 2019.

"My path to KNHS was really accidental," she says. "Fortunate, but accidental."

McCann met with then-director Lager, who sold her on jumping ship with "the passion that he shared for housing and what this community could do, and how I would fit in. It excited me, kind of awakened something. I loved my job at the Arts Council, but I didn't realize until I sat down with Matt that I really wanted to do something more, and I was ready to go to that next level."

She became Director of Marketing and Fund Development, then Deputy Director in late 2019. "It's been a perfect fit, and it fulfills my personal need to be contributing back and giving back to the community. I've been fortunate in my life, and I want to give back. But it also allows me an opportunity, beyond helping others, for my personal growth." 

KNHS staff and local officials celebrate a ribbon cutting at 205 Wall St.When she arrived at KNHS, "I found a super busy nonprofit that had a lot of great people and was really on that cusp -- like with this new build program and others -- of a big spurt of growth.

"But what I am is I am a very type-A organizational person," McCann says. She saw that KNHS had "a lot of great imaginative thinkers" but needed structural improvements.

She saw that "KNHS had been so focused on doing the work, that they sort of neglected themselves," McCann says. "We've got to take care of ourselves first if we're going to take care of the community."

McCann's biggest effort was to overhaul the nonprofit's technology. "It was woefully inadequate for what our staff needed, and I was coming off an organization that put technology at a high level, so that became my crusade early on.

"Who'd of known that we would've had COVID...." McCann got the organization new laptops and signed a contract with a new IT company in December 2019. Laptops arrived "the week before we went out for COVID." 

For the next 42 years?

KNHS has been working to get people into homes since 1981. It's evolved with the times. However, McCann sounds deliberate about any big changes for the near future.

"We're coming off COVID which certainly disrupted things like building homes, supply issues, and contractor issues... Now we're getting back to more of a level playing field." 

She says that "KNHS could grow wildly. The demand is there. If someone said, hey, KNHS could you build 30 new homes? Sure, we'd love to build 30 new homes in a year." 

But, "we have to manage capacity with community need, and we have to make sure that the finances are all there, together." 

"It's an exciting time to be working in a nonprofit. A stressful time, and an exciting time," she says.

American Rescue Plan Act is "bringing a lot of money in," she says. A grant from the United Way has helped 45 families out of mortgage and tax struggles so they could keep their homes, she says. 

But times change, federal dollars vanish, and McCann doesn't want KNHS to find itself with half-completed projects with no funding.

"I'm not a change-for-change-sake person, I'm a change when it's a positive thing to move the organization forward. I think any time there's a transition in an agency, everyone's a little nervous." 

In May or June 2023, she plans to bring the staff and board in on formulating a strategic plan for the near term. "We'll all decide together what we want to do." 

But what does she see for KNHS in the next 40 years?

"Well, I won't be here," she says with a laugh.

The next couple of decades looks positive in her view. "I think the City and the County are making good progress towards changing the dynamic of housing. Do I think we're there yet? No, but with the Housing for All millage, I think that's a big step. I think we have people like David Anderson who are very dedicated to housing. We have agencies like Community Homeworks who work with us. We work with HRI, we work with Habitat (for Humanity), we work with Open Doors, we're all committed to the same mission of getting people into houses."

The numbers, the people behind the numbers

KNHS recently bought 11 houses on the Northside to rehab, for lease-purchase or sale to low-to-moderate income residents.

Since they began the Kalamazoo Attainable Homes Partnership in 2019, KNHS has built and sold 19 homes. They currently have another eight under construction that should be finished in the spring and summer, and they hope to break ground for more this year.

McCann estimates that in 2022 KNHS' home ownership program helped 705 people into their own homes. They provide coaching programs and classes, which can guide a person through the process of buying a home.

This home on Albert St. is one of the many KNHS homes built each year.Behind these numbers are the people who've struggled, some for a long time, to have a home of their own.

"We've had folks who've been homeless, who had been in the program for years. It's interesting because we're really in the third or fourth generation" of families who've been helped by KNHS since 1981. 

"This December, we had a gentleman who'd rented from us for a number of years." 

He was in his 60s, yet was determined to not give up his dream of being a homeowner. KNHS worked with him to finally stop renting.

"At the closing, he cried, and I cried. He just never thought in his 60s that he'd be buying a home. Just the sweetest man," McCann says.

"Next week he brought his granddaughter in, and said, 'I want you to start taking classes with KNHS, so you're not as old as I am when you're buying a house.'" 

"This is totally what motivates our staff, are the people."

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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.