Portage works with Habitat for Humanity to build affordable homes

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 Kalamazoo County, the ENNA Foundation, and the Kalamazoo County Land Bank.

PORTAGE, Mich. – The four-bedroom ranch-style house being built on Ramona Avenue, just south of Stryker Instruments research and development facility, will be a home to one family.
That’s not a major announcement as area organizations and municipalities struggle to try to create more housing to fill the growing needs of lots of families throughout Kalamazoo County.
But Willa DiTaranto, housing resources specialist with the City of Portage, cheerfully says, “All housing is good housing and every little bit counts.”
So the city was pleased to see Kalamazoo Valley Habitat for Humanity purchase land at 1910 Ramona Ave. earlier this year. Happily, the nonprofit organization broke ground on the new house in October. And it is a happy event that portends to be the first of several projects the nonprofit organization will consider in the city.
“We’re excited because this is the first house they’ve done in Portage in a long time,” DiTaranto says.
She says she thinks most of Habitat for Humanity’s resources have been focused on projects in the City of Kalamazoo because of needs there.
“I think that we have to help out organizations that we have like Habitat for Humanity as they build capacity so that they can do more of the great work that they are already doing,” DiTaranto says. “They serve a population that is sometimes hard to mortgage. And I think that (we should do) anything that we can do to help them out, whether it’s to identify lots with the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, or identify lots that potentially the city may own and could possibly donate.”
Ground has been broken on a new single-family home at 1910 Ramona Avenue in Portage.She says the city does not have a list of projects it is working to complete with Habitat, or an agreement to do that. But it is something the city is interested in exploring.
“So we did that with Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services last year,” DiTaranto says, speaking of two properties that were put on the market. “And actually the second home just closed a couple of weeks ago (in October). The city had two lots on Oakland Drive that previously contained homes. One of them burned out years ago. But the city was able to sell them to KNHS and KNHS built two houses and put two families in.”
Portage does not have a housing authority. Its Community Development Department runs a critical repair program that helps struggling homeowners stay in their homes. However, it does not have the capacity to develop and build housing.
“What we do have? We have land that we can donate to the cause or sell for very cheap,” DiTaranto says. “I think $500 (each) is what we sold the lots to KNHS for. So we’re trying to see where we fit and what we can do to help with this crisis that we have on hand.”
According to the W.E.Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, Kalamazoo County will need about 7,800 additional housing units by the year 2030. The shortage is a result of such things as low rates of residential construction, high construction costs, and increased demand from a growing population. At the same time, housing costs appear to be rising faster than wages. That puts many low- and moderate-income families in situations where they are paying more for housing than they can afford.

Blaine Lam, interim executive director of Kalamazoo Valley Habitat for Humanity, says, “They’re ready to do in-fill housing with us but we’ve got to work out the details.”

“In-fill” refers to re-using vacant or unused property.
Aside from the house on Ramona Avenue, he says there is the potential for Kalamazoo County Housing Millage money to fund three more houses in Portage in the near future. “And they’re looking at having us partner with private industry so we can build them faster,” Lam says.
“We can leverage the agency funds with millage funds which are being funneled through the City of Portage,” he says. “So basically it’s the county Housing Millage money that’s directing us out there.”
He says he expects Habitat to do more in the future with the City of Kalamazoo.
Working with volunteers and professionals, Kalamazoo Valley Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit organization that has built, rehabilitated, and sold three to four affordable homes annually since 1983. With the help of volunteer resources, it has been able to help families and individuals whose annual income is generally 45 to 60 percent of Kalamazoo County’s Area Median Income.
“Historically, we’ve been doing our houses in Kalamazoo (and) Kalamazoo Township, but mostly Kalamazoo,” Lam says. “That’s where our bread and butter is. Those are new homes. And we do critical repairs all over the county.”
He says Kalamazoo’s Eastside, Northside, and core areas have been where the greatest need is, and sometimes that is where the funds have been specifically directed.

Speaking of where Habitat focuses its resources, Lam says, “Sometimes it’s just the availability of funds.” He says Habitat has properties on which it can build, such as two that it owns on Washington Avenue and two on Charlotte Avenue. All in the city of Kalamazoo. It will not do so until it has the necessary funding and clients in position to buy.

Speaking of any organization that wants to develop affordable housing, he says, “But right now, you have to have everything come together,” he says. “You have to have your own funds. You have to have either local or state funds. You have to have various things working for you. We try to put all those things together in the best way possible.”

Lam says Habitat for Humanity hopes to announce a new executive director before the end of this year. And Kalamazoo County Housing Director Mary Balkema says she will be pleased to see Habitat continue to try to breathe new life into area communities.
Habitat for Humanity is a powerful force in the community, Balkema says. And the use of more Housing Millage dollars in Portage is a function of where organizations or municipalities own property.
The capacity for nonprofit organizations to fund and build homes at prices that moderate- to lower-income families can afford is also sometimes strained, she says.
“They are (Habitat for Humanity is) so powerful in the community because they can serve people who are (living) at 60 percent of Area Median Income,” she says. “And they offer zero-percent loans. If you take a loan at 7 percent interest or at versus zero-percent interest, the amortization is very different.”
“I want them to be successful,” Balkema says. “I absolutely do. They serve a niche that nobody else can.”

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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.