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.
Everyone living at the new LodgeHouse apartments when it opens in Kalamazoo will have real experience with homelessness – in its most straightforward forms.
They will be “people with extremely low incomes who meet the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development definition of ‘literally homeless,’” says Lisa Willcutt.
“We mean living in a place that is not fit for human habitation, living outdoors, living in your car, living in a hotel that you can’t afford,” Willcut says.
Willcut is vice president and principal of Lockhart Management & Consulting LLC, the Kalamazoo organization that handles administrative work, grant-writing, and property-management services for the LIFT Foundation of Kalamazoo.
Attacking homelessness was intended to be a priority for residency at LodgeHouse, the former Knights Inn Motel which the LIFT Foundation purchased in January of 2021 and has been renovating.
The group of 60 income-based, studio apartments are on track to open in late June at 1211 S. Westnedge Ave.
A car whizzes past 1211 S. Westnedge Ave., a former motel that is being converted into studio apartments for people with very limited means.
“It’s not couch-surfing,” Willcutt says, referring to any of the population of people in Kalamazoo who have no permanent residence and live for periods of time with family members or friends. Of those who will be the first tenants of the new housing, she says, “We’re trying to really hit those most affected.”
The LIFT Foundation
is a nonprofit organization that has worked since 1966 to help people with low-incomes and those with disabilities to find stable, affordable housing in the Kalamazoo area. It operates and maintains various properties in the area that together provide more than 500 apartments to individuals and families.
LodgeHouse is a $7.5 million project that repurposes the former Knight’s Inn Motel, less than a mile south of downtown Kalamazoo. The renovation work -- which has included replacing doors, windows, electrical systems, plumbing fixtures, the installation of a fire sprinkler system and the installation of kitchens in each small unit -- was originally expected to cost about $4 million and be completed early last year. Willcutt says things are going well and the project
is coming in on budget. That is at $7.5 million after adjustments were made in July of 2021 to accommodate rising construction costs.
Lisa Willcutt, Vice President of Lockhart Management & Consulting, manages property on behalf of the LIFT Foundation.
Funding has been provided by various sources in the community, including the Stryker Johnston Foundation, the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, the City of Kalamazoo, LISC, the Kalamazoo County Housing Millage, and private contributions.
“We’ve got our traditional construction issues like everybody else with supply chain (delays in product delivery and rising material costs) and whatnot,” Willcutt says. “Some are pretty easy to overcome and some things you just have to wait for.”
On Wednesday, she was thrilled that the project would be getting the stovetop hoods that LIFT wants. Construction work started in earnest in late August of last year and is expected to be done by mid-June. If all goes well, LIFT hopes to have the tenants move in by the last week of June.
Applications to rent the units were made available in January. Now Willcutt says the property will open with a full house and a waiting list of prospective tenants.
How many tenants can the lodge house?
“At least 60,” Willcutt says. “But it can go up to 120. We can have two people per bedroom. And I do have some two-person households that have applied. But we’re getting people qualified and hopefully, within the next couple of weeks or so, we’ll be assigning units. That’s the plan. It’s going to be filled, that’s for sure.”
Applicants have been required to provide proof of their citizenship, proof of their Social Security number, and a government-issued photo ID. Apartments are being leased to individuals who have annual earnings of $18,200 or less, and two-person households that have annual earnings of $20,800 or less.
Much of the interior work has been completed on the apartments, which are each about 200 square feet. But Willcutt says major exterior work that is yet to be completed includes the installation of new stairwells to the second floor of the property, the asphalt resurfacing of parking lot areas, and the reconstruction of an entire second-floor balcony walkway. Architectural work has been done by InForm Architecture, of Kalamazoo. The construction project is being managed by CSM Group, of Kalamazoo.
Exterior and interior renovation work continues on the LodgeHouse, the former Knights Inn at 1211 S. Westnedge Ave.
The LodgeHouse is permanent housing, so individuals can live there indefinitely. It will also offer services to help people improve their standard of living. “And if the individual’s goal is to buy a house (or) live in a different apartment, that is what the services are there to help them with,” Willcutt says. “How to reach your goals as an individual.”
The project will open with staff members of Integrated Services of Kalamazoo Inc. on hand for about 64 hours per week, and property management staff there for six to 20 hours per week. A community room, next to where the former motel’s office was, will provide space for ancillary services.
The project hopes to be approved for Section 8 funding subsidies through HUD by the first quarter of 2023. Rental rates would be based on 30 percent of a qualified individual’s income. So a person who receives Supplemental Security Income benefits (about $841 per month from the federal government and about $14 per month from the state) could expect to pay about $250 per month in rent. Utilities and WIFI are included in the rent and rooftop solar panels are expected to help cut utility costs. Because everyone’s income is different, Willcutt says there is no way to tell what the average rental rate will be for tenants.
Willcutt says the LodgeHouse project will do something that no area project has done in a long time. It should bring more project-based Section 8 housing assistance into the community. “That is the hope,” she says.
Section 8 involves two main types of rent subsidies. One is a voucher system that provides qualified individuals with the means to have their rent subsidized in places where landlords accept the subsidy. The other is project-based housing assistance, in which a property is already qualified for Section 8 and a tenant’s rent is based on a percentage of his or her income.
Financial support for the renovation of the motel into housing and those working to make it happen..
Willcutt says that many landlords in the Kalamazoo area have opted out of Section 8 contracts.
“LodgeHouse helps solve the problem of the lack of affordable housing,” she says. “Because (realizing that a lot of quality housing is otherwise inaccessible to low-income people) what makes housing truly affordable is when there’s a subsidy attached.”
Asked what people in Kalamazoo County should know about the project, Willcutt spoke in terms of what it means to those local residents who want to see the community provide affordable housing to the unhoused and to people with very low incomes. Their focus has been keen over recent years as efforts have increased to help dozens of unhoused people who gathered last year and earlier in large tent encampments in downtown Kalamazoo and later on its fringes. Many of them were there in nylon and cardboard enclosures through harsh weather, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the threat of street-level crime.
“The biggest advantage that this has is it’s quick. It’s fast,” Willcutt says of the community-funded effort the LIFT Foundation used to make the LodgeHouse a reality. “You’re never going to provide affordable housing in such a quick manner as LIFT has done. Normally it takes at least two years to get an affordable housing project in place with service. And this is going to be less than that.”