Vine Neighborhood

Two organizations waive rent in Kalamazoo's Vine Neighborhood

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo  series and our ongoing COVID-19 coverage. If you have a story of how the community is responding to the pandemic please let us know here.

Shelter-in-place, the governor’s statewide order to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, means nothing if you have no shelter.

So the Vine Neighborhood Association in Kalamazoo has taken a generous step to help tenants of the properties it owns keep their living space by waiving rent payments in April.

“In light of the unprecedented global health and economic crisis in which we together find ourselves, the Vine Neighborhood Association has made the decision to provide immediate emergency rent relief to all tenants of our properties, which include seven residential and 14 commercial units at our Heart of the Vine (formerly Central Corners) building at the corner of South Westnedge Avenue and Vine Street, and four residential units in the 900 block of South Westnedge,” the organization stated in a letter posted Monday on its Facebook site and shared with the media.
The residential living units in Vine Neighborhood Association’s Heart of the Vine building are located on its upper levels and are home to about 13 people.
Sarah Ruggles, who chairs the association’s board of directors, says, “Our organization did this in order to be proactive in living out our mission to support our community.”

After paying close attention to feedback it was getting from its tenants, she says, “Quite a lot of our residents did end up experiencing different levels of being put out of work.”

She says some residential tenants don’t know whether their layoff will be temporary, when it might end, or whether their employer will survive being closed for weeks or months.

“All of our commercial tenants have closed up and many of them have really expressed concerns,” Ruggles says. “They don’t know if they will be able to stand the economic impact.”

Ruggles says helping renters during this crisis is something they hope other landlords will do. 

The VNA shares similar thinking with Kalamazoo Collective Housing, a nonprofit affordable rental housing cooperative that is also located in the Vine Neighborhood. It is also waiving rents for any of its tenants who ask.

“We met in mid-March and our board decided we were going to get ahead of that,” Executive Director Chris Moore says of the economic fallout from the coronavirus outbreak. “We could tell it was going to be a big deal.”

The 13-year-old nonprofit owns six houses and is poised to buy a seventh. Each is a cooperative set up in one of two different styles. In a group co-op style, tenants (co-op members) lease rooms in a large house, share common areas and typically pool money to cover the cost of such things as utilities, water, trash removal, Internet service, and food. 
“Our members can ask for a rent waiver for April,” says Chris Moore, executive director of Kalamazoo Collective Housing. “And basically, we just won’t bill them for April.”
At KCH’s apartment co-op, members rent their own apartment co-op, which they manage collectively with other apartment members nearby. The cooperatives are intended to be a more affordable living option, with leases ranging from about $298 per month (a single room in a group co-op) to $937 per month (for a three-bedroom apartment). 

Kalamazoo Housing Collective has 29 tenants, which it calls members. And the organization, itself, is member-owned and controlled, Moore says. That means the resident members make all the decisions about how KCH is run.

The April waivers thus far will mean a drop in monthly rental revenues – from about $12,000 during a typical month, down to $5,000 or $6,000, Moore says. The organization hopes to continue to help its members, as needed, if members continue to suffer financially. Moore says they are already in discussions about how to make that happen.

Jenn Nap says residential rents for the apartments managed by the Vine Neighborhood Association range from about $625 to $785 per month. The living units are home to about 13 people and the commercial tenants include nine storefront businesses. Five nonprofit organizations, including three that rent office space inside the VNA’s 814 S. Westnedge Ave. headquarters, are among the commercial tenants. The rent waiver will cost the association more than $20,000 in total, Ruggles says.

She says the waiver includes the rents that non-tenant businesses such as the Crow’s Nest restaurant and Martini’s restaurant pay for parking lot space. Each of those is closed as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Of the residential tenants, Nap says, “We have a lot of servers who live with us. … A lot of their jobs changed or their hours were cut-back. Some of them are still waiting for unemployment (checks) to come through.”

The April rent waiver “is intended to provide extra time and financial solvency for our tenants as they file unemployment and apply for emergency assistance for their businesses,” the association stated in its letter to tenants.

Nap and Ruggles say the association owns property in order to offer people affordable opportunities to live in the neighborhood and transition from situations such as homelessness, incarceration, or substance abuse. The commercial space is intended to help start-up businesses.

“A lot of our businesses are in the first year or first couple of years of their organization,” Nap says.

She says those businesses explained that they did not know whether they would be able to continue after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered the closure of all businesses that are not life-essential in mid-March through the end of April.
. Tenants of Kalamazoo Collective Housing are part of a cooperative and lease rooms, share common areas and typically pool money to cover utilities, water and some other costs.
Ruggles, who lives in the Vine Neighborhood but works as a property manager in Portage, says she hopes other landlords will step up and help tenants who are struggling.

“I am a landlord myself and I have an eye toward what is going on among landlords in our community and beyond right now,” Ruggles says. “What I’m seeing is what appears to be a lot of property owners and property managers sitting on their hands waiting to take action until it becomes an emergency situation for tenants (and) waiting until they (the property owners) are forced to take action.”

“Owning property is, in and of itself, a privilege,” she says, “and from privilege, we need to support those who, during a crisis, are in a position of less privilege.”

Read more articles by Al Jones.

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.