Housing advocates seek homes for Kalamazoo residents amid housing crisis
This year has seen a spike in aid and awareness for the homeless population in Kalamazoo. Individuals, local government and nonprofits have made donations, provided meals, and even set up a 90-day hotel intervention program. However, activists know these band aid fixes are just buying time, and are not substitutes for a secure home. Read the full article!
When Kalamazoo resident Laurie Atwater walked into her new apartment almost 10 years ago, she burst into tears. With hardwood floors and a bow window, it was the most beautiful place Atwater had ever seen.
“I didn’t think I would ever live in a place this nice,” Atwater said.
Atwater was in danger of going back to living in her car when she was forced out of her previous residence a decade ago. Living off disability gave Atwater few affordable housing options. Open Doors Kalamazoo was there to put Atwater into an apartment beyond anything she had thought possible for herself.
“Open Doors saved my life and gave me hope again,” Atwater said.
Many Kalamazoo residents hope to make Atwater’s story their own. Current numbers are uncertain, but last count by Housing and Urban Development in 2019 said there were 700 homeless residents in Kalamazoo. Stephanie Hoffman, executive director of Open Doors, estimates that this number is actually much higher.
“That number doesn’t include people that are couch surfing, staying with grandma, staying with aunt and uncle, staying in a hotel,” Hoffman said. “So that number is not accurate at all.”
This year has seen a spike in aid and awareness for the homeless population in Kalamazoo. Individuals, local government and nonprofits have made donations, provided meals, and even set up a 90-day hotel intervention program. However, activists know these band aid fixes are just buying time, and are not substitutes for a secure home.
Members of the community are currently advocating for long term housing solutions that will solve problems surrounding housing insecurity; no longer just buying time, but changing lives.
Problems facing the unhoused population entered public discussion in January 2021 and haven't left since. Winter conditions at the Mills Street homeless encampment inspired many nonprofits to step up, and fear of springtime flooding led to a 90-day hotel intervention program.
This partnership between the city and local nonprofits placed over 125 Mills Street encampment residents in a hotel to receive aid and services. During these ninety days, Jason Knight, with Urban Alliance, says hotel guests and non-profits will be working on overcoming barriers to housing on an individual basis. This could mean anything from obtaining an ID, getting connected to housing vouchers, finding employment, or getting connected to health services.
“If one person gets housing after this, then it’s a success,” Knight said.
Hoffman says that the housing intervention program is one of the county’s first attempts at a housing-first solution to homelessness.
“The housing-first model says ‘let's get them stabilized, get them that foundation, which is housing, and then begin to wrap and partner with them in a way that they get connected to services,’” Hoffman said.
The housing-first model seeks to place individuals within a stable housing situation first, rather than asking them to find solutions to health, employment, addiction, or other circumstances as a requirement to get housing.
“I do believe that moving towards a housing-first model, as a community, when done right, can be one of the most powerful tools that we will ever have in our hands,” Hoffman said.
The housing intervention program has seen its share of success stories. Some residents have received treatment, others have found employment, and at least two families have moved out of the hotel and into homes.
Days of funding remain for residents to arrange their plans. The program finishes on May 31. Some residents, like Keith, who has been homeless with his partner for over a year, have a plan.
“My goals for the future moving forward is to live a drug free life. Get a good job, get my son back from CPS, keep this job, get a good house, stay in Kalamazoo, because I like it here, and I’m going to change my life,” said Keith.
The goal is for guests to go from the hotel to affordable housing after 90 days, but that is easier said than done.
Housing activists say that there is a housing shortage in Kalamazoo County, that makes finding housing, let alone affordable housing, a challenge in itself.
Kalamazoo's Housing Shortage
Laurie Atwater was able to find the apartment of her dreams though Open Doors Kalamazoo for $440 per month; roughly half the market rate. In Michigan the average price of a single-bedroom unit is $717 per month. Stephanie Hoffman says that market rate options just don’t cut it for a lot of people.
Those on Social Security Disability Insurance receive, on average, between $800-$1,800 a month. Hoffman says that affordable housing needs to be between 0-30 percent of area median with a limit of up to 60 percent.
“That’s where the true need is, and that’s affordable housing specifically for the populations that we serve,” Hoffman said.
Graph taken from the National Low Income Housing Coalitions 2020 "Out of Reach: The High Cost of Housing," Report (This graph reflects housing nation-wide, not specific to Michigan or the Kalamazoo area)
Places like Open Doors do have options within this price range. Studio apartments with Open Doors start around $280 a month, and 1-bedrooms at $420. However Open Doors currently only has 100 units, nowhere near enough to accommodate Kalamazoo’s need for affordable housing.
“(Kalamazoo) needs about 3,000 more units of affordable housing,” Hoffman said. “And that was just relegated to the city, spread out to the county the number must be at least double that.”
Part of the problem comes from the wage gap, Hoffman says. Minimum wage doesn’t keep up with high costs of living. This makes housing costs unaffordable for the ALICE population (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed).
“So they (ALICE population) are going to work every day, and they are doing everything they need to do, yet our wages have not kept up with the cost of living,” Hoffman said.
Housing problems have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Loss in employment and inflation in cost of materials has made affordable housing a more difficult ask.
Open Doors, which typically has a resident turnover rate of around 26 a year, had to close their application for the duration of 2021, until more units are acquired, or more residents move into market-rate housing.
With the 90-days soon coming to a close, conversations continue about how to keep these residents from going back to tents after the program is completed.
Some community members are already working towards making housing a reality for many who are going without.
The Tiny Houses of HOPE project, led by Hope Through Navigation’s Gwendolyn Hooker, will soon be ready to start taking occupants. Hooker’s project will create six tiny houses in the Northside of Kalamazoo for those who have been incarcerated, have at least one year of sobriety under their belt and are currently employed. These units will be 400 square feet, and are $400 a month.
Open Doors currently has 100 occupied units of affordable housing in Kalamazoo.
These programs, though steps in the right direction, are unable to accommodate the needs of everyone facing housing security in Kalamazoo, which means more work needs to be done to find a solution. One Kalamazoo resident, called Mo, is an outspoken advocate for having homeless residents at the table to contribute their ideas.
“They don’t want to listen to me,” Mo said. “Get them to listen to me. That’s what I need.”
Mo lives in his van with his two dogs, and is a regular presence at the Mills Street encampment, helping residents in any way he can. According to Mo, the answer to the housing crisis involves an affordable tiny home community.
“Help them build their own home, and understand what goes into that,” Mo said.
Having homeless residents involved in the process, Mo says, is crucial.
“With me, not for me,” Mo said. “I don’t want it done for me because I don’t respect it then, I don’t have a commitment to it then.”
With a lot of construction experience under his belt, Mo feels confident in his ability to pull this project off with help and support from outside sources. Similar ideas have taken off in cities across the United States, like Portland, Oregon; Seattle, Los Angeles, and Denver.
Jason Kight, with Urban Alliance, says that tiny homes may be the answer for some residents, but that it is important to have housing options available to fit everyone’s needs.
“Some individuals would be good with a tent with electricity, the ability to take a shower, and the sanitation piece,” Knight said. “Other people, depending on where they’re at in their life, would want a little bit more.”
Knight says the problem is not a one size fits all. Some people would be drawn to the options that come with living independently in a tiny home. For others, safety from the elements and a locked door that a Conestoga Hut provides would be enough. Conestoga Hut Micro-Shelters are a hard-shelled, insulated tent structure that is stronger than a recreational tent, but only cost around $2,500; much cheaper than a tiny home. Places like Eugene, Oregon have begun creating Conestoga Hut communities as a solution to homelessness.
A Conestoga Hut community in Eugene, Oregon
Hoffman says one possible option could be finding dedicated land for residents who want to live outside and off the grid.
“Doing that in a dignified and respectful manner, where they have access to electricity; have access to water,” Hoffman said.
Finding these people a place to camp could be an easy way to start working on a solution. However, right now nimbyism, meaning “not in my backyard,” is a huge problem. Some people still believe that homelessness is a choice, said Hoffman, and not part of a systemic problem.
“Bringing awareness and education about the housing crisis in Kalamazoo is going to be a critical piece of the solution,” Hoffman said.
As the hotel intervention project nears its end, nonprofits, housing activists/advocates, and local government officials are working on short-term, mid-term, and long-term solutions for this crisis.
What is this solution going to look like? Hoffman says nobody knows yet, but what it can’t look like is what we have always done in the past.
“What we do know is that we have an opportunity to really, really utilize creativity to address these issues,” Hoffman said.
What happens after the 90-day hotel intervention program is still uncertain. Hoffman says that until a midterm solution is in place, the program should be extended, and that the community has the resources to do so.
”Without that,” Hoffman said, “we are back at square one.”
Interested in learning more about the housing crisis in Kalamazoo? Learn more at the links below.