Organization eyes equitable housing system

Housing Kent has seven-step roadmap to address living instability.
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A group of nearly 220 partners from 130 public and private entities, nonprofit and philanthropic community organizations has come together to create a movement addressing housing instability in Kent County.

In May 2018, KConnect, a Grand Rapids collective-impact organization focused on ensuring all children in Kent County have an equitable path to economic prosperity through quality education, family and community support, received a letter from several community stakeholders asking the organization to bring people together to examine the housing system, establish common goals and develop collaborative strategies to create change. The plan would center on addressing systemic issues in Kent County related to housing stability with a focus on racial and ethnic disparities affecting children, families, youth and people of color, as well as barriers to collaboration.

The group, initially known as the Housing Stability Alliance (HSA) and led by temporary backbone entity KConnect, collectively examined homelessness in Kent County over a three-year period. HSA’s plans later would come to fruition through the transition to and establishment of Housing Kent, which would serve as the primary vehicle to create a collaborative, equitable housing system. The new organization, which also recently named its board members and president, is built on the common agenda and roadmap established by HSA.

HSA’s initial work was led by board of trustees members Rosalynn Bliss, mayor of Grand Rapids; Mandy Bolter, then-chair of the Kent County Board of Commissioners; Lynne Ferrell, program director for the Frey Foundation; and Christina Keller, president and CEO, Cascade Engineering. Tasha Blackmon, president and CEO of Cherry Health, and Brad Kessel, president and CEO of Independent Bank, led as co-chairs.

According to the group’s findings, the number of people in Kent County’s homeless system grew by 37% between 2017 and 2019, with the largest growth — nearly two-thirds — existing among families with children and largely drawn along the lines of race and ethnicity. Nearly one in six Black children in Kent County accessed the homeless system at some point in 2019, offering a stark contrast to the one in every 130 white children by the same measure.

“Over the last 10 years, the median sale price of homes in Kent County has increased by 120%. There are tens of thousands of households that are paying too much of their monthly income to housing costs,” Blackmon said. “Behind the data are real families in our community and the facts underscore one point: we must act now.”

The group’s “Community Plan” established a common agenda and roadmap with a five-part approach directly addressing the root causes of housing instability, including systemic racism. It outlines equity and community engagement, high-leverage activities, a shared measurement system, continuous communication and the establishment of its permanent backbone entity, Housing Kent.

Salvadore Lopez. Courtesy KConnect

“A staggering number of our neighbors are homeless, constantly moving from place to place,” said Salvador Lopez, president of KConnect, who also has served as interim president for Housing Kent. “Without a dramatic redesign, they will never be able to afford a home of their own choosing. It is long past time for us, as a community, to acknowledge policies deeply rooted in racial bias. We need to encourage balanced investment and accelerate the meaningful change we know is possible.”

Lopez, who served as interim president since January 2021, was responsible for helping to create the entity that evolved from HSA to Housing Kent, by establishing it as its own 501(c)3, raising funds, building a governance body, and eventually raising enough capital to hire a support team and president.

“So, one of the biggest lessons learned, if you will, from this initiative over the course of the last three to four years, is that we are stronger collectively if we take a look at collaborating across different sectors. And therefore, within the last 12 months, when we took a look at fundraising, we (looked at) the entire community. So, it has really been great to see such support for the (HSA), and now Housing Kent, and it’s really come financially from the philanthropic community, as well as the private sector community,” Lopez said. “There’s also been some very strong support from nonprofit leaders within the community in terms of connecting us to people with lived experience, so this has really been a strong effort.”

To further the roadmap’s equity and community engagement plan, Lopez said the collaborative also has worked closely with Urban League of West Michigan and Hispanic Center of West Michigan to make sure the voices of those with lived experience are heard, helping to effectively guide the strategy and effective outcomes.

According to the Community Plan, perhaps most important is the established foundation of creativity, impressive pilot programs, best practices and talent that already exists in the community. Housing Kent will work alongside existing efforts of organizations to create a comprehensive housing system and strategic process in alignment with the county’s current approach to homelessness. Its goal is to decrease children and adults in need of accessing Kent County’s homeless system by more than one-third. 

“The work accomplished through the two phases of work over an almost three-year period is remarkable and has led to a tangible, cross-sector movement in our community for real change,” Kessel said. “Housing Kent lays the foundation (and) is the framework from which we can build, innovate and continuously improve. The current system was built for a different time; it is time to redefine the ‘path home’ and build a new system that centers equity and the voices of those with lived experience.”

Propelled by vast community-funded support and led by HSA’s board, Housing Kent most recently named social impact consultant, facilitator and strategist Eureka People as president of the organization and named its board members. The team consists of original HSA board members Blackmon and Kessel (co-chairs), along with Ferrell and Bliss. New additions include Michael Bohnsack, president, Bohnsack Associates; Eric Brown, president and CEO, Urban League of West Michigan; Raquel Guzman, partner, Avanti Law; Josh Lunger, senior director of government affairs, Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce; Pamela Parriott, director of philanthropy, DeVos Family Foundation; Al Vanderberg, administrator, Kent County; and Mark Washington, Grand Rapids city manager.

Lopez said People’s first steps will be to reevaluate the community plan and put together a team that will then look to operationalize it. The initial roadmap identified seven housing spectrum categories, each with its own respective action.

Categories and action steps include: 

  • No housing: secure residents an immediate place to stay
  • Temporarily housed: ensure permanent housing for all residents
  • Soon to lose housing: save housing or obtain new housing
  • At-risk of losing housing: stabilize at-risk households
  • Insecurely housed: address health, safety and finances of occupants to further stabilize housing
  • Stably housed: ensure residents can live in quality housing they can afford
  • Housed by choice: facilitate the ability of residents to live where they choose

With a plan and a growing team established to help carry out the initiative, the team is one step closer to creating a more equitable and inclusive housing system in Kent County, though the work is only beginning, Lopez said.

“I want to make sure we leave it open-ended, that anybody that is interested can still come to us and say, ‘we’re interested in participating in this,’ but we really wanted to have enough to hire a president for the organization, as well as a support staff team for that individual to then form Housing Kent,” he said.

Lopez said though the initial goal of securing funding for the first two years has been a success thanks to a wide range of support, ongoing funds are needed to continue to propel Housing Kent’s efforts. 

The team now is looking at raising funds to support year three to year five of the initiative, with one of its goals set to bring in a centralized data system that will help measure how families are being moved from one end of the housing spectrum to the other.

“Housing Kent is really a collective impact movement. And because it is systems work, it can take some time to develop. … But we’re just very excited to have so many partners really aligning on this, and we’re excited to see how we may be able to affect change as a collective across different sectors. This work includes all of us and we all have a responsibility and role to play to make sure that we can end homelessness, but also add additional units that make it possible for us to have an affordable home,” Lopez said.

Additional information, including the full Community Plan, is available at k-connect.org/housingkent/.

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