The availability of affordable homes in West Michigan is scarce, according to some area housing experts.
Despite the challenge, several organizations within the community are focused on finding ways to provide homes that are affordable to residents at various points on the housing-needs spectrum.
Ryan Kilpatrick, executive director of Housing Next, an organization that works with local government, developers and nonprofits to make housing affordable, said it conducted a housing needs assessment for Kent County last year.
“What we found was Kent County needs roughly 22,000 additional housing units,” he said. “In addition to the units that we need to build, we have 63,000 households that are spending more than they can afford on housing. So, that is 63,000 households in Kent County that are spending more than 30% of their income on housing. Of the 22,000 additional units that we need, a significant chunk of those new units that are needed are for-sale homes. About 13,000 additional for-sale homes are needed and, in that category, the biggest need is for homeowners that can afford a home priced between $150,000 and $250,000. That is a price point that we are frankly not doing anymore.”
Kilpatrick moderated a panel discussion on affordable housing during the Grand Rapids Business Journal’s Breakfast Series on April 13 at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. Panelists included John Bitely, owner of homebuilder Sable Homes; Vera Beech, executive director of Community Rebuilders; and Ryan VerWys, CEO of Inner City Christian Federation (ICCF) Community Homes.
In addition to the need for more for-sale homes, Kilpatrick said, there is a significant rental need.
“In Kent County we need more than 9,000 additional rentals,” he said. “We need rentals for folks that are transitioning out of homelessness. We need rentals for folks that are earning $25,000 to $50,000 a year. We need rentals for folks earning $50,000 to $75,000 a year and, believe it or not, our fastest growing rental segment is for households that are earning $75,000 to $125,000 a year. We have a lot of high-income renters in our community who have decided that now is not the right time to buy or they are not interested in buying and they want to continue to be renters. It is important that we provide products for that segment of the market as well, because otherwise they are competing for all that housing stock that would otherwise be affordable to our lower-income households.”
One of the challenges of attaining new affordable homes is acquiring the lots. Bitely said the lack of advocacy for those homes during meetings at the municipal government levels has created some roadblocks because residents are concerned about traffic and the impact on their wells, septic, water and sewer systems.
“There is nobody showing up to say, ‘We have room at our school,’” he said. “We are out on the main road that is only one-third used. There is room for this. Until the consumer starts helping us with this, I can’t alleviate $300,000 buyers from buying the $200,000 to $250,000 homes that (other) buyers need.”
Bitely acknowledged there are challenges with the availability of construction materials, but he stressed construction of more housing will not take place without approval for more lots in neighborhoods. Zoning density rules also can be a problem, he added, when large lot rules require that only a single-family home can be built on a space that could conceivably contain more units.
Despite the lack of neighborhood support, there are organizations such as ICCF Community Homes and Community Rebuilders that are putting people with low- to moderate-incomes into affordable homes.
ICCF, a nonprofit affordable housing developer, has spent the past few years providing solutions to a varied segment of the population. In 2017, the organization acquired 177 properties in the Grand Rapids and Lansing areas from an unnamed Chicago-based investment group and converted them into affordable housing for low- to moderate-income families and individuals.
It also completed or is currently constructing new affordable housing. Some of those projects include Tapestry Square Senior Living, Emerald Flats (former Eastern Elementary school building), 501 Eastern Apartments, 415 Franklin Apartments and Stockbridge Apartments.
“We believe that our community can be a place where everyone has a safe and affordable place to call home,” VerWys said. “That belief gets challenged at times, in times like these where it seems like an unattainable goal.”
The nonprofit also provides classes for individuals who are interested in becoming homeowners. The classes include introduction to homeownership, money management, banking basics, debt reduction, fair housing and insurance options.
To ensure that all individuals have a place to call home, Community Rebuilders focuses on permanent housing for the homeless population in Kent County.
Beech said the organization partners with more than 100 landlords across the community and provides about $6 million in rental subsidies on an annual basis.
“This is really important to furthering our objectives around affordable housing because those households with really the highest level of needs or the more severe needs are still often going to need some kind of rental assistance to be able to afford that housing,” she said. “So, we can’t just build our way out of the affordable housing needs of our community.
“That is a very important thing we need to do — build more affordable housing — but we also need to recognize that there will still be a need for those kinds of rental assistance subsidies to help people maintain their housing.”