The finished product at 239 Sycamore St. in Grand Rapids, which underwent a significant transformation through Well House's efforts. Courtesy Well House
(As seen on WZZM TV 13) A local housing-for-homeless nonprofit will give its tenants a new set of tools in their toolbox while allowing them to gain a new lease on life.
Well House Executive Director Tami VandenBerg said this month that her organization received a two-year, $265,125 grant from the Wege Foundation to launch a twofold green building plan.
The nonprofit will use the funds to buy and renovate two abandoned homes and turn them into LEED-certified residences — and it will hire tenants from its current Well House properties to learn green building techniques and carry out the renovations.
“We are extremely grateful to the Wege Foundation for this generous grant,” VandenBerg said. “Our first goal as an organization is to move people out of homelessness; our next goal is to do anything else possible to make our tenants’ lives better and more meaningful. We think green jobs on-site and green job training will be an excellent option for our tenants who are interested.”
VandenBerg said the new houses will cost between $80,000 and $100,000 to buy and renovate. Well House will use the rest of the grant funds to provide training and employment for eligible tenants.
The nonprofit currently owns 14 houses on the southeast side of Grand Rapids, three of which are being rehabilitated and one of which is being converted to LEED-certified status. The two new homes will bring Well House’s property count to 16.
Well House already employs some of its tenants to work on construction projects, but this program will expand capacity and offer more specialized training.
“(We have) between five and 10 tenants at any given time working on our current houses, but we’ll be able to scale that up a bit with these funds,” VandenBerg said. “We’ll probably have between 10 and 20 to start.”
She said Travis VanLuyn, Well House director of construction, will hire the employees mainly from the existing pool of workers who have shown aptitude for construction.
The grant will fund sustainability workshops for tenants and neighbors, peer-to-peer mentoring and connecting tenants to GRCC’s Residential Construction Program. Training topics will include lead safety, dust containment, zero-waste goals, renewable energy sources and more.
In addition to various local contractors and community groups, Well House’s key partner for this initiative is the Grand Rapids-based GreenHome Institute, a nonprofit that aims to spread green building practices across the county.
VandenBerg said one of the goals is for Well House tenants to have more options to help themselves.
“When I started as director, the focus was, ‘How do we get people off the street permanently?’ We had such a huge response, we said, ‘We have to get more houses.’ So, we’ve been focused on that. Then we saw a lot of residents needed employment, so we started hiring tenants. Now, we have a lot of people doing that, so we said, ‘How can we provide additional training in a relevant field?’ We thought that with the housing boom and the emphasis on sustainability, we thought if they want to move on to other companies or if they want to stay and work for us, they will have those additional skills.
“The tenants will be employed by Well House initially, but the hope is that contractors may want to hire some of our tenants in the future.”
Since VandenBerg became director in 2013, the nonprofit has housed more than 160 homeless individuals, and its 11 operational houses currently host 50 to 60 tenants per night. Andrew Miller, now a tenant crew leader for Well House construction projects, is one of them.
“It’s been rehabilitation for me since I got ill,” Miller said. “I have been able to move more; I am not sick like I used to be. I have been able to work on the houses and learn. I am excited to come to work every day. (Well House staff members) teach me a lot and let me do things on my own. We are a team trying to get things done.”
Miller said sustainable building is new to him, but he is learning quickly.
“The things I am learning here are going to benefit me … like reading a ruler and using a saw. I am going to take the skills they taught me and run with (them).”
VandenBerg said sustainability always has been one of Well House’s core values, and LEED certification on these two new homes is more evidence of that.
“We do not currently have plans to retrofit our other homes to be LEED-certified, but most are already pretty close to LEED standards, so that is something we are considering,” she said.
In addition to sustainability priorities, VandenBerg said the grant and the new houses will fill a pressing need. Well House has received 632 applications for housing since 2013. For every person housed, the organization turns three others away because there is not enough space.
According to the Greater Grand Rapids Coalition to End Homelessness, there are approximately 900 people living on the streets and in shelters on any given night in Kent County.
A single room in a Well House property, on average, costs $275 per month, compared to the average cost of $700-$800 per month for a one-bedroom apartment elsewhere in Grand Rapids.
“Most people (who) are homeless in Grand Rapids are in the situation because there is not enough low-cost housing,” VandenBerg said. “Someone working full time for minimum wage earns $1,300 each month before taxes. They would have to work 79 hours per week in order for housing costs to be at the recommended 30 percent of total income.”
She said race continues to be a big factor in Kent County homelessness.
“The 2017 (Housing and Urban Development) count once again showed a large racial disparity in homelessness in our community. While only 9 percent of the general population of Kent County identifies as black/African American, over 50 percent of those on the streets identify as black.”
She said the nonprofit’s model of housing first — and treating mental health, addiction and legal issues second — has been effective, and this grant will help build momentum.
“The Well House model is working,” she said. “Over 90 percent of our tenants have not returned to homelessness. … Sixty of our tenants have taken advantage of our employment opportunities while living at Well House.
“We feel that everyone has something to contribute to the city, whether they’ve been homeless or in jail or whatever. Under the right circumstances, we feel everybody can contribute. So, that’s what we want to do with this grant.”