Addressing housing stability in Kent County means redefining the issue

Lynne Ferrell, Program Director with the Frey Foundation, member of the KConnect Board of Trustees, and a co-chair of the Housing Stability Alliance, sees a day coming this year when sheriff's notices may join wreaths on the front doors of homes in Kent County. The state mandated moratorium on evictions is in place until December 31, 2020. Meanwhile, service-oriented industries have been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. And it's not easy to afford rent when you don't have a job.

There isn't enough housing for everyone who lives, or wants to live, in Kent County. Families with young children are struggling because they can't afford housing. And the coronavirus pandemic is making matters worse.

Part of the problem is supply, as Housing Next Executive Director Ryan Kilpatrick told Grand Rapids leaders at the city’s July 21 Committee of the Whole meeting. The city alone needs 9,000 homes in next 5 years to keep up with demand, Kilpatrick stressed in his Housing Needs Assessment. But increasing supply alone will not prevent evictions or address the problems the homeless face.

The plan to address housing stability is the result of nearly 2 years of discussions and research by cross sector stakeholders in the community. Ferrell, along with fellow co-chairs Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, Kent County Commission Chair Mandy Bolter, Christina Keller, President/CEO of Cascade Engineering, and dozens of other individuals and organizations created the Common Agenda and Roadmap; the framework for addressing housing instability.

Redefining the Path Home: System Building for Housing Stability in Kent County,” was released in summer 2020 by the Housing Stability Alliance, in partnership with KConnect, Kent County’s backbone organization for the community’s Collective Impact initiative.

To be clear, this isn't a plan to build more houses. According to KConnect interim president Mark Woltman, "what you're not going to see in this plan is 10,000 tiny houses for folks that are homeless."

What you are going to see are some areas of improvement that will take community efforts to meet.

A “Current State Analysis” in the plan points to shortcomings in the current housing system in Kent County and the root causes that lead to housing instability. Among them, gaps in understanding about system capacity, resources, and community needs, the belief that homelessness is an individual problem rather than a systemic problem, and a model and process that are not customer-centric.

"You have to spend hours talking to different people to even get connected to resources," Woltman says to the third point.

"These are families that could be in motels or they're on the street, or they could be doubled up with families in a living situation that may not be ideal."

Woltman was one of the first employees at KConnect, hired in 2014 after spending several years working in politics and policy in New York. Since then, he's come to understand the often frustrating disconnect between philanthropic dollars and sustainable change. More money doesn't always mean more impact, but that impact can be multiplied through a collective model. That's the direction Woltman has taken KConnect's housing work in, as well as creating the Housing Alliance Roadmap.

"There are basically three ways to solve problems," Woltman says. "You can manage problems, you can solve problems, and you dissolve them. And what you need within a community is all three of those happening at once."

The components of the Roadmap are designed to reduce the systematic pain points in the Current State Analysis. It starts with redefining the problem as a system.

Redefining the problem as a system
“Right now, we’re thinking about housing in silos,” Ferrell says. “Homelessness is not necessarily talked about when we talk about the 9,000 houses that we need. The goal of the KConnect effort is to think about housing systems.”

The Housing Stability Spectrum describes housing situations experienced by all residents of Kent County and creates a common language for housing-focused conversations and ensures no one is unrepresented. The spectrum runs from the lowest availability of options and control to the highest:
  • No Housing
  • Temporary Housing
  • Soon to Lose Housing
  • At Risk of Losing Housing
  • Insecurely Housed
  • Stably Housed
  • Housed by Choice
The roots of housing instability can begin to bind individuals at an early age. The Common Agenda and Roadmap are designed to look at the greater issues that affect housing instability across the system, from families to schools to employment opportunities.

"Rather than saying it's only a supply problem or it's only an issue of wages or a question of getting evicted, it's much bigger than that and it really is all connected," Ferrell says.

Now in her 20th year at the Frey Foundation, and one of the co-chairs of the original Housing Alliance, Ferrell’s background is in helping kids. She says she’s fortunate to be part of an organization that cares about children and families. She also understands how a philanthropic organization has more flexibility when it comes to showing that care.

“There is innovation in cities and counties and state and federal governments but those funding sources have a number of constraints on how they can be used,” Ferrell says. “The philanthropic dollars allow for a bit of flexibility so you can experiment, you can pilot things, you can find things that might work to solve issues where you wouldn't be able to with the public sector dollars and that's and that's the way it should be.

“I don't want our tax dollars getting thrown around in experiments,” she continues. “The role of philanthropy is to allow us to explore things, allow it to create things, and test them. To iterate and innovate around it so we can find things that work for us for West Michigan.”

Educating the public


Four categories of "High-Leverage Activities" in the Roadmap provide focus for strategy development. These act as scorecards for private and public sector stakeholders to use in measuring the impact of their philanthropy. At the top of the list is education.

Sandra Ghoston-Jones, a management analyst in the Kent County administrator's office and co-chair of the Essential Needs Task Force, who served on the content team during the Housing Stability Alliance's 2-year convening, says the county is working to educate homeowners on the growing divide between them and the homeless.

"We recognize the importance of addressing our housing disparities, housing density, and the lack of affordable housing," she says. "We recognize that it's something that needs to be addressed by the community as a whole. So we're having conversations with the urban mayors, with the township supervisors. Sometimes people don't realize that there are those disparities, whether they be related to race or single-parent households or a variety of other issues."

Data scientists working with the county provided the Housing Stability Alliance with key measurements for the report. These experts will continue to support the county by tracking these metrics for years to come.

"We have people who can pull out the data, do the research, and effectively show without any bias what the numbers are," she says.

Those numbers show that the median sale price of a home in Kent County has grown from $88,600 in 2010 to $194,733 in 2019. At the same time, The number of homeless in the county continues to grow each year. Further, a study by Bowen National Research found that 27% of Kent County households are cost-overburdened and devote more than 30% of their income to housing.

"Kent County is listed on all sorts of different magazines, periodicals as a great place to live, work and play, but people are having a hard time affording to be able to live here," says Ghoston-Jones. "And we don't want the county to be known so that only certain people at [a] certain income level can be able to live here. We really want to be opening up and offering housing opportunities for people at whatever level they might be."

Ghoston-Jones points out that older residents who bought their houses decades ago are seeing their grandchildren return home to live with their parents for extended periods. And it's not because they don't have jobs.

"We just don't have housing available that the average person at a starting wage can afford," Ghoston-Jones says. "Someone who bought their home 20 to 30 years ago may not realize that housing prices have appreciated to such a point that a person would struggle to be able to afford to purchase a home or to rent something that they would like to live in at a starting wage."

In educating people on the housed-by-choice end of the housing stability spectrum, county administrators hope to create a greater understanding of the issues people without housing face, and drive further support to the resources they need.

Addressing institutional racism in the system

According to the KConnect data, one in six African american children (0-17) touched the homeless system at some point last year. The aim of "Equity and Community Engagement" is to cultivate a more equitable housing system that integrates the voices of those with lived experience in housing instability. The plan is to help individuals brought up from homelessness find employment in the housing system to support themselves while strengthening community equity.

"Ensuring that people that have lived experience in housing insecurity are working within the housing system is a big part that's the community engagement plan," Woltman says. "That does not currently happen."

The Roadmap's "Shared Measurement System" creates a common framework used to measure stability and equity.
The "Continuous Communication Plan" identifies an overall purpose, key messaging, and target audiences for communication between Housing Stability Alliance members and the wider community.

What is still needed is the "Backbone Entity" of the organization, currently filled by KConnect on an interim basis.

Backbone entity

The Roadmap lays out a strategy for aligning this leadership with the other components. The Backbone Entity's guidance will in turn coordinate the elements of the housing system in Kent County to align activities and maximize impact of the other Roadmap components.

The KConnect team is leaning outward creating a new 501c3 organization from the ground up, “but it's not set in stone yet,” Woltman says. “The model we create will quarterback the Housing Stability Alliance and lead from behind.”

"KConnect does a really good job of facilitating and leading from behind,” says Salvador Lopez, the organization’s president. “Mark's work and the Alliance's work has been important so far, and we're going into a new phase where we can really see some of the Roadmap, be put into action."

Lopez has been leading KConnect for six weeks, coming from a background in higher education and nonprofit work.
“Throughout my experiences it's always been working with underrepresented people. I'm passionate about making sure that we're doing everything we can to eliminate disparities,” Lopez says.

Driving forward

With all these pieces in place, community stakeholders using High-Leverage Activities to address housing instability as a system, it’s possible we might start seeing the needle move in the next 5 years. But there are still questions that need to be routinely asked to keep the work on track and improving.

“The next step is to come together as a community and ask, what are our priorities? How do we begin to get at the supply issue, keep people who are in their homes housed, help people who are at risk of losing their housing stay housed, and then get people who are experiencing homelessness into housing?” Ferrell asks.

“All of those things have to fire at once,” she continues. “You can build all the supplies you want. But if people can't pay for it, it's still going to be empty.”
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