Developer builds with ‘missing middle’ workforce in mind

Growing up in Zeeland engendered in Vishal Arora a unifying thread of belonging with neighbors who brought positive connections into his life.

Vishal Arora“It felt like a community,” says Arora, 43. “That was an era where the neighbors looked after the neighborhood kids. There was a lot of trust with adults. It was that kind of positive upbringing.”

Arora wants to foster similar community connections in Holland Township, Grand Rapids, and the city of Wyoming for those he calls the “missing middle” — whose income is too high to qualify for subsidized Section 8 housing but can’t afford top-tier, market-rate apartments. Additional big-ticket goals include kindling a folksy “howdy neighbor” vibe, nudging people outside of their cultural silos, as well as providing amenities usually found only in high-end developments.

Mix of apartments

As founder and CEO of Manhattan-based privately-held real estate development company Magnus Capital Partners, Arora is constructing a mix of studio, one-, two-, and three-bedroom affordable and market-rate apartments dubbed HOM Flats.

“It seems to me there’s not much supply for people making $14 to $20 an hour,” says Arora. “When we see an entire marketplace being ignored, and not really seeing a good reason why it’s being ignored, we see an opportunity to try and figure it out.”

Arora believes he can offer a solution, but he realizes it comes with inherent challenges. Construction costs are high, middle-income wages are stagnant, and housing supplies are limited.

Amenities for a planned Holland Township apartment complex will include an on-site fitness studio, remote workspace, dog park, rooftop terraces, and a community cafe.
“The average income is about $45,000 a year,” says Arora, “which used to be a great middle-class salary, 15 to 20 years ago, at least for young employees just starting out. You should be able to live relatively comfortable on that then. But now, because we have such a scarcity of housing supply, the competition for limited supply has driven up prices really quickly. Not only offering that particular price point, but also the ability to preserve it is really important to us.

Grand Rapids and Wyoming 

“Our effort is to provide as much of a community feel as possible,” adds Arora. “We believe our residents want to experience and should feel and understand the community they are in.”

On Grand Rapids’ Northwest side, Magnus Capital Partners intends to break ground next spring on a 240-unit apartment complex on a vacant lot at 3059 Lake Michigan Drive NW, which is known as HOM Flats Maynard. Apartments would be rented to those whose income does not exceed 80 percent of Kent County’s area median income. For two people, that equals $51,360 and, for a three-person household, it equals $57,760.

Construction for the $22 million apartment complex in Holland Township started last spring and is scheduled to be completed in winter 2022.

In Wyoming, HOM Flats at 28 West is a two-phase development totaling 386 apartments at 1401 Prairie Pkwy. SW, the site of the former Studio 28 Theatre. The first phase of the development will include a mix of studio, one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments. Amenities include an on-site fitness studio, remote workspace, and a community cafe. The second phase of the project includes an indoor dog park, game room, art studio, and an indoor-outdoor children’s play area.

The project in Wyoming is initiating a makeover Mayor Jack Poll embraces and says the city needs.

“We have been so pleased to watch the transformation in Wyoming take place as construction, and now leasing, is underway at HOM Flats at 28 West,” Poll says in a statement.

Holland Township site

The development in Holland Township on Felch Street will also see a mix of studio, one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments on an 8-acre site. Amenities will include an on-site fitness studio, remote workspace, dog park, rooftop terraces, and a community cafe. Construction for the $22 million project started last spring and is scheduled to be completed in winter 2022.

Ryan Kilpatrick, Executive Director of the Holland-based Housing Next.
The development will be in a prime place to live in the township, according to John Said, Community Development Director for Holland Township.

“Vishal’s placement of this project in a location that is within walking distance of the township’s primary commercial area,” says Said. “(The) U.S. 31 corridor, including stores and restaurants for both shopping and employment, as well as the new (Grand Rapids Community College) campus, might be helpful and useful to its marketability as a desired location to live, along with the proposed on-site amenities for residents. Its location and walkability aspects help with a niche that may present some unique opportunities for potential residents, and these aspects also help support goals of the township’s new Comprehensive Plan for mixing uses and enhancing walkability in the community.”

Thousands needed

The reckoning for affordable housing is “critically important” in Ottawa County, according to Ryan Kilpatrick, Executive Director of the Holland-based Housing Next. The initiative works closely with local municipalities, developers, and nonprofits to remove barriers that will increase the housing supply at all price points.

“The concern is the number of households that are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing,” says Kilpatrick. “We took a deep dive into the Holland/Zeeland market and Grand Haven/Spring Lake market, and also a more general Ottawa County assessment. We need roughly 7,500 additional housing units at all price points, but we need about 3,500 additional housing units for households that were earning 80 percent of their overall area median income or less.”

There are some concerns that a higher population density found in apartment developments conjures more social discord and crime. Kilpatrick and Arora regard those concerns as a false narrative. New developments should take a cue from the past, they say.

“The combination of concentrated poverty and isolation causes significant problems,” says Kilpatrick. “Frankly, that’s essentially what we did in the 1960s through the 1990s, with the investment of public housing that tended to be large, concentrated projects that were isolated because other communities didn’t want those kinds of projects too close to them. So what it did is reinforced a false narrative about lower-income housing reducing property values, which also is not true. But when you concentrate lower-income housing and you isolate it from goods and services, then that entire neighborhood loses property value.

A positive influence

“You can always find examples of high-density projects that have problems associated with them, but you can also find single-family neighborhoods that have a lot of problems associated with them,” adds Kilpatrick. “When you have neighborhoods that are experiencing a lot of new investments, inserting additional housing that is affordable — and preserved as affordable — that tends to make no difference or has a positive adjustment on overall property values, as opposed to single families that might be low density, but nobody is really investing in their houses, updating their kitchens, or adding on another master bedroom.

Magnus Capital Partners' development in Holland Township on Felch Street will also see a mix of studio, one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments on an 8-acre site.

Arora has lived in London, Hong Kong, and India. In the United States, he’s called Chicago, Philadelphia, and now New York home. Done right, the number of people living together can be a positive influence, he says.

“High-density actually forces a lot of positive peer pressure,” says Arora. “If I walk in the gym that I hadn’t been at in a while and I’m asked, ‘Why didn’t I go to the gym?’ And I think there are a lot of positive benefits, even if I’m not best friends with the person I see in the hall. I’ll never say it’s friction-free, but overwhelmingly it’s positive.”

Offers potential

Kilpatrick says he jazzed about Arora’s HOM Flats developments because it offers the needed potential to create mixed neighborhoods — racially and economically — where people can learn from one another.

“What we’ve found over the last 15 years is, when you’re strategic enough to include mixed neighborhoods, where a particular project might be a small share of the overall makeup of the neighborhood, that additional housing choice actually strengthens the neighborhood, both economically and socially, because it creates a ladder of opportunity in the neighborhood,” says Kilpatrick.

“When I move into an apartment, I can see neighbors coming and going on a daily basis, who have reached that next step up on the economic ladder. And I can see what that lifestyle looks like, and I can make decisions: ‘Do I want to strive to achieve that?’ And I can get to know some of those folks and ask questions, so I can make more calculated decisions on how I can pursue more economic opportunity.”

It’s much harder to find mentors — from whom to learn as we try to climb that economic ladder — in a neighborhood that is all lower-income and everyone is struggling, Kilpatrick says.

In the end, Arora says he is meeting the need of a burgeoning housing market. “We love campaigns that are overlooked,” he says. “It’s hard to get excited over plain vanilla. We like to solve a problem. You harness all sorts of energy that way.”
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