Since 2011, median home prices have increased by nearly 70 percent while per capita income went up by only 11 percent. Now, Deanna Rolffs, vice president of housing and family services at ICCF, has a waitlist of more than 700 families who are in need of safe, affordable housing. Going into 2019, she thinks community leadership and collaboration could be the key to solving the region’s housing crisis.
What’s happening to decrease the number of families who are waiting for housing?
One of the keys to affordable housing is increased density. I firmly believe that a very large percentage of the homeless crisis and of families finding themselves homeless is due to a lack of affordable housing. It’s not chronic homelessness. It’s not other very long-term factors at play. Most of the families that we support that are experiencing homelessness are working at least one or two full-time jobs. They’re working at Spectrum Health. They’re working in factories. They’re earning above minimum wage or right around minimum wage, but they cannot afford the housing prices.
Do you see that changing anytime soon?
Some of my biggest hopes for 2019 are around affordable housing. We need brave solutions and we need cross-sector solutions. I don’t think we’re there yet. I’m excited about United Way’s leadership in this. I’m optimistic about the group that KConnect is bringing together around a broader, community-wide affordable housing strategy. Bringing in health care providers, bringing in businesses, bringing in many other voices. There are many large businesses that are really dedicated to supporting their employees to have safe and affordable housing, because safe and affordable housing for employees allows businesses to increase their bottom line and meet their goals.
Do you see some of those community-wide strategies becoming more defined in 2019?
Yes. I’m really optimistic that we can come to a place of true collaboration rather than in-fighting or true communication knowing that we all bring different things. I believe we all don’t want families to sleep outside, or singles, or individuals, or anybody. 2019 will be a telling year for us to say, ‘Can we work together better? Can we break down some of the misunderstandings and the silos?’
We don’t all have to be cookie-cutter. We don’t need to be the same. In fact, our differences are beautiful. But we all want to provide low-barrier, high-access shelter. We all want to not discriminate against LGBTQ+ youth and individuals and families. We all want our children to not experience the trauma of living on the street or being without a home. We can do that by facing some of those hard things collaboratively.
What are the first steps?
We need to know our data. We need to know what we’re doing well or not doing well so that we don’t all just jump through this hoop that’s been defined outside of our community. We each need to see how we can play in the system. If we could move toward that, which I believe we can in 2019, it will be a great year for our community, not for the agencies that offer support, but for neighbors in our community — both neighbors that want to buy a home and want a safe, affordable place to live, and neighbors who have experienced sleeping on the street or in parks or in their cars.
How can businesses help?
First of all, providing living wages. You can balance a budget, but if you only make minimum wage, you literally cannot afford a rental unit. You cannot afford a stable unit and that will affect your employment. There are so many employers in West Michigan that truly care about that and really want to look at supporting the whole employee and not just when they show up for eight hours. I think businesses can invest in supporting their employees in adaptive ways. Maybe it’s information sessions about how to buy a home, how they can access down payment assistance opportunities, how they can get their credit ready.
Are there any more gaps in training or education that you’re looking to fill in the future?
One of the things I’m really excited about growing is our education and housing counseling offered in languages other than English. Last year, we offered both our Financial Capabilities and Introduction to Home Ownership classes in dozens of languages with translation support from Bethany Christian Services. It’s a huge investment on our part, but we’re dedicated to that. In Spanish, we translate all the materials. We are working on marketing with the Hispanic Center and the Hispanic Chamber. I’m really excited to see where that will go in 2019.
Going into next year, is there anything keeping you up at night?
What keeps me up at night, and it should, is the 100ish families every night that are sleeping in their cars. It’s not all static, it’s not the same people. We have to come up with a solution for this. Ninety-nine percent of the families just want to get in their own place, but they can’t. We find it is critical when someone is in a family shelter to provide some support services, to increase their income, to access landlords, to just regroup. The hope is we can make that available to anywhere between 20 and 100 families in 2019.
Interview conducted and condensed by Jessica Young.