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Dwelling Place takes on two affordable housing pilot programs

BY Sunday, November 24, 2019 06:07pm

GRAND RAPIDS — A pair of pilot programs will target two distinct populations of people to help them gain further access to affordable housing in downtown Grand Rapids.

Nonprofit housing developer Dwelling Place is in the planning stages of its two pilot projects that gained financial support from the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority earlier this month.

Dennis Sturtevant COURTESY PHOTO

One pilot targets the so-called “missing middle,” a population of people earning too much to receive housing subsidies, but too little to pay for market-rate housing. Another project is working with people who are homeless and frequently use public safety and emergency services. Both pilots aim to increase affordable housing downtown.

“They reach different markets and are both different targets,” said Dennis Sturtevant, CEO of Dwelling Place. “It’s a little bit unconventional. We’re not planning to build a new building, but I think we are trying to pilot some new models for thinking here in Grand Rapids.” 

In May, the DDA sought requests for proposals for solutions that advance its downtown affordable housing goals, and opted to contribute funds to Dwelling Place’s proposals. The DDA voted to give $100,000 toward costs associated with a Community Land Trust, and $33,425 for a plan that targets homeless people who are frequent users of city services.

The downtown has the highest concentration of “affordable” housing stock in the greater Grand Rapids area, and 30 percent of downtown housing is “income-restricted.” Still, there are challenges in maintaining and growing the supply of affordable housing, said Tim Kelly, CEO of Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., which administers the DDA. 

“(The DDA) recognizes downtown is a neighborhood with a lot of demand on it, and it has the services people want and need,” Kelly said. “It’s also the employment center for the region.”

Targeting specific groups

The Community Land Trust will focus on long-term affordable home ownership for the “missing middle,” or people making 50-110 percent of the area median income. 

Dwelling Place is working with Vermont-based Burlington Associates to provide planning for a business model that would convert several rental communities into home-ownership opportunities. 

The first is Martineau Apartments, a subsidized 23-unit live/work community for artists that was established in 2004 on South Division Avenue. The Community Land Trust would provide tenants of the building with an opportunity to buy their unit at a below-market rate because the land cost would be eliminated. 

The entire budget for the Martineau project exceeds $3.8 million, most of which would be financed with anticipated mortgage proceeds from tenants who buy their units, according to Dwelling Place.

Because federal housing subsidies target people making 60 percent or less than the area median income, the “missing middle” is pushed out of subsidized housing opportunities, and often competes with lower income people for affordable units. 

Allowing more opportunities for this middle group can take the pressure off the housing markets below them, said Ryan Kilpatrick, executive director of Housing Next, an initiative focused on supportive housing solutions for all income levels. Housing Next works primarily in Ottawa County.

Moving the needle

The second pilot program targets individuals who have the most difficult time maintaining housing. The Frequent User Systems Engagement (FUSE) program would house a finite and specific demographic of people experiencing homelessness in downtown Grand Rapids who most frequently use police, fire, EMS, hospitals, judicial and social services programs. This population might also have untreated substance use disorders or behavioral health issues.

“We’re not solving homelessness,” said Sturtevant of Dwelling Place. “We’re trying to look at a way to move the needle on these top 25 to 50 downtown folks that use a lot of community resources.” 

The Dwelling Place chose this type of program because of the call volume in the Heartside neighborhood. For example, while the LaGrave Fire District comprises only 2.05 percent of the area of Grand Rapids, it receives 16.36 percent of total EMS calls, the highest density of call volume in the city. 

Fifteen “super users” were responsible for 305 EMS calls in 2017, with some of them receiving EMS services more than 40 times each. The total cost for the Grand Rapids Fire Department, EMS and ER to treat them ranges from $930 to $2,140 per instance.

“That population tends to be pretty expensive to the community in general because they are using those public services,” Kilpatrick said.

The Corporation for Supportive Housing, a New York-based intermediary working with local communities to create permanent housing strategies, will provide planning assistance for the FUSE plan and work closely with Dwelling Place, which will provide some of the housing. 

The organizations will track whether housing the frequent users leads to a drop in the number of calls they make for assistance.

Offering insights

Simultaneously running the two pilot projects could pay off by providing the city with insight into the barriers both groups of people face when trying to get into housing, Kilpatrick said. 

“I think what we’ve got to start recognizing across the ecosystem is really the size of the need, and then putting some value on solving for those needs,” he said. “As (Dwelling Place) is engaging the entire housing ecosystem, these programs help to better quantify where investments have the most impact, and where resources should be put first.”

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