After serving as executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Kent County for seven years, BriAnne McKee will work her last day on June 20 and move with her family to Boise, Idaho. A new executive director, Bev Thiel, began in May. McKee, who had a background in social work, approached housing from a perspective that people cannot accomplish their full potential until their basic needs are met. She spoke with MiBiz about how the desire to give people a safe and secure home fueled her work with Habitat Kent and how it evolved during her tenure.
How did your approach to leading Habitat Kent change over time?
I would say we have very much a servant leadership culture here. That’s something the leaders before me established, and I felt very connected to when I came into the organization in a couple of different roles before I became executive director. From an external standpoint, how Habitat has evolved during my tenure: We have really shifted our focus from building one house at a time to asking how can we use housing and partnerships as a tool to improve the quality of life for an entire neighborhood. That’s been a beautiful evolution for our housing and community engagement efforts.
As more people become interested in living in Grand Rapids, has the need for your organization also increased?
The cost of housing has changed significantly even in the 12 years I’ve lived here. When I moved here in 2006, it was very common to find a two-bedroom apartment for $400 a month. In the 49503 ZIP code where Habitat Kent is currently located, the fair market value for a two-bedroom is now $910 a month, and we know that market-rate apartments are much higher than that. Yet what hasn’t shifted is the wages that folks are earning.
How does that imbalance affect your work?
An organization called the National Low Income Housing Coalition computes a housing wage every year, and the housing wage for 49503 is actually $17.50 an hour. A typical renter would have to earn at least that at a full-time job in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment. We know that’s not the case in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood and the majority of neighborhoods in Grand Rapids. Habitat is focused on homeownership, so many of our families are renting when they come to us. Another thing we pay close attention to is property values. The property values in our focus neighborhood are also rising very rapidly, especially relative to income. The average sale price for a home has increased in Grand Rapids by 35 percent, and that’s just from 2014 to 2018. During that same period in Roosevelt Park, that grew by 73 percent. The need for affordable housing cannot be overstated, both from a rental perspective as well as affordable homeownership opportunities.
Outside of helping with homeownership, what can be done to increase affordable housing opportunities?
The issue of housing is so complex that there’s no one silver bullet. Knowing that, how are we continuing to think about opportunities for families to thrive in a neighborhood from a systems perspective? I feel really strongly that the construction industry and the housing industry will never be able to build its way out of this issue.
This work is also an income issue, which means it’s an education issue, which means it’s a systems issue. We know there’s a huge issue of racial disparity showing up in neighborhoods across our city. Habitat Kent is always thinking about how we can scale up what we are doing. We’ve shifted over the last few years from just building a single-family home to building in a more dense capacity, townhome-style.
How do you think the organization could shift to meet some of these needs?
Evaluating the work we’ve been doing in this neighborhood focus has really stretched us to think about not being just a construction company that utilizes volunteers that build the homes, [but] a social service arm that really works to walk alongside our homebuyers. We’re doing things like leadership training and opportunities for neighbors or repairs and block projects to help continue to beautify and preserve the affordable housing that’s there. Habitat Kent stands ready to evaluate data and continues to figure out where we fit as an organization, and how we might continue to invest in all of those opportunities — not just homebuilding, but community engagement opportunities as well. That’s a little bit different from what we’ve done in the first 36 years of our tenure.
What do you consider your best accomplishments during your time at Habitat Kent?
The most beautiful thing is we’re now seeing the impact our mission has had on the next generation. We’re having a number of homeowners who have paid their mortgages off; they own their homes outright. Then that next generation of children who grew up in these homes are becoming parents, buying homes on the market with a traditional mortgage in our community. That is an example of the possibility of what can happen when you give people the opportunity to thrive. We embarked on the Bright Future campaign, which is the largest campaign — $9 million — that we had ever embarked upon. The Plaza Roosevelt project, the collaboration with eight other organizations, really has taught us invaluable lessons.
Do you have any parting words of wisdom?
This kind of work really requires a relationship and the opportunity to build trust with people. If you think about the sacred nature of a home, where your most private and most celebrated and most cherished memories happen, I’ve learned such wisdom from the people who reside here in Roosevelt Park, the people involved from a volunteer standpoint. We are so fortunate at Habitat to see the very best in people, perfect strangers who are willing to swing a hammer for someone they’ve never met before. I am very grateful and honored to have spent a portion of my career here.
Interview conducted and condensed by Sydney Smith.