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Housing Kent takes next steps to address countywide housing insecurity

BY Sunday, February 13, 2022 06:13pm

Kent County housing organization has named a new president to oversee an action plan and raise funding after years of community-wide research on housing insecurity and homelessness.

Housing Kent, which started in 2019 as the Housing Stability Alliance to oversee planning by dozens of public and private sector organizations, on Feb. 1 named local consultant Eureka People as its new president.

Eureka People

People will oversee efforts to turn a yearslong, community-wide housing roadmap into action by continuing community discussions, working with policymakers and raising funds with a goal of ultimately resolving housing instability for residents. 

“One of the action items we were tasked with was to create a backbone organization, and it’s now alive and ready to start relationship building, coordinating and alignment,” People said. 

Housing Kent emerged from a collaboration among 130 public and private sector organizations that gathered information on the extent of homelessness and housing insecurity in Kent County. The effort, led by KConnect and community leaders, produced a common agenda and in 2020 released a roadmap report, “Redefining the Path Home: System building for housing stability in Kent County.” People previously served as a facilitator for the planning process.

People hopes to address the siloed nature in which many nonprofits and housing organizations have operated so far.

“That can lead to tunnel vision, which is sometimes necessary or else you won’t be able to make any traction,” People said. “But what we want to create is a new lane that is big enough to put everybody in it. The need that many of these nonprofits are dealing with is something I cannot underscore enough. Many are under-resourced and under-staffed.”

‘Just managing’

The 2020 roadmap highlighted the disproportionately high number of African-Americans and children who experience homelessness in Kent County. Even though African-Americans make up 12 percent of the population in Kent County, they make up 72 percent of the county’s homeless population, according to the report. As well, the number of people in Kent County’s homeless system increased by 37 percent over the last three years, mainly driven by families and children. 

The roadmap and Housing Kent formed after a call to action in May 2018 when housing advocates wrote a letter to KConnect expressing a need to change the way homelessness is addressed in the county. 

Stephanie Gingerich, real estate development director at Grand Rapids community development organization LINC UP, said a lack of funding to address systemic issues meant local organizations have been “just managing homelessness.” LINC UP was one of the organizations that crafted the letter in 2018.

“(Housing Kent’s) approach is making a commitment to address the problem and not accept that we have these racial disparities in housing and homelessness,” Gingerich said. “The mission is very articulately stating the problem of racial disparity in housing is not acceptable and we can’t keep doing the same thing every year and expect different outcomes.”

The housing roadmap identifies shortfalls in Kent County’s housing system, such as a lack of common purpose, gaps in understanding system capacity, a lack of creativity and innovation, insufficient collaboration, and extreme racial disparities.

When LINC UP last opened up renter applications for its apartments in 2021, the organization received about 1,100 applications in two days for just 26 units that were available, Gingerich said. LINC UP has thousands of applicants on a waiting list for 217 apartment units that it operates. 

“We have so many people on our housing waiting list and every day I have to tell people we have a two- or three-year wait list,” Gingerich said. “It’s been a crisis for a while.”

Taking action

Housing Kent will now reconvene all of the stakeholders that helped inform the roadmap study, as well as community members who have or are currently experiencing homelessness or some form of housing insecurity, People said.

“For implementation to stick, and for people to really engage, they need to buy in and commit,” People said. “We want to be intentional and deliberate about strengthening those relationships in the community.”

KConnect President Salvador Lopez said the housing effort will continue to take a broad-based approach to solving housing inequities, but also hear directly from people on the frontlines.

“There are immediate needs that need urgency for folks experiencing homelessness, but it is also important to help folks one misstep away from experiencing homelessness, and adding to the housing stock,” Lopez said. “It’s really time to convene the entire network and discuss next steps as a community. As initiatives start to take shape, it’s important to give space to the voices of folks with a lived experience.”

The 2020 roadmap details housing scenarios across the spectrum, ranging from no housing to “housed by choice,” which means a household is not paying more than 30 percent of their income toward housing. Lopez said all of these housing stages need to be examined, which hasn’t been the case so far.

Housing Kent’s work also will support the city of Grand Rapids’ efforts to address affordable housing needs, Mayor Rosalynn Bliss told MiBiz in an email.

“The value of the work of Housing Kent is that it is focused on countywide, systems-level work,” Bliss said. “Housing Kent will play an important role in identifying gaps in our current system, capturing reliable data on community needs and focusing on the need for housing across the entire spectrum. From no housing to housed by choice, we need an overarching, coordinated effort to ensure housing availability throughout our city and county.” 

While Gingerich said the roadmap’s goals are laudable, public and private funding is necessary to help move the needle and reduce housing insecurity.

“We’re interested to see if the public and private sector will bring the resources to the table,” Gingerich said. “Because of what we see in the work we do (at LINC UP) in working toward racial equity, it is very important that this group is focusing on trying to get at the root causes of inequities and not just taking the status quo approach to the problem. It is important that this effort has goals that would erase the racial disparity in the housing system.” 

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