10-home development planned near former homeless encampment in Kalamazoo

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KALAMAZOO, MI — Six months ago, police cleared out people who were living in a makeshift encampment on the banks of the Kalamazoo River.

Today, a development is in the works to welcome people back to live in new housing near the former encampment site, targeting low-income mothers with children.

The project design calls for 10 homes, as well as a park, parking area, community courtyard and other features. The development has environmental considerations such as solar panels and geothermal heating and cooling systems that are also designed to reduce utility costs.

The Home Start Initiative, a collaborative project between Playgrown and the Institute of Public Scholarship, was one of 10 proposals funded by the county last week. The project is located near the intersection of Ampersee Avenue and Bridge Street and adjacent to where people were living at the homeless encampment in 2021, a plot southwest of Ampersee Avenue and Hotop Avenue.

Related: See 16 renderings of small and other homes planned near former homeless camp in Kalamazoo

On April 5, the county board of commissioners awarded $318,138 to the new construction project that is meant to help address the housing shortage.

The cooperative housing community will be focused on addressing health equity, organizers said. It is in response to the needs and visions of the former encampment of unhoused people, organizers said in a news release.

“We’re focusing on women with children, with a specific emphasis on those folks who have been unhoused, so they can take part in the game of generational wealth, based on real estate and all of the benefits that come from having a stake in real estate,” Playgrown CEO Michelle S. Johnson told MLive. Johnson has a PhD in American culture from the University of Michigan.

The county approved the funds for the development of five (two- to three-bedroom) homes on foundations and five small one-story movable homes at the location of Ampersee/River Street in Kalamazoo. Some of the homes are labeled tiny in the plan, but the plan terminology has been updated to call them small moveable homes, because they are larger than traditional tiny homes, Johnson said.

The larger homes on the site will be two-story bungalows, she said.

The project will target people living at or below 30% Area Median Income (AMI) through a cooperative living and ownership model that returns profit and equity back to the owners/members, the organization said, and the city of Kalamazoo will support the permanently affixed structures with loan funding.

Johnson co-founded the Institute of Public Scholarship as a hub for scholars and community members interested in putting social justice research to practice, according to a news release from the initiative. Jennifer Mills, visiting assistant professor at Kalamazoo College who is working to complete a master’s degree in Public Health at Emory University, was invited to participate in the Institute in 2020 bringing expertise in social determinants of health.

Mills has a Doctor of Philosophy in Counselor Education/Community Counseling from Western Michigan University, according to her resume.

Johnson and Mills have also worked with students from Kalamazoo College on the Ampersee Home Start Initiative and cooperative.

Students have been working with Mills, conducting interviews with residents of the encampment, and partnering with the local health department and the Kalamazoo Eastside Neighborhood Association, along with supporting grant writing efforts.

Johnson worked with public scholars, community members and KD Brown Designs to develop a holistic housing intervention on the Eastside of Kalamazoo along Ampersee.

“I am elated for the support of a collaborative and comprehensive vision for the Eastside that centers restoration and belonging in nature, culture and history,” Johnson said.

Mills, health psychologist and professor of psychology at Kalamazoo College, and her students will support the public health efforts to evaluate the long-term impact of the program on health outcomes for women and children.

Tiyanna Williams, equitable development consultant, and Associate Director of Continuum of Care, who is also involved in the project, said, “This project cultivates and fosters strong stabilizing support systems and is what shared prosperity looks like.”

The Home Start Initiative partnered with the Kalamazoo Eastside Neighborhood Association, the city of Kalamazoo, the Kalamazoo County Public Health Department, and Kalamazoo College and hopes to make a significant impact on housing and health equity in the community, the news release states.

The estimated total cost is $4 million, and organizers are confident they are taking the right steps in the process to secure the funding, Johnson said. They hope to break ground sometime in 2022, Johnson said.

Housing Director Mary Balkema has worked with the developers applying to receive funding during the process to dole out a total of about $7 million from the housing millage proceeds this year.

“Because we have such a desperate need for housing, I don’t think there’s any wrong model or method to help out the situation,” Balkema told MLive.

“I haven’t seen (the cooperative model) before, but I think with the players involved, and the college is really interested in it, and really giving some wraparound services to some of the folks that they’re dealing with, I’m very interested to see the outcome and what it looks like a few years down the road,” Balkema said.

Residents will receive a stipend which will cover their monthly payment, Mills said. The model is designed to fully support the housing costs for three years.

The land will be owned by the cultural land stewardship, but ultimately residents will own the home, she said.

“We also plan to conduct an evaluation of the model in collaboration with the local health department so that we can better understand how supportive housing models improve health outcomes for residents and children,” Mills said.

The project of 10 homes is one of three Playgrown Wellness Corridor developments in progress along Ampersee, the organization said.

Related: A look back at the 2021 homeless crisis in Kalamazoo

Work is also under way on a plan to remediate the adjacent former encampment site, Johnson said.

North of the Home Start, on what Johnson calls, “The Triangle” on Gull, Playgrown is working on plans for a gazebo honoring Match-e-be-nash-she-wish and Black history and culture, a culturally informed community garden, and arboretum and a multi–use home.

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Debbie A. Cunningham

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