Sitting on the floor: High rent prices means no furniture
By Kirk Mason
3 WWMT West Michigan
Monday, February 2020
PORTAGE, Mich. — When Newschannel 3 met with Erin Powers at her Portage apartment, we sat on the floor. She doesn’t have furniture; she can’t afford it.
“There are a lot of nights I have spent crying myself to sleep,” Powers said.
The tears come from constantly worrying about money. Powers and her son moved home to Portage from Florida. She said she escaped an abusive relationship, and returned to the city to be close to family.
“Schools are a huge part of the reason why. The schools here are amazing. My son has an IEP, and they have extensive services for him. The other thing is we feel safe here,” said Powers.
The cost of that safety net is high rent. Powers works, and goes to school. She hopes eventually a degree will help her make more money, but that is years away. Powers sometimes turns to the Portage Community Center for help with food. She loves her home town, but believes leaders need to do better and add more affordable housing.
Leaders in Portage agree they need to do more. New city manager Jo La Margo said the mayor and city council are challenging him to address this issue.
“I think we could use more affordable housing. In fact, the council has encouraged me to try and attract more affordable housing,” La Margo said.
The problem is to make affordable housing projects financially feasible for developers, federal tax credits are needed. The Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) distributes that money, but it is very competitive with communities across Michigan vying for a piece of the pie. “But the actual building, construction of it, they [developers] really need those long-term tax incentives from the government. And that is only done through MSHDA,” said La Margo.
Portage has a brand new affordable housing project off Centre Avenue called Selinon Park. We met with developer Carl Kunda on site. The complex has 74 apartments, the waiting list to get in is now over 500. Kunda said finding the money to build more of these projects is the challenge. “There are not enough tax credits to go around to satisfy that need on an annual basis.”, said Kunda.
Kunda also said that Portage faces some specific challenges. Being a walkable city is one part of securing funding. The city’s lack of dense housing near shopping can be a hurdle. Selinon Park has a bus stop for public transportation right in front of it. “It would be cheaper for us to go out into the middle of nowhere and build on a green field somewhere. But if it does not have any of the infrastructure, we are basically isolating low-income and working folks, where they are not going to really thrive.”
Kunda said one of Kalamazoo County’s greatest strengths in dealing with this issue is that leaders admit it is a problem, and want to make things better. He said municipalities in Kalamazoo County are working with communities to put dollars where they will have the most impact.
“They are not just handing out checks, they really evaluate the proposals from developers to make sure they are putting the money in the right place,” Kunda said.
But acknowledging there is a problem and correcting it are two different things. In the case of Portage, the issue is expected to become even more challenging. FedEx is building a new distribution center in the city, which will add hundreds of jobs, but will also increase the need for affordable housing.
Erin Powers would like to one day be able to have company over and sit on furniture. She would also like to be able to buy a car.
“Just because someone is working very hard, and not earning as much as someone else, does not make them less of a person. The human condition is that we all want community,” said Powers.