A decade ago, a housing complex in a century-old building burned down in Muskegon’s Nelson neighborhood, leaving in its wake a vacant space where once there were affordable homes for lower-income families.
As the years went by and the city continued to develop around the vacant property, new apartment and commercial buildings rising in a downtown filled with the nearly constant hum of construction, the empty space at 380 Houston Ave. was, for affordable housing advocates, emblematic of the kind of housing that’s missing in the area: places where lower-income families could afford to remain in the city they’ve long called home.
Now, that lot, located a couple blocks from the Hackley and Hume Historic Site in downtown Muskegon, is set to again be an affordable housing complex. Work began last week on “The Phoenix,” a four-unit development overseen by Community enCompass, a nonprofit that focuses on empowering residents and neighborhoods in core city Muskegon. Meant to stabilize an area where residents are struggling to save money and housing prices are quickly escalating, as well as to help families build the credit they need to purchase their own homes, the incoming quadrex is representative of the kind of dwellings nonprofit leaders hope to see as development continues to spread in Muskegon.
“We want to provide affordable housing in a neighborhood where things are changing pretty rapidly,” said Community enCompass Executive Director Sarah Rinsema-Sybenga. “It’s important we preserve, protect and produce affordable housing.”
The Phoenix development will be finished in about two months, after which the four 800-square-foot units will be rented to tenants earning 80, 50 and 30 percent of Area Median Income—which translates to yearly incomes between $16,680 and $44,480.
The incoming development will include three two-bedroom units, and the fourth unit will be a one-bedroom that is fully accessible for individuals with disabilities. Community enCompass will accept applications to live in the new building beginning in January 2020.
“It will be affordable, and the utilities will be low in part because it’s a new building and energy efficient,” Rinsema-Sybenga said. “The idea is for people to be able to save money here and build their credit. Maybe it will be a forever home, and maybe it will be a stepping stool to something else.”
Supported by $100,000 from Community enCompass’ board of directors, the affordable housing development also includes funding from the city of Muskegon’s HOME Funds, Federal Home Loan Bank, Chemical Bank, and a couple individual donors.
The Phoenix is the second modular “urban smart home” from Community enCompass, with the first one being set in September 2019. That home, located at 1245 Fifth St., is now being sold for $162,000.
“It’s interesting for Community enCompass because we’ve always been involved with neighborhood revitalization, and now our focus is strengthening in the area of producing, protecting and preserving affordable housing,” Rinsema-Sybenga said. “The market is not going to take care of affordable housing.”
This emphasis on affordable housing is, of course, about providing a chance for lower-income families to be able to remain in the city in which they’ve long lived, and which they love—but it’s also more than that. Economically integrated communities (in other words, people making a range of incomes) provide its residents better connections to jobs, schools and civic resources, according to a 2018 report from City Observatory, a national think tank dedicated to studying cities and urban policy.
And socioeconomically mixed neighborhoods have a higher level of civic cohesion than their homogeneous counterparts, according to the City Observatory study’s author, Joe Cortright.
“They create opportunities for people to have many more interactions with people very different from themselves,” Cortright told Curbed.
With its name being a nod to the ancient Greek folklore’s phoenix, a bird that is born again after rising from the ashes of its predecessor, the new development is a story of Muskegon’s past, present and future. Born from a space once filled with the ashes of a historic building, it aims to be one of a number of affordable housing complexes throughout a city where people can struggle to pay rent. According to figures from United Way, 63 percent of Muskegon’s core city population has trouble saving money in today’s economy. Last year, about 1,200 people turned to Community enCompass for emergency help with housing.
“We provide a lot of homeless services,” Rinsema-Sybenga said. “The people coming to us might be evicted or living in a shelter or a car. A lot of these folks are working, and it may have been a health crisis that decreased their income for a period of time, during which they lost everything. You know they wouldn’t have lost everything if they had been living in a place that was affordable for them.”
“People coming into our homeless prevention program are spending 80, 75 percent of their income on housing, and that leaves very little wiggle room for other life expenses, or any wiggle room if their income suddenly goes down,” Rinsema-Sybenga continued.
While housing costs in Muskegon are lower compared to, say, nearby Grand Rapids or Grand Haven, incomes too are lower here and families are often living paycheck-to-paycheck—as is evidenced by the number of evictions in the area. In Muskegon County, 15.2 percent of the population lives at or below poverty level and there were 1,772 evictions in 2016—the most recent year for which there is data—or close to five evictions a day. The 1,772 evictions represents a 10.1 percent eviction rate, which is three times higher than the state of Michigan’s rate and four times higher than the national average.
In the city of Muskegon, where 29.83 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty level, there was a 10.91 percent eviction rate in 2016.
As families struggle to make ends meet, historically lower housing prices are now increasing as more development comes to the area—making it difficult for those who have laid down roots in the city for years to pay for rent, particularly if their incomes are not growing at the same rate as their rents are rising.
“We don’t want to discourage development; we love the investment; we love that businesses are thriving,” Rinsema-Sybenga said. “But how do you make sure it remains a city for all? Whether that’s deed restrictions or land trusts, we’re on the front end of researching this.”
“Our strategy so far has been producing, preserving and protecting affordable housing, but it’s gotta be larger, bigger than what Community enCompass can do,” she continued. “That’s where policy takes place.”
Currently, Community enCompass is looking at what other areas have done to empower residents to be able to take advantage of gentrification, as opposed to being priced out of the area in which they’ve long lived and helped to build. The nonprofit will hold community conversations in January and February, during which it will identify people to sit on a task force that will focus on “preserving, protecting and producing affordable housing” in the community, Rinsema-Sybenga said. That advocacy group will regularly attend City Commission meetings to raise the topic of affordable housing and encourage city officials to ensure that affordable housing is integrated into new development.
With the emphasis around affordable housing, Community enCompass hopes to inspire honest dialogue about residents’ experiences in the area in an effort to empower Muskegon to be a city that can support both development and lower-income families who are fearful of being priced out of their longtime homes. With the nonprofit’s recent “A City for All” film festival in June, for example, Community enCompass tackled topics of race, gentrification and housing, both here and across the country.
“There’s a lot of fear with a lot of our residents, and our staff, about what [rising housing costs] means for the neighborhood we love, chose to live in, and have been living in for decades,” Rinsema-Sybenga said. “Sometimes, though, there’s a knee-jerk reaction against gentrification, and we don’t always think that’s a healthy place to reside either.”
Currently, there’s a significant opportunity for Muskegon to be a leader when it comes to affordable housing, both in the area and the entire country, Rinsema-Sybenga emphasized. For example, with the demolition of hundreds of blighted homes over the last few years, there are numerous innovative ways that nonprofits, government officials and developers can create sustainable, affordable housing.
“Opportunities abound to create a new kind of housing on vacant lots,” Community enCompass wrote in a press release about The Phoenix. “Core-city neighborhoods, situated adjacent to downtown Muskegon’s central business district, make a perfect place to add structures that increase density and create neighborhoods full of diversity where we all want to live, work, play, and be.”
In other words: with affordable housing comes not only a chance for longtime residents to be able to remain in their home city, but for a sustainable economy that will be able to support individuals and families from across the income spectrum—leading to a city further built upon an engaged population that looks out for one another.
“I can imagine a lot more Phoenixes being built in Muskegon,” Rinsema-Sybenga said.