In 1971, Erika Loeffler Friedl and her husband bought a three-bedroom ranch house near Western Michigan University, where Erika went on to have a long career as an anthropologist. Fifty years later, retired, their kids grown, the couple lives in the same house. So when a realtor described it as a starter home, it surprised Erika.
“We brought up two children in this house and we never felt deprived or short of space,” she said.
But standards have changed. In the early ‘70s Friedl’s 1300 square feet house was close to average size, according to the National Association of Home Builders. In 2019 the same organization found the average newly-built American home was about twice as big. Meanwhile Kalamazoo, like many metro areas across the country is short on affordable housing. As Erika notes, some homeless residents are even living in tent camps.
“How did this happen? How did it get to this point?” she wonders.
And does it have something to do with an American taste for big houses? The answers to these questions are complex. But one problem is clear, said David Anderson of Kalamazoo County’s Public Housing Commission.
“In terms of deeply affordable housing, we have not been creating that kind of housing in this country for two or three decades now,” Anderson said.
Anderson, who’s also the mayor of Kalamazoo, says by “deeply affordable,” he means housing where part of the cost is subsidized.
Can’t you just leave things to the market? Well…sometimes you can, for a little while. Anderson said, in Kalamazoo during the Great Recession,
“A lot of landlords did not have their apartments full. And were perhaps willing to do a couple things.”
One, overlook blemishes on applicants’ rental records, and two, charge less rent.
But Anderson added that when the economy rebounded, those rents went back up, landlords once again got choosy about tenants and affordable housing became scarcer.
The county does have some subsidized units where the rent stayed affordable. But Anderson said even with those, “There are many thousands more families in Kalamazoo County who need affordable housing resources than there are units available.”
Some new units are getting built. For example, at the LodgeHouse in Kalamazoo, a former Knights Inn on Westnedge Avenue that’s being renovated into 60 affordable units.
Another recent project is the Creamery building in Kalamazoo’s Edison neighborhood. It’s got dozens of affordable units as well as a 24-hour daycare a model praised by Governor Gretchen Whitmer when she toured the Creamery in July.
“We know that affordable housing and childcare are two of the most important barriers keeping people from getting into the workforce, keeping people from getting ahead, and this is really a remarkable place that combines both of those fundamentals,” she said.
But financing the Creamery was no easy feat. State and local authorities, private benefactors and the builder worked hard to pull this off.
The LodgeHouse is a project of the LIFT Foundation, which has fundraised to make the renovations possible.
In fact, Anderson (who is a member of LIFT’s Board) said that on their own, builders often can’t afford to build affordable units. The rent simply would not cover the building or maintenance costs.
Here’s another problem: in the Kalamazoo area and many other communities, zoning rules limit the building of apartments.
“You’ve got single family home-zoned neighborhoods, you can’t just go into a neighborhood like that and say ‘oh we’re going to put up a, you know a 10-unit on this corner,” Anderson said.
That brings us back to house size. The thing is, while bigger houses with bigger lots take up more space, even small single-family homes aren’t nearly as dense as apartments.
While Kalamazoo is short on affordable homes, housing advocates say it’s typically not short on shelter space for the homeless. But those spaces come with rules. Some people would rather camp. Even last spring’s temporary program housing homeless residents in hotels didn’t appeal to everyone. In May, Tim Perry was living in the Ampersee Avenue encampment. He was looking forward to finding permanent housing. But he still preferred the camp to a hotel room with restrictions.
“You can’t have company or something and it’s like, that’s what I go to the motel for, to get away, you know?” he said.
Our question-asker, anthropologist Erika Loeffler Friedl says, this makes sense to her. Friedl thinks it’s not just the rules keeping campers from moving into shelters.
“What they really would be missing is their friends, is a community,” she said.
Friedl added that residents of the tent city have neighbors – people to talk to, who share their experiences. She says, in a shelter or hotel, they might feel isolated.
“And that’s the worst,” she said. “That’s the last thing they have is they can pick and choose their community.”