United Way conference focuses on affordable housing options
By Brandon Schreur | on December 17, 2019 | The Daily News
BELDING — Leaders from Montcalm and Ionia counties gathered at Belding High School on Thursday morning to talk about ALICE.
ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) is a term for households that earn more than the federal poverty line but less than the amount needed to cover the basic costs of living in a given state.
Hosted by United Way Montcalm-Ionia Counties, the conference gave the nearly 70 people in attendance some insight as to how ALICE and affordable housing can have direct impacts on local cities, townships and governments.
United Way Montcalm-Ionia Counties Executive Director Terri Legg kicked things off with an explanation as to why her organization is so concerned about affordable housing in the first place.
“The United States government defines affordable housing as all the costs for utilizes and rent/mortgage at 30 percent of a house’s gross income,” she explained. “Decent, affordable housing is important to families because it fulfills the basic human need for shells, it reduces stress toxicant and infectious diseases, it frees up funds within the family that they can spend on healthcare, quality daycare and food for their families and it contributes to significant economic impact, including increase in local purchasing power, job creation and new tax revenue.
“As Grand Rapids continues to grow, its housing stock has changed. You now have million-dollar condos where an affordable apartment once stood. If people cannot move west, where are they going to come? Right here, to our county. Montcalm and Ionia counties are both a reasonable commute to the city and very affordable … if you can find anything. That means that more people are coming to our areas without us having a place to house all the current residents, let alone the commuter community.”
According to Legg, that’s led to an increase of working homeless individuals living within Montcalm and Ionia counties.
“If we, here in this room, don’t take an active stance at looking at our economic stance as a community and start proactively addressing this issue so we can figure out how to attract employers paying more than $20 an hour, we’re going to see homelessness in our region increase in the wrong direction,” she said.
Legg handed things over to United Way Ottawa-Allegan President Patrick Moran to break down some of the statistics involved with ALICE.
Moran began by explaining the useful applications of ALICE and why, in some cases, the people identified as ALICE are in just as difficult of a situation as those who are below the poverty line.
“The poverty level concept was created in the 1960s and has only undergone one major revision in almost 50 years. It tries to create a number for federal assistance that averages Belding, Manhattan, Ferrysburg, New Orleans, etc. It’s really hard to come up with one number,” he explained.
“ALICE families are the ones who receive the least amount of support in the county, but the ones who need it the most. I’ve had people tell me that they’d rather be in poverty because it meant that certain things were guaranteed to them, while nothing is guaranteed by the government for the ALICE population. That’s not the kind of community we want to build or one we want to bring businesses into.”
According to United Way’s data from a household survival budget in 2017, a single adult needs to earn $10.52 in order to cover the basic cost of living in Michigan.
That number quickly rises, however, when children enter the equation and extra income is needed for daycare or education. A family of two adults, one infant and one preschooler, for example, needs to have a cumulative hourly wage of $30.64 to cover the cost of living.
Across the state of Michigan, 43 percent (1,664,606) households make less than the basic cost of living and fall below the ALICE threshold.
“There is good news,” Moran commented. “We have low unemployment, and wages are rising. That’s really exciting. This is not a problem of corporate greed, where they’re just sucking all the wages for the front line. Wages are rising in most areas that we’re looking at. The bad news is that 61 percent of jobs still pay below $20 an hour, and two-thirds of those pay less than $15 an hour.”
Moran took the state’s average numbers and compared them to the data they collected from communities within Ionia and Montcalm counties.
According to Moran, 43 percent of households within Ionia County are below the ALICE threshold, while Montcalm County came in at 49 percent.
With the median household income across the state of Michigan being $54,909, Ionia County’s is approximately $52,000, while Montcalm County’s came in at approximately $44,500.
“We’ve drilled down to the municipal level of this and can tell you where each municipality falls,” Moran explained. “The lowest municipality in Ionia is at 29 percent, while the highest is 58. In Montcalm, the lowest is at 38 percent below the ALICE threshold and 62 for the highest in the county.”
“We call that segregation,” he continued. “When you’ve got one (municipality) at 38 or 29 percent that’s neighboring another (municipality) at 58 or 62 percent, we have effectively segregated the incomes in our communities. Because we talked about how ALICE also causes segregation based on ethnicity, we’re segregating our communities — I’m not going to say whether it’s deliberate or accidental. If we’ve allowed that to happen over the past 50 years, or if someone else did it and we inherited it, it’s our responsibility to solve it.”
The problem, Moran articulated, is that there is no simple way to solve such an issue. Whether it’s because of a lack of available resources or the complicated nature of the problem itself, there’s no easy fix in creating a community that can directly cater to the ALICE population.
Moran was hopeful, however, that local municipalities and governments will come together to develop solutions.
“Everybody should have the opportunity to reach their full potential. Some can’t do it alone and need a little help. Some need a lot of help. If we don’t stand in the gap for those individuals, who will?” he asked.
Further understanding the problem
Following separate housing-related presentations from Kelsey Perdue and Julie Cassidy of the Michigan League for Public Policy, Lee Adams of the Upjohn Institute and Luke Forest of the Community Economic Development Association of Michigan, Small Business Association of Michigan President Brian Calley briefly touched on realistic ways to address affordable housing issues.
“Having a community that works well for the people that are already there should be job number one,” Calley told those in attendance. “I hope that you find some comfort in this because that leads to a lot of fewer unknowns. It’s hard to develop a strategy around attracting people in when you don’t know those people.”
Understanding a community’s needs also means understanding the job market’s needs, Calley explained, which relates to finding skilled employees.
“The number one concern in nearly every factory across the state, right now, is around talent and talent attraction,” he said.
In order to find that talent and meet the other needs of a community, it requires government bodies to look at the bigger picture — something Calley says is easier said than done.
“The hardest part to keep in mind is that the place you are is not likely going to be the center (of activity). In other words, if I’m Belding and I’m thinking about what I need for Belding, if I think that Belding is the center of the universe, your analysis is probably starting off in the wrong place. You’re part of a region. People behave according to that region.
“If you ignore the fact that one of the most dynamic and innovative growth-oriented markets in the entire United States is just to the southwest of here, you’re going to miss out on what the real drivers are,” Calley added. “People don’t live their lives according to township and county boundaries the way that we, in government, typically think they do.”
Calley encouraged everyone to take the time to look at what kind of people might be looking for housing in a community before rushing into any decisions.
“Abandon the notion that you know anything about what is needed on the front-end or what the most severe needs of a community might be,” he said. “You might be surprised.”
With Dave Riley of The Right Place and Alieen Waldron of the U.S. Department of Agriculture following Calley with their own presentations, Legg ended the event with a few reminders of her own.
“In Montcalm and Ionia counties, with ALICE numbers increasing, we have to take a stand at some place, and we have to figure out how to dial back those numbers,” she said. “How do we get higher wages into our community? How do we have economic growth that’s going to keep us prosperous?
“By working on housing, looking to see what we have and need, it will help us make some changes that might bring in more employers with better wages than under the $17 (an hour) mark.”