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From Vacant Lots to Affordable Housing: Church Members Participate in ‘Restoration Row’

From Vacant Lots to Affordable Housing: Church Members Participate in ‘Restoration Row’
View of Steepleview Apartments, from Eastern Avenue CRC.
Lee Hardy

A ribbon cutting Jan. 30 at Steepleview Apartments in Grand Rapids, Mich., marked the opening of two four-story buildings built by Grand Rapids-based nonprofit housing developer Inner City Christian Federation. “Steepleview” is an accurate name since Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church sits across the street, an anchor of the Baxter neighborhood for more than 140 years.

Members of the church teamed up with ICCF to make the affordable housing project possible.

Four of the 65 apartment units will be market-rate rent while the rest made available at affordable rates for tenants with low to moderate incomes. Seventeen of those are designated as supportive housing for adults aged 18 to 24, who have experienced homelessness or are at risk of becoming homeless.

“Permanent supportive housing is housing that comes with dedicated case work and support,” said ICCF chief executive officer Ryan VerWys, explaining that many of the young people are transitioning out of foster care into independent living. “We work with Bethany Christian Services and their Center for Community Transformation to provide those on-site services.”

Those young adults would pay no more than 30 percent of their income as rent, VerWys said.

The development also includes six work-live units on the main floor, an opportunity to be a “business incubator” said Lee Hardy, a co-manager of the Eastern Avenue CRC members’ corporation that pulled together the land for the project. “Those are units where you have business space in front and an attached apartment in back, so you can live and work in the same space ... we wanted to contribute to the economic vitality of the neighborhood as well as its residential capacity.”

Hardy and two other church members got the idea of acquiring the property across the street 14 years ago.

“We got tired of looking at vacant lots and abandoned buildings,” Hardy said.

The church members, 14 households in all, formed their own corporation—Restoration Row LLC—to pool money to buy the five lots on which the new development now sits. It took five years to acquire all the parcels, Hardy said.

“The idea was to hand them off to an enlightened developer, to do something good for the neighborhood, and ICCF was our first choice.”

Financing the $19 million project was another big hurdle that took time to overcome. ICCF worked for two years to get low-income tax credits from the state of Michigan to get the ball rolling.

“We applied for tax credits every six months,” VerWys said. “We submitted four applications, and the fourth one was the winner.”

Other funding support came from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Home Loan Bank of Indianapolis, which specializes in financing for affordable housing projects.

Once ICCF had the finances to build, it bought the lots from Restoration Row, and all members of the LLC were paid back for their investments. Then, said Hardy, “the LLC was officially disbanded, having accomplished its stated purpose.”

A plaque recognizing the members’ role in the development was presented at the buildings’ opening.

“We hope this might be a model for other churches around the country,” VerWys said of the partnership.

Space in the units is expected to fill up quickly. VerWys said ICCF has a waiting list of about 1,200 people looking for affordable housing in the Grand Rapids area.

Meanwhile, work is continuing on another housing development project involving a CRC congregation. Madison Square CRC is working with ICCF in redeveloping the building that was the original home of Grand Rapids Christian High School into 41 low-income housing units and a worship center for the church's Ford Campus, a project known as the 415 Franklin Project after the building's address. That project is slated for completion in early 2021, said Jan van der Woerd, ICCF's vice president of real estate development and management.

The 415 Franklin building was built in the 1920s and donated to Madison Square in 2015 by developer Ed DeVries, who wanted to see the structure redeveloped as a Christ-centered building and community resource. Child care services will also be offered in the building once the facility opens.

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