Religious Action for Affordable Housing: Creating Community

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Creating Trust
Avalon Housing asked the City Planning Commission staff to convene several meetings with the citizens group, Avalon representatives, and the planning commission staff to open dialogue, identify key issues, provide information, and seek a negotiated arrangement. These conversations proved to be helpful. Some of the suggestions that emerged in the conversations were eventually worked into the development plans, including agreement to:

  • Increase the setback of the townhomes further away from the street;
  • Install a permanent sidewalk along the street for pedestrian safety;
  • Build up a raised berm and plant shrubs between the sidewalk and the housing;
  • Provide a clear statement of the Avalon screening process for residents;
  • Hold further citizen-information meetings in the neighborhood; and
  • Provide information on Avalon’s operation of other low-income housing sites.[6]

In addition, Food Gatherers—the owner of the proposed site—agreed to modify the size and design of the new road leading into the property to increase safety. It also agreed to limit the hours of the day during which trucks could come and go into the Food Gatherers warehouse so as to reduce noise. The entry street into the housing development was given the name, Carrot Way—in recognition of Food Gatherers’ logo—which eventually became the name of the new townhome apartment complex.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood information meetings initiated by Avalon Housing for local homeowners went on and the issue that emerged as most important to the neighbors was the screening process to be used by Avalon in selecting residents for the new rental housing development. The heart of the issue was the homeowners’ demand that there must be mandatory criminal background checks and that any applicant with a felony record must be rejected. Avalon responded by describing in detail its resident application and review process. It further indicated that it had a substantial history of pro-active management of its 145 units of rental scatter-site homes and apartment buildings that was widely appreciated by neighbors of its properties in many different parts of the city.

At the next public hearing before the city planning commission, the homeowners group proposed that mandatory criminal background checks be written into the zoning plan and that any applicant with a felony record be automatically rejected. The planning commission tabled action and scheduled another hearing for a month later. Avalon Housing staff used the interim between hearings to do further research, to have further conversations with the homeowners group, and to consult with city planning staff. There seemed to be no clear legal basis for applicants being automatically rejected if they had a criminal record. Avalon believed that approval of applicants should be based on a number of factors, including personal and housing references as well as applicant interviews. After careful review of many factors, Avalon staff proposed a twofold solution. Avalon would agree to do criminal background checks on all applicants; however, it would not automatically reject an applicant who had a felony record. Instead, it would agree to use that information as part of its overall assessment of the applicant. Further, Avalon held firm on rejecting the demand that the process for applicant screening be written into the site-plan zoning document and, instead, suggested that it be part of a separate agreement with the city. This proposed compromise was acceptable to the city.[7]

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At the final public hearing before the city planning commission, RAAH cooperated with Avalon Housing to recruit, mobilize, prepare, and turn out a large group of people from all around the city to speak in support of approval for the proposed rental housing development. Clergy, lay leaders, citizens-at-large, former city council members, a former mayor, and residents from Avalon low-income rental properties spoke with passion and with facts in favor of the new affordable housing. Their presentations were persuasive. Of the nine members of the planning commission, only one voted against approval. Several months later the city council also voted to approve the site plan and, subsequently, to approve the construction design. At the time of the final city council vote, after many public hearings at which RAAH members continued to advocate for Carrot Way, there were only a few people from the Citizens for Neighborhood Safety who came to the meeting. A number of homeowners, who were not part of the citizens group, spoke in favor of approval. After the council meeting some of the homeowner neighbors spoke with individual Avalon staff and complimented them for their outreach to the neighbors and thanked them for their efforts to create open communication, and their willingness to work out a practical compromise.

RAAH Capital Campaign Advances
The RAAH capital fund campaign was greatly helped by the final city council approval. It became evident that many individual donors, and some congregations, had been waiting to see if the proposed new rental housing could get the necessary validation from the city. Now more money began to come in, pledges were increased, and new gifts for larger amounts were made. Also, several regional and national denominational agencies to which RAAH had applied for funding became seriously interested in the project and made commitments for grants that substantially increased the funding from the religious community. Building on this new surge of credibility, RAAH made renewed efforts at mid-campaign to widen its range of communication with new congregations and strengthen its relation with congregations already committed to support the housing development. By the time of its annual meeting in June of 2004, RAAH was able to celebrate the payment of the final check to Avalon in fulfillment of the pledge for $200,000. Gifts had been received from thirty congregations, more than two hundred individuals, and five regional or national religious bodies.

The capital campaign was a demonstration that religious congregations working together can make a substantial contribution to the achievement of goals larger than anything that could be done by individual religious groups alone. The $200,000 cash investment made by RAAH was not decisive in a $5 million project, but it came in the early stages. It helped Avalon Housing use that financial commitment to leverage much larger grants from the City of Ann Arbor ($1 million), from the State Housing Authority ($1.5 million), and eventually $2 million through federal low-income housing tax credits. Further, the RAAH financial support helped Avalon demonstrate to Food Gatherers that it could pay for the land purchase in a timely fashion. Obtaining the land sale commitment was an important step in moving the housing project beyond being a vision toward becoming a reality.


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