Habitat for Humanity of Kent County, Michigan

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BackgroundGrand Rapids Snapshot

Located on the Grand River near Lake Michigan, the city of Grand Rapids, Mich., is a major metropolitan area with a population greater than 1.3 million. In the late 18th and early 19th century, Grand Rapids grew as a fur trading center, and by the mid-1800s it had become a hub of furniture and automobile manufacture. The city has a large, densely developed downtown surrounded by established residential neighborhoods featuring historic housing stock.

Although declines in the American manufacturing sector have hit Grand Rapids in recent decades, the city maintains an industrial and corporate base, and has experienced economic growth stemming from the development of large-scale medical facilities. Nevertheless, home foreclosures have persisted during the recent economic decline, and vacancy remains a problem in some neighborhoods. 

The Affiliate

Habitat for Humanity of Kent County, Mich., (HFHKC) was founded in 1983 and has built nearly 300 houses since then. Michigan’s top-producing Habitat group, HFHKC was honored as “Affiliate of the Year” in 2007, the same year it committed to pursuing LEED certification for all construction projects—new builds and rehabs alike.

Spurred by community groups that wondered why the affiliate was building in cornfields while so much housing stock was available in Grand Rapids, Habitat of Kent County took on its first Neighborhood Stabilization Program-funded rehab project—a bungalow located on Griggs Street SW—in August 2009, and has since completed approximately one dozen rehabs. Scarcely a year later and with a group of committed partners, HFHKC is involved with a neighborhood-scale rehab and infill project in the local and National Register Wealthy Theater Historic District, located east of downtown, and continues to pursue rehabs in other areas.


Site Selection & Acquisition

Habitat for Humanity of Kent County acquires rehab properties through partner organizations (Dwelling Place, a local affordable housing nonprofit), HUD, the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) and through First Look, a Fannie Mae program that enables potential owner-occupants and organizations like Habitat to have an advantage in submitting offers on Fannie Mae-owned foreclosed properties. In September 2010, Fannie Mae announced that nationally, 34,000 homes had been sold to owner-occupants and public entities working through HUD’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program.

Habitat purchases rehab properties for anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000, depending on location and condition. The affiliate estimates that once the houses are obtained, rehabilitation costs—including lead and asbestos abatement—are roughly similar to new construction costs. 

The Wealthy Heights Theater district appealed to Habitat in part because of the strong and long-standing involvement of community groups there, including the East Hills Council of Neighbors and the Wege Foundation, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, Dyer Ives Foundation, all based in Grand Rapids. 


In the Wealthy Heights Theater District, Habitat has partnered with Dwelling Place and the City of Grand Rapids on a neighborhood revitalization project that includes rehab, infill construction, and street improvements. HFHKC’s role in the partnership is to complete five rehab and four new infill houses for a total of eight new housing units, all located within the historic district. Habitat is constructing a community garden within the district so residents can grow their own food. Dwelling Place will construct three infill homes, and the City of Grand Rapids is implementing a series of street improvements that will connect former dead-end streets and provide access for emergency and service vehicles. Rhonda Baker, the City’s historic preservation specialist, noted that the effort is completing the original neighborhood plan and restoring the feeling of a street wall—filling in gaps in a block that had been compromised by demolitions and losses to fire.

306 Donald Place, SE, Grand Rapids, before rehabilitation. This is one of four rehab projects located in the Wealthy Heights Theater District.

Credit: Habitat for Humanity of Kent County, MI

Representative of the neighborhood’s character, the rehab properties are single-family homes dating from the 1880s. Because the modestly-detailed Victorian wood frame structures were built as workforce housing, Habitat’s rehabilitation projects further contribute to continuity in the neighborhood’s history. Rehabilitation efforts include restoration of wood siding, rehabilitation of original wood windows (where they remain), and roof and foundation repair. To address interior deterioration and maintain a tight thermal envelope, important for LEED certification, the houses will be stripped back to their original framing.

Section 106 Review

While the first two Wealthy Heights rehabs are privately funded, because federal funds will be applied in the remaining projects, and because the district is listed in the National Register, Habitat will have to work with the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to undergo the “Section 106 Process”.  Named after Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, the consultation is designed to ensure that federal funds will not be used to the detriment of nationally significant historic resources.  Habitat and the SHPO will work to mitigate any potentially adverse impacts to the integrity of the district caused by intervention there.  In order to reduce delays, any Habitat affiliate hoping to use federal funds in a National Register historic district should contact their State Historic Preservation Office in the earliest planning stages of a project.   


In order to achieve preservation goals, Habitat Director of Construction Operations Chris Hall said that his goal is to get volunteers that can do a high level of work. “We always look for somebody who has an ability and can contribute. We have a lot of folks that are wonderful craftsmen and women but don’t have a lot of work to do, so we encourage them to come work on our sites during the day. We’re looking for people in transition in life to come help…we need that expertise.”

LEED Certification & Sustainability 

In 2007 Habitat for Humanity of Kent County committed to achieve LEED certification for all construction projects. Experienced with the LEED system but challenged by the need for energy efficiency in 100-year-old homes, Habitat has worked with Ferris State University on energy diagnostics for the buildings, and focused on reducing inefficiencies while retaining original windows and cladding. “It’s a great challenge for us,” said Chris Hall. “We look at it as an opportunity. If we can do it well and teach others in the community, we’re ahead of the game. If Habitat can do it, anybody can.” 

One of the affiliate’s four new homes in Wealthy Heights will be Michigan’s first Habitat net-zero energy home, which will provide its occupants with nearly a $0 energy bill at the end of the year. Although an older home will be demolished to make way for the net-zero project, the bold new structure passed review by the city’s historic preservation commission and features design elements that are compatible with the historic district. Habitat and the City of Grand Rapids Historic Preservation Commission will continue to work together to develop infill designs suited to the neighborhood. The infill homes by Dwelling Place, which Grand Rapids Historic Preservation Specialist Rhonda Baker described as “compatibly differentiated,” will also seek LEED certification.    

Preservation Neighborhood-Wide

Chris Hall noted that the Wealthy Heights project is only the beginning of Habitat’s weatherization program. In addition to earning LEED certification for the houses it is rehabbing, the affiliate plans to work with other neighborhood homeowners and renters to make existing homes more energy efficient. “We would like to be able to touch other homes in some way through weatherization, a fresh coat of paint. Being historic, they need to maintain siding and porches. This seems like a nice place to offer a fresh coat of paint. We’re working in a neighborhood where we can’t use vinyl products, so it’s an opportunity to bring color because the vinyl palette is limited.  These are the things we get excited about,” said Hall. “They’re individual homes but we look at the entire context of the neighborhood. There’s history there. We don’t look at an individual home without thinking of how it affects the rest.”               


Grand Rapids’ Wealthy Heights partnership has brought renewed attention and economic activity to a depressed neighborhood. Aspiring to complete the original neighborhood plan while conserving local character and bringing dramatic sustainability gains, the undertaking has given Habitat for Humanity and its partners an opportunity to geographically concentrate impact. United with Dwelling Place, the City of Grand Rapids, and a dedicated group of sustainability and design experts, the affiliate has demonstrated the potential of preservation, green building, and affordable housing to work together in the service of a place and the people who live there.

“I see us doing rehab in the future,” said Chris Hall. “We’re committed.  It’s in the blood. It’s a good life skill.” 

Photos courtesy of Habitat for Humanity of Kent County.