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| 8 min read | by Doug Marrin, dmarrin@thesuntimesnews.com |

Faith in Action and Avalon Housing held an informational meeting on Hilltop View Apartments proposed for Dan Hoey Road in Dexter. The Feb. 15 meeting was the second of two public meetings held at the Dexter United Methodist Church for the purpose of explaining the new development and answering questions.

Executive Director for Faith in Action (FIA) opened up the meeting by giving a brief history of the organization that has led up to the affordable/supportive housing initiative in Dexter.

“We’ve been working in Dexter since 1980 and work closely with Dexter Family Services,” stated Sheri. “Over the years we really began to recognize an increased need for supportive services in a bigger way.”

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In 2008, FIA rented space for a food pantry in Dexter. Sheri explained how FIA soon began talking to the city about a permanent location for a food pantry which then led to the first conversations with the City and other partners about affordable housing with supportive services in Dexter. A collaboration between FIA and Avalon eventually formed.

“In 2018, we had the grand opening of Sharon Ann Apartments in Chelsea where Faith in Action is the primary service provider for those apartments and Avalon provides the property management,” continued Sheri. “Then in 2019, a sales agreement was reached between the City and Avalon for the Dan Hoey Rd. site for Hilltop View Apartments.”

Avalon Housing of Ann Arbor operates 292 housing units across Washtenaw County serving 780 people, 200 of whom are children. Their mission is “to build healthy, safe and inclusive supportive housing communities as a long-term solution to homelessness.” Faith in Action is a charitable organization that provides essential support to alleviate the effects of hunger and poverty in the Chelsea and Dexter school districts.

Presenters at the meeting (LtoR): Sheri Montoye, Aubrey Patino, Wendy Carty-Saxon

“So we have been in existence since 1992,” stated Aubrey Patiño, Executive Director for Avalon Housing. “We own 292 units of supportive housing scattered over 25 different sites. All of those are located in Ann Arbor with the exception of one, which is in Chelsea, and that is in partnership with Faith in Action. This would be an extension of an already existing partnership that we’ve had with Faith in Action since we entered into that development together.”

“We’re serving about 780 people throughout Washtenaw County right now,” added Aubrey. “About 170 of those are families and a little over 200 are children.”

Hilltop Description

After the introductions were completed, Wendy Carty-Saxon, Director of Real Estate Development for Avalon, gave a brief overview of Hilltop’s layout.

The apartment complex will include:

  • An 800 square-foot on-site food pantry
  • A community enter
  • A shared kitchen between the food pantry and community center
  • 24 total units all of which are townhouses or uptown flats with their own entry
    • 6 units with 1-bedroom, dedicated to veterans coming out of homelessness
    • 9 units 2-3 bedrooms, dedicated to families coming out of homelessness with supportive services provided by FIA
    • 9 units 2-3 bedrooms, dedicated to affordable housing
  • Onsite laundry facilities with the 3-bedroom units having their own washer and dryers within the unit
  • A children’s playground
  • Green features including water conservation and energy efficiency features

Tenant selection

Aubrey then spoke on how tenants will be chosen for occupancy. She reiterated that six of the apartments are going to be preserved for veterans who need affordable housing.

“Nine of the units are going to be what’s called ‘supportive housing,’” she explained. “Those are for families who need housing and supportive services. The way that we learn who those families are and bring them into housing is through a process called ‘coordinated entry.’ This is facilitated through the Salvation Army in its program called ‘Housing Access for Washtenaw County’ (HAWC). This program is where as a community, we look at any family that is experiencing homelessness. We look at their level of need and we prioritize those with the highest need into supportive housing.”

Aubrey also explained that the remaining nine units are going to be affordable housing for families who are living up to 60% of area median income. They may not need supportive services. These are folks who are often employed but underemployed.

It was also explained that federal and fair housing laws prohibit reserving the units for specific families, for example, families from Dexter only. Qualifying candidates from the screening and interview process are placed on an affirmatively marketed waitlist.

“We are committed to ‘housing first,’ which is an evidence-based approach to ending homelessness,” said Aubrey. “It is built on the premise that housing is a basic human right. It is not a reward for clinical success. Therefore, you screen people ‘in.’ You don’t screen them ‘out.’”

Aubrey also made it clear that even though that is Avalon’s philosophy, they still do state and federal background checks. Taking into consideration the background checks, the intensive interview process, and reference checks with any past service providers, Aubrey says “We know more about tenants coming into our housing than any landlord in the market knows about their tenants.”

Site of the future Avalon/FIA housing initiative, Hilltop View Apartments, on Dan Hoey Rd. in Dexter.

Safety

One of the fears opponents to Hilltop have raised is a connection between poverty and criminal sexual conduct and the proximity of the initiative to the schools. Aubrey addressed this saying,

“The other thing I’ll say because it’s been brought up time and again, but I frankly I find it stigmatizing and it’s why I haven’t brought it up. There are federal laws around criminal sexual conduct offenses and where individuals who may have those records can live. This is not a site where that is permitted. So I just want to put that concern on the table because it keeps coming up and it’s just not rooted in the facts.”

She described Avalon’s success rate as “exceptional” keeping 95% of the people brought into their housing housed. The average tenancy of an Avalon resident is 6.7 years and it is the overall stability provided to tenants that helps build a healthy and strong community with one another and with the community at large.

“Different concerns have been raised by people who’ve seen things happening at other affordable housing complexes that they aren’t particularly comfortable with,” said Aubrey. “But none of the housing they’re talking about has supportive services in place. Supportive housing is actually a way in which we help mitigate many of those risks that people have presented as concerns.”

The Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office was on-hand to speak and answer questions at the first informational meeting held Feb. 6, but they could not attend last Saturday’s meeting. Sheriff Clayton sent this message with an invitation for anyone with questions or concerns to contact his office.

“WCSO supports affordable housing initiatives in Washtenaw County including this effort in the City of Dexter. We believe this project will have a net positive impact on the Dexter community and will not present any service related challenges that are beyond the Sheriff’s Office capacity.” – Sheriff Jerry Clayton

“We at Avalon have really struggled with the rhetoric around crime and how incredibly stigmatizing it has been to listen to people rate our population as criminals,” said Aubrey. “It is simply not the case. Never in our 28-year history has there ever been an active crime committed against a neighbor originating from an Avalon housing site.”

One resident speaks

Bethany Young spoke about her life as an Avalon resident for the past 15 years. Bethany is also an Avalon employee who works in peer support helping to provide ‘wraparound services’ for Avalon tenants.

As a single mom, Bethany lived in the City of Dexter after completing residential treatment for substance use. Both of her sons attended Dexter schools. “We really loved it here,” she says.

“I was working. I was sober, but we just weren’t able to afford full rent living here in Dexter,” said Bethany. “So, after receiving an Avalon Properties housing voucher, we moved.”

Bethany told of how she has lived in sobriety for the majority of the past 15 years attending AA’s 12-step support meetings. But there was a relapse.

“I did utilize some of the Avalon services such as the after school program in the community center, parenting support, gardening, and the food pantry,” Bethany told the audience. “But for the most part, I was convinced that I could do everything on my own. I turned down the help of the social worker and other services offered by Avalon. My pride is very strong.”

Bethany Young shares her story

Bethany worked to upgrade her license as a nurse. She continued to struggle with symptoms that would be diagnosed as complex PTSD for long-term repeated trauma. She suffered from anxiety and depression. Although she worked as a waitress and then returned to nursing, things continued to be really tough financially. The increased stress triggered “a lot of health problems that hit one after another.”

“I did relapse,” admitted Bethany. “During that relapse, I had a DUI. As a nurse, I was required to report it to the state. At the urging of people I knew, I then opted to sign up for the state substance use recovery program. It is a very expensive program and it broke me financially.”

Bethany struggled to pull herself out of the ensuing depression and shame. Setting her pride aside, she described how she accepted all the help that was offered by Avalon which included regular engagement with a Support Coordinator, weekly check-ins, and one-on-one assistance.

“I am doing better,” she said. “I want to say, in response to concerns voiced here in Dexter, that every time that I was really struggling as an Avalon client, I was put on a conditional order which is an accountability thing that I agreed to. It helped me take the steps that could lead me to stronger and long term recovery. It was very helpful. I was given the opportunity to succeed.”

“I owe so much to the support we’ve gotten and the stability,” she concluded. “I now contribute and feel as if I have a purpose. I try to help others and share some of my experiences.”

Q & A

Time was given for the audience to ask questions of which the following were asked of Avalon and FIA. Questions and responses have been edited for clarity.

Is there any estimate as to how many of those units will be filled with families with children already going to Dexter schools?

There is no good way for us to know that present. That’s in large part because we have to have an affirmatively marketed waitlist. Of those referrals that will come through Housing Access for Washtenaw County, we don’t know if they’ll already be in Dexter schools or not.

With the one-bedroom units housing non-families, I’m assuming your background checks and vetting will determine if they’re good to be living that close to the schools.

The one-bedrooms are reserved for veterans. And although those veterans will be referred directly by the Veterans Administration, we will still be doing all of the background checks, interviews, and reference checks.

It’s confusing that you use terms interchangeably such as occupants, residents, and families. Could you define a little better who will be living in these apartments?

That is fair feedback. The reality is that we can only determine that there are 6 units designated for veterans. Those may house a couple or two partners. The rest of the units are for families. We do not have a predictive mechanism to tell you exactly what the family composition will look like. It is based upon an occupancy code dictating how many people can live in each of those units. Avalon units typically house families with school-age children if that helps.

I have two related questions: What are the next steps to move forward? And then, what are the actions of support that you could use from the community to move along that route?

We currently have a preliminary site plan and zoning approval from the City of Dexter. We now need the final site plan and zoning approval, and we have submitted them for that. We anticipate this being on the Planning Commission’s March meeting agenda. Then, hopefully, we will have it before the City Council at the end of March. If we get those approvals, then hopefully we’ll be able to move toward closing and begin construction in July or August.

From our perspective, the most helpful thing that people can do is to get themselves educated and then talk to their neighbors to help dispel a lot of the concerns that aren’t rooted in the facts. That would be tremendously helpful. It matters to hear from people within Dexter that you support this development. It matters to express that support to the City Council and Planning Commission who are frankly quite courageously continuing to support this despite local opposition.

How is transportation being addressed?

A lot of our clients have cars. Those that don’t have cars have family and friends who can provide rides. There is a bus stop nearby. Dexter is a very walkable community to the schools, stores, and businesses. Transportation is critical for our clients and is one of the top issues we help them work out.

You’ve spoken about the initial funding being met, but what are the ongoing costs for the City of Dexter?

When we get our funding, we have to show our funders what it’s going to cost to build the property, but then we also need to project what it’s going to cost for the next 15-plus years to operate it. When the time is up, we finance the development again if need be. There is not any local funding. Nothing not coming out of local tax dollars.

I heard recently that the opponents of this are collecting signatures to change the rules of how the city sells properties. Can you explain where that comes from and how many properties the city sells per year?

We can’t really speak to that but we know that the Mayor is really glad to take calls to answer that question.

What’s next?

With the Q&A finished, the group meeting was over and representatives of Avalon and FIA moved into individual conversations with attendees.

The final site plan for Hilltop View Apartments is planned to go before the Planning Commission for approval at their meeting on March 2, 2020, at 7:00 pm, at the Senior Center. Check the City’s website for any changes between now and then.

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