A Home on the Hill

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“It adds stress and anxiety…if I spend money on something I need, I wonder if I am messing myself up for later in the month.”

Imagine for a moment your ideal home in Kent County. What does it look like? Where is it located? How challenging would it be for you to live there? Most of us could answer those questions somewhat easily. But not all residents in Kent County are able to do so.  For some, the barriers to being able to live where they want can be many and varied. How can there be a change in the housing system so everyone can live in the neighborhood they choose?

On a snowy and blustery February afternoon, Nyesha Pieske took a seat on the orange couch at the Heart of West Michigan United Way to talk about her experiences. While every story is different, and Pieske’s housing journey has had many turns, she shares insight into what community support and system changes could help her have the place that will be home to her.

A current resident of Grandville, she works as a waitstaff at a local eatery, spending six days a week there. Pieske knows what she needs to earn in tips daily to meet all her financial obligations each month. The economy has made her job somewhat precarious and it’s hard to know if the necessary hours will come through. A four-hour shift may turn into an eight-hour shift if the restaurant gets busy or a co-worker becomes unavailable. Or if things are slow, it could mean fewer hours which means lower tips coming in.

“Every day I’m checking my finances to see what I’ll need to make to pay all of my bills,” Pieske says. “I don’t make horrible money, but considering the amount of time I spend, I don’t make good money.”

Pieske lives not far from where she works, which was a major reason for selecting the location. She has a one-bedroom apartment with a yard for her dog. While she loves her place, it’s not home.

Where is home?

Growing up, Pieske lived “up on the hill” across from the Medical Mile in Grand Rapids. Her earliest memories include Lookout Park where she spent time playing. “If I could live anywhere in Kent County, I would want to live back there. My best memories are there,” Pieske said. “I would have a big Victorian house. It has always been a dream of mine. And a yard for my dog.”

What makes this dream a challenge to achieve? According to Pieske, it’s stability—making sure that she can make ends meet, pay all of her bills, and actually create savings to move forward on the path to homeownership. Sometimes even paying for the basic necessities has been a challenge.

“It adds stress and anxiety…if I spend money on something I need, I wonder if I am messing myself up for later in the month.”

Pieske’s struggle with making ends meet isn’t new. She left her previous apartment because she was falling behind on the rent. Before the landlord filed for eviction, she moved out, paying what was owed, which left her housing record in good standing.

Income can be a barrier for renters when determining where to live in Kent County. The employer’s capacity to pay higher wages allowing families and individuals to spend less than 30% of their monthly household income on housing has not kept pace with the cost of living, which means that their housing is affordable, and they aren’t cost-burdened. Currently, 48% of renters in the county are cost-burdened. All it takes is an unexpected medical bill or auto repair for a family to fall behind in paying rent or utilities, which leads to added stress, anxiety, as well as mental and physical health challenges.

While looking for a new place to live, Pieske was staying wherever she could—crashing with friends, living in her car—a mashup of living situations that eventually connected her with Michelle VanDyke.

Michelle VanDyke is president of the Heart of West Michigan United Way. “I met Michelle when I was homeless and living in my car. She’s been with me the entire time, even through my failures. She’s been the only person who’s been there.” Pieske said that the support from Michelle has helped keep her going, knowing that there is someone in her corner, cheering her on and helping her up when she needs it.

Finding a Place

After moving out of the apartment, it took eight months for Nyesha to find her current space in Grandville. And even though she didn’t have an eviction on her record, there was a lot she had to do before she could move in. “I had to get a co-signer for the first three months, to prove that I could handle the rent.” While the monthly rent is $950, she had to come up with $1,250 for the security deposit and had to have renter’s insurance, which is an additional $30 per month. This doesn’t include the utilities, gas for her car, car insurance, cell phone, or groceries.

“It would have been helpful if I had been educated on housing and finances. Nobody taught me about having a lease, why your credit is important; even knowing where to get certain documents,” Pieske said. “They would tell me that I needed to bring a particular set of documents and I didn’t know where I was supposed to get them.”

Nyesha said that her experience with the housing system so far has been fraught with a lack of follow-up, not having accurate information on available programs that she qualified for, and some in the system making assumptions about her. “People assumed I was lazy or disinterested in learning.”

Moving Forward

Despite the challenges and setbacks, Pieske said that there are things that can help her move toward her dream of that Victorian home on the hill. “Classes for people who are getting on their feet to figure things out, like a budget class. If it’s not taught at home, where do you learn it?” “I spent hours on YouTube© videos to learn.” She took classes in finance as well and notes that she is stepping behind others because she started late even understanding the need for the information.

One day, Pieske is hoping to buy a home and, hopefully, up on the hill near Lookout Park. While it may feel a little too out there for her currently, she said, “No one I know owns a home and if they do, it’s not their ideal home. I want to go for owning a home.”

What keeps her looking toward a brighter, better future is her outlook. “I’m not where I want to be. I’m doing better than I have in the past but I’m not fulfilled. I need to do things differently than what I saw in my family growing up, so I can have something different.” Pieske said, “It’s a mind game. I had to change how I looked at it. I had to move from ‘I didn’t get this’ to ‘I survived this.’ You can keep going! It might take a minute to figure it out, but I’ll get through it.”

Author’s Note: Nyesha’s housing journey is one of many with similar circumstances in Kent County. While various program offerings and training like financial literacy courses can be helpful, they don’t automatically translate to the removal of barriers within the housing system. These barriers include racial discrimination, income requirements, credit history, criminal history, and more. Housing Kent is working with organizations, both private and public, nonprofits, and individuals to make a collective impact on the housing system in Kent County. We’re working to increase affordable housing, dissolve homelessness, and eliminate racial disparities in Kent County.

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