Affordable Housing, a Landlord’s Story 

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“How much profit is enough? There are too many property managers and owners who are gouging the consumer…”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2020 Kent County showed a population of 657,974. Of that population, about 10% were Black/African American, and approximately 8.04% of people identified themselves as having at least two races. While people of color aren’t the majority of individuals in the county, they are the most impacted by the housing system’s inadequate infrastructure and policies.

“I love my racial identity.” Cathy LaPorte’s father is Irish, and her mother is Sicilian-Mexican. “In school, I was constantly labeled ‘exotic,’ and as a child, it felt like being ‘othered.’” LaPorte’s childhood was spent largely in Grand Rapids, from a duplex in Kentwood to eventually home in East Grand Rapids.

LaPorte says that for her, race and ethnicity impacted her view on housing in West Michigan, particularly during her childhood. “When we lived in East Grand Rapids, we initially lived in a rental. It was a cozy little neighborhood, with four houses and plenty of children. There was a sense of belonging. When we moved to where my parents live now, it was completely different.” LaPorte says that the home was on a corner on a busy street, with no other houses near it.  She notes that being around the affluence of the area was both awe-inspiring and awkward, as their family wasn’t wealthy and the home in which they lived was a well-known home in East Grand Rapids. “It wasn’t easy being the poor kids and by high school, I was experiencing racism. People didn’t like my not being white.”

“I recall visiting family around Grand Rapids and the stratification of neighborhoods. You had Black, Hispanic, and White neighborhoods and not a lot of blending.” Being in spaces where there wasn’t a mix of people and cultures drove LaPorte to be intentional about that when planning where to live and have a family. She found that neighborhood with a good mix in the Garfield Park area of Alger Heights. While most in Kent County can live in the neighborhood of their choosing, including which type of housing, there are many individuals and families that select housing that’s not in the neighborhood they would choose, but it is what they can afford. For some, this means driving an extra 15 minutes to work. For others, this means finding employment that doesn’t require owning a car and, therefore, utilizing the transit system.

Becoming a Landlord

For the past 10 years, LaPorte has worn another title—landlord. “In 2012, my parents and then-husband bought a duplex together. It was already fully rented when we purchased it.” The rental property has never struggled to keep tenants, and being the landlord has had its bright moments. There are also tough moments as well.

“The holiday calls! Those are really tough. When you want to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal with family and get a phone call that there is standing water in the basement. If you don’t have a management company, it’s all on you.” LaPorte says that her partners have talked about utilizing a management company, and while that may become the reality, there are other considerations to continuing to manage the property on their own. “A management company can cost you 7% or more of what you’re bringing in. When we first bought the property, we didn’t have that kind of money. Because I’ve been the main point of contact for tenants, there are times when I would like to have a management company take over a lot of what I’m doing. But I get concerned about finding a company that would do things to the same level I would.”

Part of LaPorte’s role includes tenant evictions. LaPorte recalls that her family struggled financially often, with the emphasis on being able to pay the mortgage. “That was always the top priority, make sure that you have your housing payment.” The first time that LaPorte had any interaction with the eviction process came soon after purchasing the rental property.

“It was the first month that we owned it and we had a tenant who wasn’t able to pay their rent. We had sent out letters letting everyone know we were the new owners and where to send their payment.” LaPorte said she did everything by the book. She spoke to the tenant on the phone to get a better understanding of their situation and tried to work out a partial payment. While the tenant initially damaged the property in response to being served with an eviction notice, they did confirm to the court that they were unable to pay their rent and moved out.

What struck LaPorte at that moment was the realization that someone who had been a long-time tenant had been put out of their home. “Based on what I know now about the injustice of the eviction process, I would do it differently.” A repayment plan, helping a tenant know what resources are available, and encouraging them to prioritize their rent payments, are just a few ideas that LaPorte would try to employ, stating that the eviction process would be a last resort.

“I hope that a tenant would stay in touch with me and communicate when something comes up, particularly when it comes to their finances. I’ve had some tenants that month-to-month struggle with having their rent payments. They let me know they can pay in full but have to wait until a certain date.” Some tenants have been habitually five days late paying their rent. It’s typical for a lease agreement to include that late fees are added to missed rent payments. LaPorte believes that when tenants are struggling to pay their rent adding late fees isn’t helping, it’s punitive.

Changing the Eviction Process

According to RentCafe, an online apartment search service, over 50% of apartments in Grand Rapids range in price between $1,000 and $1,500, with the average price being $1,412. The average unit size is 879 square feet. For individuals and families who are making $15 an hour or less, the ability to maintain housing can be challenging. Those who are making just enough to cover rent, utilities, and groceries will be concerned about anything that could change their financial situation for the worse. An unexpected car repair or medical bill, and particularly a loss of income, can be all it takes for a tenant to get behind on rent and lead to an eviction.

A change in the eviction system is needed, but what will it take? LaPorte says that a “huge mental shift” is part of the solution. “How much profit is enough? There are too many property managers and owners who are gouging the consumer,” as she says that higher rent for higher profits is part of a capitalist society—getting as much as one can. “We need more units overall. We’re a desirable place, but the housing supply hasn’t kept up. The detriment is to those who are local and long-time residents who get pushed out to make room for high-end housing.” LaPorte also believes that continuing conversations with landlords like herself is important in changing mindsets. “Finding out what are the needs of the landlord and what profit you need that isn’t a detriment” to the community residents can be part of the strategic solutions to ensure stable and affordable housing.

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