“You see mental health challenges on the rise, and my clients ask me if the system was designed for us to fail. People are working 12-hour shifts and spending all of their money on rent…and there’s a trickle-down effect where it’s definitely an equity issue. A system issue.”
It was a sunny afternoon in March when Housing Kent met with Iryonna Hogan-Davis. Her smile is bright, and her joy is infectious. Hogan-Davis keenly understands what it’s like to struggle to find affordable housing, particularly as a single parent. That experience has fueled her passion to help others in Kent County gain access to housing.
“I grew up on Grand Rapids’ southeast side on Adams Street. My grandmother lived on Dunham Street. I had stable housing growing up. When I was eleven years old, my mom went through ICCF’s program and purchased her first home, and she still owns that home today.” Hogan-Davis said it was after college that she found out about systems when it comes to housing.
“When I was in college, I saw an ad for an apartment. I met the landlord, paid my deposit, and moved in. I was attending Sienna Heights University in Adrian, Michigan at that time.” Plans for post-college included moving to Chicago and getting married. “I got engaged my junior year and found out I was pregnant my senior year. My mom needed support after I graduated with my degree, so I ended up moving back to Grand Rapids instead.”
Based on her housing experience in Adrian, Hogan-Davis anticipated easily acquiring housing. That wasn’t the case. “I didn’t make enough money. I was an office coordinator at Paul I (Phillips Boys & Girls Club), making $10.50 an hour. Apartments required that you make three times the rent to even apply. I needed resources and when I found them, it felt like I had to jump through a lot of hoops to gain access.” While resources were available, they weren’t always accessible. Each organization seemed to have its own criteria for eligibility. For some programs income was too much and for others, she didn’t make enough.
“It was easy in college to gain housing. So, to come back to your hometown and you can’t get a place was hard.” That’s when her former cheerleading coach stepped in. Hogan-Davis shared her situation and the coach happened to have space for her and her newborn to live and pay a reasonable rent. Community Rebuilders gave Iryonna the startup funds needed for housing stability, allowing her to focus on caring for herself and her son.
Hogan-Davis’ experience prepared her for the work she does now. “I have a housing and mentoring program that allows me to help people get to a place of self-sufficiency. I’m helping the homeless population as well as helping children learn [important life skills when it comes to housing].” What she learned through experience, she is passing on to others in hopes that they can do things differently, armed with knowledge and tools. “I can relate to what my clients go through. God used my experience to prepare me for this.”
A Housing System for Everyone
The COVID-19 pandemic shined a light on the racial disparities happening across the healthcare system. Black and brown communities were found to have larger numbers of folks experiencing heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, or diabetes. Many of those individuals and families are low-income households. In some cases, the healthcare system has been a place of trauma, meaning that treatable health issues go unchecked. In others, families may be left to decide between paying for prescriptions or buying groceries, or paying rent.
What does that have to do with housing? Recent U.S. Census data finds Kent County in the bottom five counties of similar size when it comes to the gap in homeownership between black and white households, with that gap being 40 points. The problem doesn’t stop there. When looking at rental households, 46% are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% (in some cases almost 40%) of their household income on rent alone.
“When you’re dealing with so much, it’s hard to imagine different or better,” says Hogan-Davis. “You see mental health challenges on the rise, and my clients ask me if the system was designed for us to fail. People are working 12-hour shifts and spending all of their money on rent…and there’s a trickle-down effect where it’s definitely an equity issue. A system issue.”
Iryonna says that the time for siloed thinking and action has to end when it comes to housing. “We have to stop. We need to work together. There is not one person who can change the housing system alone. By working together, all of us, the investment is great. We should be asking how we’re going to fix this system. How do we provide for those who can’t afford housing? Because the perception is that if you work hard, you can pay for it. The reality is the average person can’t afford housing, working overtime to pay for the basics.”
While there are many resources available, not everyone qualifies to access those resources. “If you’re making $17 an hour, it sounds like good money, but it’s not quite enough to cover all of your expenses. And unfortunately, you will make too much money to qualify for many of the programs out there.” Oftentimes groceries, utilities, student loans, and transportation are not considered when assessing if a household can access additional support services Hogan-Davis said.
Other barriers to accessing housing include a low credit score, an unpaid utility bill, criminal history, or an eviction. Hogan-Davis says that having the right system support can make all the difference. “I know what it’s like to have someone come alongside you, give you the help you need, or just walk with you through the process. I have a client right now that is living in a hotel because they were denied housing due to some of those barriers. It can become discouraging and become a mental drain on a person.”
The Impossible Dream?
Hogan-Davis says that some of her clients have lost their dream of living in the housing of their choice. “Some of my clients don’t want to get their hopes up, so they’re not interested in vouchers. They have seen people wait years to get housing and they’re tired of being part of a system that doesn’t work.”
“Some of the people I work with have been homeless for so long that it’s become the norm. It feels lonely for them. They know there are people who think because they’re homeless they want to live like that. They don’t. There are many who go to work every day.”
Though Hogan-Davis hasn’t moved into the home of her choosing, she said that she saw the house while doing a DoorDash® delivery. “I saw it and said, ‘I want it!’ I want a beautiful home with a backyard for my family. I deserve it and want other people to believe that they do too, whatever that dream house looks like. There are barriers to me getting into my dream home, but I’m not giving up. It’s generational wealth for my children and I believe I can get there. I also want my community to know that it’s attainable for them. But we’ve got some work to do to get there!”