Dwelling Place is a local nonprofit organization that creates supportive low to moderate income housing in the Grand Rapids area.
The mission: To create affordable housing, essential support services and act as a catalyst for neighborhood revitalization.
Dwelling place owns and opporates over 1,000 units of residential rental housing as well as over 30 commerical spaces. The majority of this housing is located in Grand Rapids Michigan focusing on the Heartside neighborhood and Wealthy area. However Dwelling Place also owns and opporates housing as far away as Whitehall, Hesperia and Rockford.
1980-1988 Dwelling Place of Grand Rapids, Inc. is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) community development corporation, which was formed in February of 1980 as the culmination of a study completed by a task force of churches and nonprofit organizations in the Heartside neighborhood, immediately south of the downtown area of Grand Rapids, Michigan. A local church, Westminster Presbyterian Church, helped to create the Center City Housing Task Force, the precursor to Dwelling Place, out of concern for potential development to the south of the downtown area into Heartside and, the anticipated displacement of lower income people who lived in many of the older buildings and hotels in this area.
The original bylaws for Dwelling Place required that the Board membership come from those founding churches and nonprofit organizations in the neighborhood. This was a great source of passion for the founding of the organization, but also later turned out to be a contributing factor in the demise of the organization because of the limited pool of expertise that was present on the Board to deal with real estate development and property management issues.
The first director of Dwelling Place, Charles Calati, had extensive previous experience in human services management and some significant experience in real estate development. He managed to acquire, using public funds and some donations, a number of properties in the Heartside area, several of which were eventually renovated for housing for low-income people. Unfortunately, a significant number of the properties that were acquired very early in Dwelling Place’s history were not renovated initially and, therefore, produced no income. The buildings, however, were expensive to maintain as there were costs for insurance, taxes, and basic maintenance incurred by simply owning those properties. Dwelling Place found itself struggling with trying to survive on very slim profit margins from the few housing projects that it was operating, and the limited number of donations it received from the neighborhood churches. A strategy for partnership between Dwelling Place and Community Mental Health that evolved in the early 80’s helped to address the impact of deinstitutionalization on increased homelessness, as well as the financial administrative shortfalls of Dwelling Place. In that partnership, Dwelling Place became the largest mental health contractor in Kent County, providing housing to individuals being released from hospital care by either owning or leasing group homes throughout the county. This was a departure from Dwelling Place’s original mission that focused on the Heartside neighborhood specifically, but it allowed Dwelling Place to generate administrative fees from the operation of these homes to maintain a development staff.
The first Director left in 1984, and was replaced by an individual who had more experience in the mental health field than in the area of real estate. In part, the selection of this individual was caused by the growing focus of Dwelling Place on services to people with developmental disabilities and with mental health needs. To many in the community, it appeared that the original focus on the neighborhood was being lost by the consumption of such significant energy for the mental health programs. Meanwhile, all of the properties which Dwelling Place still owned were requiring increasingly larger amounts of its discretionary funds to simply keep these properties stable until they could be renovated. Within several years, the Community Mental Health offices began alleging that Dwelling Place was diverting some of the mental health funds intended to provide services to help prop up these shaky real estate ventures in the neighborhood. While there was no direct evidence that any financial mismanagement had occurred, an agreement was reached with Community Mental Health to discontinue the contract to provide these mental health services in the community. The programs and group homes Dwelling Place managed were then spun off to two newly formed nonprofit organizations in the community, one focusing on people with developmental disabilities, and the other on individuals with mental illness.
About the time that this had occurred in 1987, Dwelling Place saw its staff total diminish from over 150 employees to just three people. The executive director contracted hepatitis and went on medical leave, and the organization was left virtually adrift with little direction. The Board of Directors of Dwelling Place, seeing that the organization was in serious crisis and mired in debt, formally approached the local United Way organization to ask that they review the condition of Dwelling Place to determine, from the community’s point of view, whether or not Dwelling Place should close its doors or reorganize.
United Way formally conducted that study in 1988 with many leaders from the community, including representatives from foundations, business, and the public sector. A series of findings and recommendations were made when the study was completed. In short, those findings lead to recommendations that Dwelling Place reorganize, that it take time to focus on establishing a viable mission, and contract with a for-profit property management firm to administer all of its residential properties until such time as it could complete an internal analysis and establish its goals for the future. Recommendations also suggested that Dwelling Place should recruit an executive director for the organization who was familiar with Grand Rapids, with many of the funding sources, and who had some experience with an organization in Dwelling Place’s condition.
1989 - 1990 The individual that the Board recruited and selected was Dennis Sturtevant, who is the current Chief Executive Officer for Dwelling Place. He began his employment with Dwelling Place on January l, 1989, charged, at first, with preparing a management plan consistent with the recommendations made from the United Way study. Several of the foundations agreed to provide financial support for Dwelling Place during the first year and a half while that reorganization was to occur to support the two or three staff positions remaining at Dwelling Place.
The management plan, which was finalized in March of 1989, incorporated internal goals and objectives, external goals and objectives, and long-range planning goals. The internal goals were established as the highest priority for the organization to review its mission at that time, and determine its relevance and clarity for the future. Management goals were also adopted to determine the suitability and quality of the existing personnel policies and procedures within the organization, record keeping systems, and accounting systems for Dwelling Place. Goals were also adopted to review the existing Dwelling Place Board composition against different sets of criteria that would likely enhance, or possibly even impede the quality of agency governance. The bylaws were reviewed to determine their perceived strengths and deficiencies for possible adaptations. Goals were established for long-range planning to develop a format through which that process could occur. The long-range plan also included a goal to develop the means through which the financial integrity of Dwelling Place could be permanently secured and through which the qualitative and quantative capabilities of program services systems could be evaluated. Because Dwelling Place owned a number of properties, it also established a goal to develop some form of utilization plan for those properties, and to review the potential benefits for Dwelling Place to eventually take over management of its own properties.
The external goals that Dwelling Place adopted at that time were focused on restoring public confidence and the financial integrity of the organization. External goals also required that Dwelling Place evaluate where coordination and collaboration occurred well and where it did not. Finally, the external goals called on Dwelling Place to evaluate the potential and need for other forms of housing in the community.
This entire management plan was implemented in 1989. A status report was mailed to all of the funding sources and organizations involved in the United Way study in the fall of 1989 to report on progress being made towards achieving the goals in the management plan. In the following year, 1990, a long range, three-year strategic plan was adopted by the Dwelling Place Board after nearly nine months of intensive planning and review.
1991 - Present Strategic Planning has become an important component of Dwelling Place operations since that time. Every three years the Dwelling Place Board and staff commit to a rather extensive process, usually covering six to nine months, to review its current condition, the current environment it works in, and establish goals to address change that will occur for Dwelling Place over the following three-year period of time. That process has incorporated random surveys of residents to benchmark changing resident attitudes toward Dwelling Place management efforts. Dwelling Place has also used focus groups with residents, funders and other stakeholders in Dwelling Place programs to search for feedback on the quality of services offered by Dwelling Place and to seek creative ideas for changes that can be made within the Dwelling Place organization to better serve the community.
In 2001, Dwelling Place owned and managed more than 750 units of housing and over 100,000 sq. feet of commercial space with twenty or more commercial tenants. In 2007 the Dwelling Place had increased that amount of housing to well over 1,000 units of residential housing and over 40 commercial spaces. It now operates with a multi million dollar annual budget and employs over 80 people, manages all of its own properties, and maintains a highly skilled staff licensed and certified in real estate development and property management. It has also evolved to create new administrative positions within the organization. The CEO is currently a licensed broker, as well as having a master’s degree in social work. The Chief Operating Officer, who supervises all of the property management, is a licensed broker and also a certified property manager (CPM). The Chief Financial Officer has a masters in business administration and has established an internal audit system within her department to ensure that Dwelling Place is not only fiscally sound, but also in compliance with the various regulatory requirements of federal, state and local financing.
The process of change and growth for Dwelling Place has been ever evolving. Even since 1989, Dwelling Place has developed real estate projects that have not performed financially. It has learned that a good idea generates passion among the staff and Board, but that every good idea should be tested for feasibility by engaging experts, including attorneys, accountants, tax specialists, bankers, and others experienced in real estate development, to ensure that the good idea will not bankrupt the Dwelling Place organization.
Dwelling Place currently has several properties that operate with significant deficits, which the organization subsidizes on an annual basis. It expects that within the next several years, it will be able to initiate some restructuring strategies for those projects that will improve their financial performance. In the meantime, it operates these programs, expecting losses on an annual basis, and is constantly looking for other sources of income to offset those operating losses. Frequently, those resources have come from development fees from new projects, contributions and/or profits made from the leasing of commercial spaces.
Dwelling Place has learned much about the value of building a team of experts in real estate development which allows it to be very creative when new programs are created by the federal, state and local government, when new forms of tax credits become available which help to generate equity for commercial and rental projects, and to ensure that all of the legal and financial risks in undertaking a project are well known before embarking on these projects.
One example of its ability to adapt was its creation of a 501(c)(3) affiliate. Heartside Non-Profit Housing Corporation (HNPHC) was created shortly after legislation was enacted at the federal level, placing priority for funding with community housing development organizations. Dwelling Place’s 21 member Board was unable to comply with the part of the regulations that required that one-third of the CHDO Board members must be recipients or low-income beneficiaries to be considered as a CHDO. It, therefore, formed a new organization from its existing Board, to create a seven member Board for its CHDO, comprising the several low-income beneficiaries who serve on the Dwelling Place Board, plus the Executive Committee of the Dwelling Place Board. Heartside Non-Profit Housing Corporation is an arm of Dwelling Place, but still qualifies as a recipient for these federal set-asides.
Few changes in this evolution occurred without some conflict. For example, in the very first few months that the current Chief Executive Officer was employed with Dwelling Place, he proposed the development of a transitional housing program in one of our vacant buildings in response to the need which had been identified in the community, and the availability of federal funding for much of the capital and operating costs for the program. Because of the past experience of the Dwelling Place Board with real estate development, there was an immediate negative reaction to accepting this recommendation. The Board was fearful that the community would judge that Dwelling Place was again “going off the deep end to bite off more than it could chew”. There was also a serious concern about the impact of a program like that, detracting from the fundraising efforts of Dwelling Place’s other programs. A transitional housing program designed to serve women and children is a far more attractive candidate for donor dollars than Dwelling Place’s single room occupancy hotels that serves primarily single men. The director explained to the Board that such a project was important to help reshape the image of Dwelling Place as a viable organization in the community. The Board reluctantly agreed to support the proposal, and the Liz’s House Transitional Housing Program has now grown into several transitional housing components in several locations, providing intensive case management services, not only to Dwelling Place programs, but also to a transitional housing program operated by the Public Housing Authority. That small crisis and conflict has generated more participation and involvement from the community in the examination of housing issues for the homeless than perhaps any other program in the city of Grand Rapids. It also did not seem to have any type of negative impact on fundraising efforts for Dwelling Place.
The second source of stress for Dwelling Place in that period of time was reflected in its decision to begin to manage its own properties again. There were concerns in the community about the desirability of Dwelling Place taking this responsibility on when, for several years, the for-profit property management company had seemingly been managing those properties with very positive effect. The Chief Executive Officer felt that it was important for Dwelling Place to move in this direction because of the limited control it had in the community with its properties. In order to best serve residents in the building, the director felt that it needed to manage its own properties. Over many months, when residents had conflicts with property management, there were numerous incidents where Dwelling Place administration felt that a problem or a conflict between residents and property management could have been avoided had property management handled the matter differently. It was difficult to challenge the property management company, as it was perceived at the time that Dwelling Place had little credibility and no experience in such matters.
Therefore, as a means to move in that direction at a pace that would be acceptable to others in the community, Dwelling Place agreed to assume property management responsibilities for two of its properties, both of which were not very attractive financially to the for-profit property management firm. Dwelling Place Inn, an 87 room SRO, and a family residential property of 16 units, Calumet Flats, were assumed by Dwelling Place for property management functions. The person hired to manage those two facilities is now the Chief Operations Officer, with her CPM and broker’s license at Dwelling Place. She has grown with the organization and has more than 11 years of experience working for Dwelling Place. She has also been the driving force behind Dwelling Place’s eventual resumption of property management of all of its properties, which occurred several years later.
From a strategic standpoint, the Chief Executive Officer of Dwelling Place has viewed the development of human resources within its organization as a challenge but also as a critical factor in its success in delivering quality housing services. To that end, as the organization has grown, the Chief Executive Officer formed a management team which included all of those individuals who have a significant control over various facets of finance, property management, social services, maintenance and/or security services within the organization.
It has also placed a high priority on training and participatory management to ensure that all of the necessary incentives, in addition to salary and benefits, are present to help staff feel that they are in control of their positions. Except in a crisis or emergency, the Chief Executive Officer rarely intervenes in a property management decision. That kind of authority and responsibility for decision-making is passed along to the various sites, as well, limited only by legal and/or financial constraints. Each property manager is given a tremendous amount of latitude to make decisions for their own property, within the parameters of their own budget, with the expectation that the financial performance and resident satisfaction will be the primary measures of their performance.
As Dwelling Place continues to grow, it anticipates that it will own and manage over 1,000 units within the next two years, given the kind of development that is currently in its pipeline. To accommodate that kind of growth, the CEO has asked his management staff to prepare a plan to identify how the organization and their departments must change to be prepared to own and manage 1,000 units of housing.
A technology committee has been formed, comprised of staff that have been provided extra training and support to become “resident experts” on technology issues. This committee advises the CEO and management team on the purchase of technology training, hardware and software, to become more effective and more efficient in housing development and property management.
In 2005 Dwelling Place rehabilitated a 20,000 sq. ft. historic building as office space to house its administrative staff. The offices are located at 101 Sheldon Blvd provide ample room for offices, conferencing, meetings, technology, etc.
The style of management that Dwelling Place has adopted is one based on the inevitability of change. Dwelling Place does not expect to avoid conflicts or crises, but it does hope to have a system in place that can manage these crises and conflicts as they occur. We are now called on by other nonprofit and neighborhood associations throughout West Michigan for assistance in developing projects. The success of these new collaborations and Dwelling Place’s capacity to adapt to growth will undoubtedly be linked to its success in growing and supporting the human resources charged with carrying out Dwelling Place’s mission and vision. Experience has prepared Dwelling Place well for that inevitability.