The last time Lansing resident Sammy Shiffman had her own apartment was in November 2020. She couch surfed until the day she went into labor with her third child in July 2021, when she moved into Homeless Angels, a shelter and outreach program.
Shiffman bounced between the shelter's Lansing and Owosso locations throughout the year. In the late fall, she was placed in Ingham County’s Rapid Rehousing program, which ran out of funding and put her housing in jeopardy yet again.
Now, Shiffman is on the Continuum of Care Rapid Rehousing program. Through this, she qualifies to receive financial and housing support for the next two years from the city.
The experience that Shiffman and her children endured is not unique. Many homeless individuals in Greater Lansing have felt unsupported by the city programs meant to protect them from harmful situations and help them find long-term housing in their own communities.
One shelter Shiffman stayed at, City Rescue Mission Lansing, required its residents to attend a service in the chapel each day at 7 p.m. She said having to take care of her children’s needs made it hard to meet the standard.
City Rescue Mission's Senior Director of Community Engagement Laura Grimwood said because of the high demand for beds, they expect their residents to come to chapel as a way of checking in. The shelter assumes that if someone does not attend without telling the directors, they have received housing and do not require their space.
While at Homeless Angels in Owosso, Shiffman was required to complete maintenance work on the shelter's premise with no compensation. This, paired with the task of caring for her children, made her stay difficult.
Volunteer Director and case manager at Homeless Angels Owosso Shelly Ochodnicky said residents in the shelter have a chore schedule for the communal living areas. Because residents are receiving case management services without cost, she said, the chores are required.
Cardboard Prophets founder Mike Karl said homeless individuals seek permanent residence but are handed short-term solutions rather than housing vouchers from the state. The housing choice vouchers come from a federal program that assists low-income families, which works to take homeless individuals out of their situation either in shelters or in red-tagged housing — apartments or houses that are not up to code.
However, administrators of the housing vouchers are not living up to their promise of rehousing Lansing residents and instead sticking them in hotels.
In an email, Ochodnkicky said a risk that comes with staying at a homeless shelter in Greater Lansing is not being documented as homeless, delaying your ability to receive support through the city to find a permanent residence. Many shelters funded by non-profit organizations aren't required to follow the same documentation procedures as government-funded ones. This creates a potentially faulty system for homeless individuals seeking housing vouchers or other supportive resources.
“These agencies here in Lansing pay millions of dollars to protect them,” Karl said. “There are hundreds of families in hotels in Lansing right now that are in the same situation.”
Shiffman met Karl when she was experiencing these issues in the shelters and Karl was volunteering during lunchtime at Lansing's Homeless Angels. Together, they worked to place her in an apartment with a housing voucher.
However, in this apartment, Shiffman said her housing has not been held up to code.
She said she had sewage drainage in the basement multiple times and was fined out of her own pocket for cleanup. Only when a maintenance crew came to investigate the issues did they find that there had actually been tree roots growing into the sewer line; Shiffman had done nothing to cause the damage.
Shiffman will be living in this rental until April 30, as her housing choice voucher is still being processed by the Lansing Housing Commission, or LHC. After that, she's not sure what she will do.
Lansing resident Jeff Filip has also been forced to live in a red-tagged property.
Filip’s apartment flooded on Dec. 25, 2022. After two days of waiting in the flooded apartment, the LHC and his apartment owners found him a new place to stay.
When Filip was able to move to another apartment complex using a housing voucher, he found himself placed in a red-tagged complex that was roach-infested. Filip walked away from that complex and was forced to live in a hotel until late March.
“I have literally lost everything I own,” Filip said. “I cannot get anybody, not on … (LHC) or anybody. Nobody would help me with this situation.”
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While he was in the hotel, he was put into contact with Advent House, a non-profit ministry program that assists homeless and impoverished individuals. Advent House told him the program was going to help replace his furniture and provide guidance.
However, Filip said the group did nothing but stick him in a hotel room, sweeping him out of the system.
“My experience with them has been horrible,” Filip said. “I'm not the only person that I've heard say this. They talked down to you there if they would even answer the phone for one. Two: they usually just hang up on the person when they try calling for help.”
Advent House was unavailable for comment.
When he was put into an apartment only a month ago, Filip was one day away from losing his voucher time. He said he was forced to pick an apartment in a “very undesirable neighborhood” because it was all he could find in the time given to him.
City Council reaction
Because Filip lost many of his belongings and money to the flood, he could not pay the application fees for the apartment. That is when Lansing City Council member Ryan Kost stepped in to help.
Kost, a member from the 1st Ward, said he and Karl of Cardboard Prophets put their money together to pay the security deposit because Filip needed safe shelter.
Kost took it upon himself to connect Advent House to the LHC to work on Filip’s voucher and make sure everyone was on the same page with Filip's funding and needs.
Kost said the council has been on a “crusade” to tackle these issues by personally meeting with the city attorney to strengthen property code and keep landlords who don’t maintain their housing in check.
They are looking into strengthening a program in which landlords are held to cleaning up their properties. Through the program, landlords are supposed to be charged $150 every 90 days for every three-month period that the housing does not come up to code. However, there are still 300 houses still being processed because landlords have claimed they're still working on the issues.
“(We) would like to see something passed where the landlord is ultimately responsible for the hoteling because the only way we're going to get these places up to code is by telling these ‘scumlords’ we are done playing their game,” Kost said. “They're not going to get a slap on the wrist. $150 is nothing to these guys when they're spending a million dollars to get these complexes. At the end of the day, it's hurting our most vulnerable population..., low earners that we have here in Lansing.”
Kost is also looking into tax issues in code compliance, where an ordinance states that if property taxes are not up to date, landlords cannot get a rental certificate. He recently found that the code compliance manager, Scott Sandford, who retired about a month ago on a three days notice after 23 years of service, decided on his own the ordinance was not legal, which is inconsistent with those guidelines.
Kost said the council is focused on following these ordinances, keeping properties checked for taxes and overall well being.
The perspective of the Lansing Housing Commission
LHC Executive Director Doug Fleming said affordable housing is a challenge in every community. He works to not only provide affordable housing units to the area through government funds, but also the "right kind" of affordable housing with sustainable unit sizes in the most populated places in the city.
Fleming said the situation is cyclical; if an individual can’t keep up with rent, they would have to rely on a subsidized housing situation. However, if there aren’t enough subsidized units in the area, landlords will evict tenants and tenants will face possible homelessness — a problem on its own, since most homeless shelters are full.
Many turn to rent control when this problem arises, hypothetically creating a cap on rent prices when inflation continues to increase.
What Fleming finds more useful is allocated money from the government to fund affordable housing. He said the Michigan Legislature's recently passed budget is designed to lower initial debt and maintain the affordability.
However, Fleming said the timeline is lenghty. Though the multiyear process doesn't guarantee affordable housing, he said, it is better to use the government’s process over private developers.
Fleming added that this is the most supported he has felt by the city government on creating affordable housing in the last couple of years.
“That's kind of the way we've been living with affordable housing in this country for years is that we're constantly building up, but we're never building enough,” he said.
The other side of the aisle
Erica Lynn, co-founder of the People’s Council of Lansing and The Village Lansing, found that working with low-income families showed her the importance of living environments that meet basic human needs.
Lynn previously called for Fleming’s resignation as executive director in front of the LHC Board of Directors in August 2022. She said Fleming did not care about the effects of the LHC, with residents in Lansing affordable housing being “extremely unhappy” in the conditions.
She said she has found through her work that people are being priced out of their homes with rent increasing in increments up to $200 a month, lease over lease.
Lynn said the biggest issue with the city continuing to create affordable housing building plans is that no one is accountable for tracking the housing's true benefits and affordability. She said the only ones benefitting are the developers.
Lynn said the homes being built have heating and mold issues. When families bring these problems up to landlords, she said, many will simply not get a response.
According to Lynn, the city is trying to recreate Reutter Park in downtown Lansing as the central focus of housing development. For her, this decision raises the question of where the homeless population and lower-income families will go when the development starts and prices them out of the area.
Lynn said she believes the current administration, run by Mayor Andy Schor, has done a lot of harm by focusing on the economic development of the area rather than underlying developmental problems.
She said she has watched this cycle for five years — the city focuses on building its reputation rather than assisting its residents.
"Why wouldn't we want to make this the type of community where (people say)... you should definitely move to Lansing because it's amazing (and) the housing is wonderful, even if it's low income?" Lynn said. "I don't think we can say that right now."
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