There’s a regular-looking house on a regular corner of a regular Ann Arbor neighborhood that has been a symbol of growth for residents all over the city for the past 20 years. It’s nondescript — three stories, tan, flanked by a long porch — but the beauty of the house lies in this subtleness, because the lives of the tenants inside have been anything but subtle.
Of the six units that occupy the space inside this tan house, five have rotated residents over the last 20 years. These five units have held a number of people from all walks of life. There are more differences than similarities, but the biggest thing these people have in common is what brought them to Avalon Housing: homelessness.
For 20 years, Avalon has managed this commonality, working to give the homeless in Ann Arbor permanent shelter while offering support services. The non-profit has gone from the one house — six people in six units — to more than 400 people in 280 units since its birth in 1992, often welcoming individuals who would have no chance of finding housing elsewhere in the city.
Back in the tan house on the corner of West William and South Ashley streets — the first residence of the Avalon foundation — that sixth unit has stayed occupied by the same man since the birth of Avalon, the only constant in a sea of fresh faces and stories.
His name is Paul, and that regular, tan house saved his life.
“I don’t think I would have made it without Avalon, really,” Paul said.
Before moving to Ann Arbor in the late 1980s, Paul lived in a house without heat, electricity or running water for 15 years in Detroit. The neighborhood he lived in was full of ex-convicts, many of whom would wind up back in prison shortly after their release.
Paul is still missing a few teeth from that time span, the ones he lost after he was beaten and mugged four times in the city. There was also a case of attempted murder — someone who knew he was home alone broke in and tried to kill him. Paul fought him off, but realized he needed to be in a safer environment.
A friend referred him to the city of Ann Arbor, where he moved before realizing there wasn’t any affordable housing in the city. He protested and did other advocacy work before Avalon began, which afforded him his own unit and forgotten luxuries like running water and electricity — necessities he hadn’t lived with in almost two decades.
Paul has recently run into health issues, including a bout with intestinal cancer, but is in a place where he can deal with it safely — a place with heat, water and support.
“(Avalon is) stabilizing people’s lives and allowing them to get on with their lives instead of being homeless, which is just one crisis after another,” Paul said. “Even if you get into the shelter, there’s a time limit and you have to be able to get a job … (At Avalon) you can have privileges, like if you are flat broke they will give you a bag of food or take you to one of the food pantries or take you to the hospital if you need it.”
Before Avalon was founded in 1992, Paul protested with the Homeless Action Committee, a group that advocated affordable and accessible housing for the disabled in the 1990s. While his activist career has ceased since moving into Avalon, Paul hopes to work again to improve homeless housing conditions and give back to Avalon for what they’ve provided him.
“They have been real good to me, and I want to return the favor,” Paul said. “I think they care more than others, and they aren’t just doing it as a sideline. This is their main job, and they do it pretty well.”
Avalon started in the shelters, the brainchild of a board of directors that noticed a disconcerting pattern among their residents. The shelter had already made steps to become more than just a place to sleep, implementing daytime programs and two-year transitional housing. But there was still something missing.
People would use up their two years in the transitional housing and generally have righted whatever issues landed them in the shelter to begin with — challenges such as mental illness, addiction or domestic violence — but still couldn’t afford housing in Ann Arbor. They would land back in the shelters and begin to deal with the same issues that brought them there in the first place. There were solutions to short-term housing, but long-term was still surrounded by questions.
Carole McCabe, who is now the executive director of Avalon Housing, was on that board, watching people repeat the same losing cycle over and over again.
“We knew exactly why they were losing their housing — because landlords couldn’t deal with the behavior problems and the illegal subtenants and all the things that go along with unmanaged mental illness or substance abuse or addiction disorders,” McCabe said. “So, we were like, ‘Let’s find a better way to do this.’”
The better way is Avalon. Their first house opened in 1992 with six residents, Paul being one of them.
Avalon is succeeding for a variety of reasons, but its most successful implementation lies in what they do differently than every other landlord in Ann Arbor.
Formally called supportive housing, Avalon does all the things a regular landlord does — maintenance, repairs, management, etc. — but also offers support services for all their tenants. Most landlords screen out tenants — Avalon screens high-risk tenants in. They can do this because of their support services, which are run mostly by social workers. Even though the sessions are voluntary, more than 80 percent of tenants participate, and even the ones who don’t participate fully still use the services in some capacity.
“We believe that housing is a basic human right,” McCabe said. “It’s a pretty clear hierarchy of needs. If you don’t have a stable shelter, then you really can’t have a job or take care of your business.”
Avalon offers a range of services to their residents. There are some in Avalon who have both addiction problems and mental health issues, and the support services for those tenants can be intense.
Fifteen Avalon residents also need help taking their medication in the morning. Those 10 morning minutes are the difference between being able to live independently in Avalon housing and going off their meds, spiraling out of control, getting evicted and winding up in another shelter.
It’s a little bit more complicated than that for most of the other residents in Avalon, but the goal remains the same for the non-profit, no matter how high-risk or low-risk the residents are. The goal is for every resident to maintain their housing and not get evicted, and the support services are a big part of that.
“… We don’t require people to be clean and sober when they move in — we screen in people who are screened out by every other landlord,” McCabe said. “We are often the last housing option for some folks.”
There’s also the price of living in an Avalon house: Rent goes for about half of the market value on average. Average doesn’t mean everyone, though, because Avalon has a lot of tenants that are on a fixed income, relying on social security and disability pensions as their only source of income.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, an individual who pays more than 30 percent of their income towards rent is considered to be “cost-burdened.” For those residents who don’t have jobs or income besides the monthly checks, 30 percent isn’t a whole lot of money, significantly lower than even what would be considered affordable housing.
But at Avalon, giving housing to residents with that income is encouraged.
Incredibly, Avalon operates debt-free. There are no loans from the bank and Avalon owns every house and property they rent out. Often times, units are built from the ground up to adhere to specific accommodations.
Avalon has achieved this by drawing from anyone and anything they can. The money for the physical buildings comes mostly from the government whether from the low income housing tax credit program, subsidies, grants, IRS programs or a litany of other programs.
Avalon is in competition with every other human service agency for local government dollars and foundation grants, as well as private donations.
They’ve been able to make it work — growing even during a recession — but they are still quite a ways away from total financial comfort. Part of that comes from Lansing and its reluctance to dedicate a constant stream of funding for supportive housing, and part comes from a drying up of donations after the recession. Though these factors are important, the biggest funding that Avalon faces comes from the national perception of supportive housing.
Over time, supportive housing programs can save local, state and federal governments significant funds.
Example: Avalon has a first-year resident who suffers from a litany of physical and mental issues, so much so that he took a Huron Valley ambulance to an emergency room 27 times last year.
Ambulance rides are not cheap, and for a homeless person who doesn’t have any money, much less health insurance, these rides are impossible to pay for.
In the one year this resident has lived in Avalon housing, he has ridden an ambulance a grand total of three times.
“You can calculate right there the savings to the community and the health system,” McCabe said. “We have evidence of saying that if you give us a little bit of money up front to pay these social workers, that keeps people out of your system.”
“Healthcare is housing. The connection’s between all of these things — housing underpins all of these other things.”
Tax dollars do help pay for some of the social services and support systems for Avalon residents, but in the long run, supportive housing like Avalon makes a lot more sense than the current pay-later model.
It’s not here yet, but Avalon is gaining some of that trust. This year, there was a multi-year grant given out by the Obama Social Innovation Fund to organizations that help or combat frequent users of emergency health care. Four places in the entire country were given this grant: Los Angeles, San Francisco, the state of Connecticut and Washtenaw County.
“It’s because we have a good head start on that and because they like what we do here,” McCabe said. “I think we have a big future ahead of us if we can figure out how to financially sustain ourselves and convince everyone to invest more public dollars in it.”
Want an example of economically sustainable housing working? Go to the tan house and sit on the porch. Listen to Paul tell you about the meningitis he had as a kid, the beatings and robberies he endured in Detroit, the cancer that has appeared, disappeared and reappeared in his intestines and the brain shunt that doctors put in his skull to drain excess fluid.
Watch him tell you all of this with a smile on his face, cracking jokes about the things that almost killed him. He can joke because he was given the opportunity to joke, moreover, given the right to joke on his regular-looking porch attached to the tan house.
He can joke because Avalon gave him a chance.