If you drive along North Street in Kalamazoo, you may notice a particular house sitting on a corner lot — a large three-story home with plywood boards covering many of its windows, the uncovered windows broken and open to the elements. A sign reading KEEP OUT hangs on the front door and on the plywood nailed to the front of the house. It’s hard to look beyond the structure’s chipped, faded paint to see the remnants and history of a home that once stood tall in a neighborhood that housed a plethora of beautiful dwellings. Instead, this house is a shadow of its former self, an example of urban blight and a sad reminder of the importance of maintaining historical neighborhoods.
Urban blight can be a contagious thing, embodied in deteriorating and abandoned homes and buildings as well as vacant lots with trash, high weeds and grass. Social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling explain this phenomenon by invoking the “broken window theory,” a theory that says one broken window has the power in any type of neighborhood to lead to more vandalism and more broken windows until the area has many broken-down homes. “One unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing,” they wrote in a 1982 article in The Atlantic.
Pam O’Connor — a historic preservation consultant and founder of the O’Connor Fund for Historic Preservation in the city of Kalamazoo, which is administered through the Kalamazoo Community Foundation — understands the importance of minimizing urban blight.
“Helping homeowners in making critical repairs is how we can combat the ‘missing tooth’ syndrome,” she says. “When a house has to be demolished because its owners could not afford to get their water heater fixed and it floods, not only do people lose their homes, but their street and neighborhood take hits too. If it happens again in that same block, the negative effect on the neighborhood multiplies.”
Much of Kalamazoo County’s housing stock is more than 50 years old, and many of those homes fall within historic districts that have specific standards for structural updates and changes, according to the Kalamazoo County Housing Plan, released by the county commission in July. Those rules add costs or complications for owners, many of whom have low to moderate incomes, according to the report.
That’s why, in 2001, O’Connor established the O’Connor Fund for Historic Preservation — to provide assistance to those living in older homes in Kalamazoo so they can stay in their homes and ensure that the houses are preserved. Now the fund is making its first-ever gift to Community Homeworks (CHW), a local nonprofit that aims to help low-income families maintain safe homes by assisting with home repairs, both financially and with labor and installation. Through CHW’s Critical Repair Program, the $10,000 direct gift will help at least five families whose older homes are in need of repairs, providing funding to hire contractors and purchase materials for work ranging from furnace and boiler repairs to critical flooring and porch repairs.
Kaylen Humes, deputy director of CHW, says the goal of the gift is in line with what CHW does: help fill the gaps for those struggling to make essential home repairs. Humes notes that the people who are at the greatest financial disadvantage are often the ones most likely to be hit with code violations for their homes, ranging from faulty wiring to lack of water.
“Code violations often serve as nothing more than a ‘poor tax’ on a society that is already knocked down, and only adds to their problems,” Humes says. “What we provide is basic human kindness. Everyone deserves to feel safe in their home, whether it’s having heat in the winter or running water.”
CHW offers a variety of services, from financial help for basic home repairs to in-person and virtual workshops on maintaining and repairing homes. CHW also has an on-site “store” where homeowners can purchase necessary items at cost, such as tools and furnace filters.
CHW also partners with other area organizations, including the Stryker Johnston Foundation, the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region and the Upjohn Foundation, to maximize the financial-aid sources that homeowners have at their disposal.
“The average annual income for the typical household that seeks out our assistance hovers around $23,000,” Humes says. “This income barely gets a family through the needs of home ownership and certainly doesn’t allow for any catastrophic damage or needed repairs that happen in homes that are 50-plus years and older. Add to that an unstable economy which triggers lower levels of donations, and the result is a multitude of families falling more and more behind.”
Humes works alongside CHW Executive Director Chris Praedel, who has been with the organization since 2020. Praedel, who is also a Kalamazoo city commissioner, appreciates what the gift will do for some of the constituents he serves.
“The grant will enable us to preserve historic structures and neighborhoods while simultaneously providing homeowners and families health and safety repairs when they have nowhere else to go,” Praedel says. “This will ensure historic homes will exist for another 100 years or longer, and homeowners can remain lifelong homeowners.
“While I’m free from financial stress, I realize that’s not experienced by everyone, and I’m just thankful knowing that we are able to help enrich people’s lives one home at a time.”
For O’Connor, seeing the fund she started 20 years ago finally being utilized is gratifying. “When we created the O’Connor Fund in 2001, I knew it would be a while before we could actually ‘do stuff’ while we waited for the fund to grow,” she says. “CHW’s Critical Repair Program is like a trifecta of best preservation practice. It literally saves older homes, and the carryover effect saves streets and neighborhoods, and, most important, it vastly improves the lives of the people it serves.
“2022 will go down in my personal history as nothing short of life-changing — for making a decades-long dream finally come true with a partner like Community Homeworks,” O’Connor says.