New House For Fair Housing

May 5, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — It’s fair to say The Fair Housing Center of West Michigan is in need of new housing. Fortunately for the nonprofit, a generous gift and a sense of community teamwork are coming together to provide a new, much-needed facility.

In December 2004, Bank One Corp. closed its branch on Hall Street SE near Division Avenue. In lieu of finding a tenant or selling the building to another bank, Bank One officials offered to donate the building to the nonprofit housing-discrimination watchdog, then known as the Fair Housing Center of Greater Grand Rapids.

After several months of deliberation, the housing center agreed to accept the gift and began the process of raising money to create a new headquarters. According to Executive Director Nancy Haynes, that would mean raising nearly $1 million.

Less than a year into the capital campaign, the organization has raised more than half of its goal, including the $340,000 value of the donated building and nearly $200,000 in grants from local foundations. The center received another $10,000 gift from Bank One, which was recently taken over by JPMorgan Chase Inc.

DVK Construction is scheduled to begin construction this month, completing renovations designed by Isaac V. Norris & Associates architects. Although Haynes admits that construction could take longer than expected, she is eager to meet a Sept. 1 move-in date.

“The facility is going to be incredible,” she said. “We want to be an asset to that neighborhood. So we’re really focusing on becoming a green oasis in the city, because it’s a pretty cement corner.”

That oasis will be green in both senses of the word. Haynes said the center will aim for the highest level of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification. There will also be extensive landscaping, including a garden area in what is now the bank’s drive-through lane.

The center’s seven-person staff will have much more room to move in the new facility. Currently, Haynes shares the only office in the center’s Wealthy Street SE suite with two other employees. There is no waiting room for clients. With just over 1,000 square feet of space, there isn’t room for much. The new building will be nearly 4,000 square feet, after the addition of a 50-person meeting room and training facility and a complete kitchen. The center will also be able to store its paper records on-site for the first time, thanks to a sizable basement.

Haynes has been pleasantly surprised by the community’s willingness to help out with the project. From a pledge by Steelcase Inc. to help furnish the facility, to an offer from Williams Kitchen & Bath to build custom cabinetry, local organizations are showing their generosity.

“A really exciting part about this is just the collaboration,” she said. “Associated Builders and Contractors took this on as one of their community service projects. So they’re going to be working with their members to get suppliers to donate materials, and their members to donate time and labor. And DVK has really stepped up. It’s just been thrilling to see how everyone has been stepping up to help us make this happen.”

Once construction is complete, a larger footprint and custom cabinets will be nice touches, but Haynes is more excited about the Hall Street location.

“It’ll be great for the visibility of the center. Right now we’re nestled snugly above Wolfgang’s. And no one knows where we are, even if you tell them,” she said.

The new facility will give the center an opportunity to strengthen its programs educating individuals and real estate professionals about avoiding illegal housing discrimination. In a given year, the center fields about 2,000 phone calls about potential discrimination. Of those, it investigates about 400 and discovers around 150 cases where anti-discrimination laws must be enforced. The center also educates around 1,000 people per year about discrimination laws. Having a facility located prominently in a disadvantaged neighborhood will also increase the community’s awareness of the housing center, Haynes said.

“We need to be in the community. We need to be accessible. And we need to be visible. This new facility will give us all of that.”   

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