Life is grand for Dwelling Place COO

December 27, 2010
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As 2010 winds down, Kim Cross has a big decision to make. The chief operating officer at Dwelling Place of Grand Rapids has to decide whether to take part in the 2011 Polar Plunge, a frigid dip in Muskegon Lake set for February. If she chooses to take the plunge, she and her team will be defending a title.

“Last year, we won the Golden Plunger Award. We were the 2010 Olympic Jamaican bobsled team,” said Cross proudly.

Her team also took part in the plunge in 2009, with a different theme that year. “We were in grass skirts, which were blowing up over our heads, and were all Jimmy Buffet style. We will discuss this over the holidays and probably get our commitment together.

“It is probably appropriate to have started the year — well, almost — with the Polar Plunge and ended it with the Big Chill,” she said of the recent outdoor hockey showdown between Michigan State University and University of Michigan.

Cross said she has a grand life and a good career. But she added that she didn’t really plan her career; it just kind of fell into place after she graduated from college. At first she thought she would return to school for a teaching certificate. She never did that, though, because her first job was with a 294-unit apartment complex in Saline, southeast of Ann Arbor, and she liked the work so much, she began taking classes to earn her real estate license.

“Then I also got associated with the Institute of Real Estate Management, and they had property-management classes, so I took those, as well. It was really a great opportunity there because I went from being a leasing person to a property manager after they fired the previous manager. They told me, ‘We’ll see if you can do it,’” said Cross, laughing about that less-than-stellar vote of confidence she received in 1986.

Cross proved that she could do it. But while managing the property — the Riveroaks Apartments in Saline — the Muskegon native got the urge to move back to West Michigan. In April 1990, she became the resident manager of the Stonegate Apartments in Holland.

“That was the first property where I got subsidized housing experience. About a third of the apartments were subsidized. So it was a good introduction to all that paperwork,” she said.

Cross thought the owners of Stonegate were going to build a similar apartment complex in hometown, Muskegon, which might give her the opportunity to move back. But the project never happened, and almost a year from the date she got the Holland job, she joined Dwelling Place of Grand Rapids. That was in April 1991.

“I interviewed here, and it just was a really nice transition as I came in because I built a lot of community connections when I started on-site in downtown Grand Rapids,” said Cross, who has a Certified Property Management designation and has gone through the chamber’s Leadership Grand Rapids program.

“I’m in the right place where I am. I’ve had so many different forks in the road that I could have taken, and many different paths. … I guess that coming to Dwelling Place has really been a big break in terms of a career move for me. When I came to Dwelling Place, it was very small, too. It was like a baby, and so we’ve really grown up together,” she said.

When Cross came to Dwelling Place — a property developer and most likely the area’s largest nonprofit property management firm — there were only two properties for her to manage. She estimated the organization has grown tenfold since then, in terms of staff size and number of properties it manages. Today, Dwelling Place has more than 80 employees, manages 23 properties, and owns nearly 1,000 residential units.

“The sizes range from two apartments in one building to 190 in two buildings,” she said.

Dwelling Place CEO Dennis Sturtevant told the Business Journal that Cross has positively affected the lives of many low- and moderate-income households and influenced the perspectives of hundreds of real estate professionals about the importance of affordable and fair housing.

“Kim has been integral to the Dwelling Place story and its success,” he said. “Her expertise and capacity to manage so many different real-estate assets and the complex regulatory issues present in the affordable housing environment have made it possible for Dwelling Place to sustain its path of growth and impact in communities across West Michigan,” Sturtevant said.

“To put it simply, we would not be the organization we are today without her leadership.”

Sturtevant pointed out that ensuring that affordable and fair housing is available in the region is a passion for Cross — so much so that the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan paid tribute to her at its annual awards luncheon in November with its highest honor: the Fair Housing Advocate Award.

FHCWM Executive Director Nancy Haynes said Cross not only has incorporated fair housing into every aspect of her profession but also has done the same in her personal life.

“She takes fair housing wherever she goes, and she ensures that the center is included at the table to provide a fair-housing perspective on relevant issues. She works tirelessly to implement policies and procedures that further fair housing throughout Dwelling Place and the greater community,” said Haynes.

“She embraces our work and our mission while setting a great example for her staff and organization through ensuring that everyone is aware of fair housing through training, events and more training.”

Cross said she felt “very honored” by the award and that it was very rewarding to be recognized for the things she has done.

“It was great to see all of the people there that I have worked with over the years. There were people there from Dwelling Place, too. So it was a showing of a lot of support and respect. … It made me think about how thankful I am for their support over the years,” said Cross, who was honored along with Doretha Ardoin.

“It just gave me the chance to reflect on a lot of things and to be very thankful for where I am and for the people that I work with. I kind of felt that this could be one of those ‘Survivor’ episodes: Let’s walk down the beach with the people who are here,” she added with a smile.

Cross has a son, Hunter, who is in his senior year at Grandville High School. She said Hunter can’t wait for the snow to fall, and the more that falls the happier he is because he loves to snowboard. They often head out together; she skis while he snowboards. In the warmer months, they golf together.

“We do a little bit of traveling, not too much. But we’ve done a couple of Florida trips and couple of tropical trips to other islands. And he likes a lot of different kinds of music. We listen to a lot of the same music, which is surprising to me. He won’t do Jimmy Buffet with me, though. But he’s been to Margaritaville. I’ve gotten him that far,” she said with a laugh.

Besides not being a Jimmy Buffet fan, Cross said Hunter also roots for the wrong college. He is a diehard Spartan, while mom is strictly Go Blue and faithfully supports her alma mater, the University of Michigan. She said that makes for an interesting living arrangement for them in Grandville. “We have diversity in our house,” she said.

Interestingly enough, Cross spent her first term in college at MSU before deciding the school wasn’t for her. She returned to Muskegon to earn an associate degree at Muskegon Community College.

“I loved it there. It was a great campus and I was back with my Muskegon friends. But I saved the best place for last.” By that she meant U-M, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

It was in Ann Arbor that Cross started down her career path, renting her first house and getting involved with a tenants union. In her second year there, she became a resident advisor in a dorm, and she said the training she received was awesome. She said it taught her about diversity and how to work with people — important information she uses often in her current position. “Although I had no idea at that time that those were building blocks for me,” she added.

Whenever Cross has a chance, she returns to her old stomping grounds in Muskegon, a city she believes people often undervalue but one that will always be special to her.

“I still have friends there. Not a ton of them, but it still feels like home and I love to go back there and visit,” she said.

Since she arrived in Grand Rapids nearly 20 years ago, Cross has been actively involved with a number of groups related to her position. Those include the Property Management Association of West Michigan, where she was a board member for a number of years, and the West Michigan IREM Chapter, where she served as president and won the chapter-of-the-year award for outstanding progress a few years ago.

“I’ve backed off a lot of those organizations because my son is the age he is and I’m a single mom. And Dwelling Place is busting at the seams here, too. So I’ve felt like my plate is really full and I’ve not done a ton of things outside of my son, my work and my home.”

In her spare time, Cross loves to attend events like ArtPrize, Santa Claus parades and Dwelling Place’s “No Place Like Home Fashion Show” and “Music from the Heart.” She also devotedly watches U-M football, although she admits that has been a somewhat painful experience the past few seasons.

What about her immediate future?

“I really plan to just keep growing with Dwelling Place. There are so many regulations and program changes that come along, so it’s never boring. We’re getting new property-management software right now and that’s a challenge. Our staff grows as our properties grow. We’ll have some change, but hopefully not too much because we have a good team right now and I really value a lot of them,” she said.

“Personally, I’ve really made my life ‘grand’ because I live in Grandville, I work in Grand Rapids, and I have a condo that I rent out and that’s in Grand Haven. So I have a grand life, and hopefully things will continue to be that way.”

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