Architecture & Design, Banking & Finance, and Nonprofits

County land bank rebrands as InnovaLaB

Organization will increase focus on developing more affordable housing for 'missing middle' buyers.

June 29, 2018
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InnovaLaB
When InnovaHomes is finalized, InnovaLaB and Champion Homes will have 13 different modular home designs that can be reconfigured in about 30 different ways. Rendering courtesy Champion Homes

The Kent County Land Bank Authority recently announced a rebranding effort as a precursor to the organization’s heightened focus on developing more affordable housing, as well as delivering market-rate housing at prices affordable to the “missing middle” buyers.

The organization is in the process of changing its name to InnovaLaB to reflect on its new efforts to partner with developers and nonprofits to provide more housing at an affordable rate.

“We believe the name reflects what we want to be,” said Ken Parrish, InnovaLaB board chair. “We want to be innovative, and we want to be a laboratory for providing tools to developers … to make it easier for them to provide housing in our community.”

One of the tools InnovaLaB announced along with its name change is a modular home construction initiative called InnovaHomes, which is a partnership with the Troy-based developers Champion Homes.

Champion Homes produces prefabricated units, like mobile homes and RVs, along with the modular units InnovaLaB intends to produce in Kent County.

Dave Seales, operations manager for the developer’s location in Decatur, Indiana, said his firm has produced modular builds for single-family homes, as well as apartment complexes and hotels.

“It’s very exciting to be a part of this,” Seales said. “I don’t think we’ve ever been in anything like this.”

David Allen, executive director of InnovaLaB, said part of the initiative also would include utilizing the legislative tools the organization has as a land bank authority. For example, any property to which the organization takes title is automatically brownfield designated, and the land bank also can partner with for-profit developers to assemble land.

“We’re looking to partner with both nonprofit and for-profit developers,” Allen said. “There’s no limit to those tools.”

Allen said when InnovaHomes is finalized, InnovaLaB and Champion Homes will have 13 different modular home designs that can be reconfigured in about 30 different ways.

One of Champion Homes’ designs is a home made of four 15-by-60-foot prefabricated units, or “boxes” as Allen referred to them. Depending on how the boxes are configured, a developer could build one three-bedroom single-family home, a three-bedroom townhouse or a complex with four one-bedroom apartments.

Another design allows the upper-story unit to be offset, allowing space for a second-story deck.

“It’s a game-changer, and it’s a mind shift for the industry because you have to think in terms of the boxes,” Allen said. “These boxes can be configured multiple different ways to get a different look.”

Allen added InnovaLaB’s strategy includes shifting public discussion about land banks to consider what they, as government entities, can provide to communities.

“Too many people have this mindset when they think of a land bank, they think of Detroit. They think of Flint. It’s just holding (blighted) properties, and that’s just not who we are and not what we do,” he said. “And really, that’s not what land banks are designed to do.”

Josh Burgett, director of the Michigan Land Bank, said he believes Kent County’s initiative can be replicated by other land banks throughout the state.

The state land bank also is providing financial assistance to InnovaLaB to further spur development. Burgett said the state would only provide guidance if asked.

“David Allen and his team here have great history and experience, and I’m not sure how much help they need,” Burgett said. “Far too often, land banks get caught and consumed doing tax foreclosure work and blight elimination work, and we forget to rebuild and create value.”

Allen said the organization’s goal is not only to provide more affordable housing but also to make housing more affordable to the “middle market,” or those who may be priced out of market-rate housing but still don’t qualify for affordable housing.

According to data from the Greater Regional Alliance of Realtors, there is a definitive shortage of affordable, single-family homes in the city of Grand Rapids. At press time, the GRAR database listed 12 single-family homes priced between $179,000 and $200,000. Countywide, there were only 70 of the same home type.

“That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing,” Allen said. “We’ve actually presented this to the GRAR board and asked them to get this out to their members. So, if there are members that know developers that own lots … they can partner with us to deliver modularly.”

Added Parrish: “We want to get the word out that if you’re looking to develop in Kent County, come talk to us. We might be able to help you with some things that might be roadblocks to you currently.”

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