'What is wrong with this state?' Holland resident might leave Michigan after housing nightmare




HOLLAND TWP. - When Brent Johnson, 58, moved to West Michigan from Minnesota two decades ago, he thought: "This state is 50 years behind the times."

Johnson moved to Grand Haven with his mother in 2002.

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"We lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, and thankfully, our house was almost paid for," he said. "They bought it back in the '50s for about $12,000 and we sold it for over $100,000, and came to West Michigan because we heard about all the job creation.

"But I got here, and there was nothing."

Holland resident Brent Johnson, 58, stands for portrait Wednesday, Aug.
Holland resident Brent Johnson, 58, stands for portrait Wednesday, Aug.  

Johnson's mother died a year later. After selling the house and splitting the profit with his brother, he lived in a motel, but prices inflated to $3,000-$4,000 per month. It wasn't sustainable.

"What I had left evaporated into nothing," he said. "I had to try to find work here in West Michigan and there was nothing in Holland, so there was Muskegon or Grand Rapids."

But job after job didn't pan out. Johnson, who suffers from a mental disability, said employers didn't seem to be interested in accommodations. He found himself living out of his car, and wondering how things had gotten so bad.

"My dad taught me very well," Johnson said. "We went to church for several years until he committed suicide back in 1973. My mom did her best to raise two kids, but it wasn't easy."

In 2011, Johnson secured a housing choice voucher, then known as Section 8. Between that and his hard-won disability benefits, he was finally able to put a roof over his head - but six years of being homeless stuck with him.

"I stayed at several complexes in the Holland area," Johnson said. "One was Falcon Woods and one was Pinewood, which is up next to Butternut. That was my first real place."

When he reads about affordable housing projects in the city of Holland and Holland Township, with rental prices well over $1,000, Brent Johnson, 58, feels even more secure in his decision to leave Michigan.
When he reads about affordable housing projects in the city of Holland and Holland Township, with rental prices well over $1,000, Brent Johnson, 58, feels even more secure in his decision to leave Michigan.  

Today, Johnson lives in a different complex in Holland Township. The Sentinel has granted a request not to publish its name.

"We have new owners this year," Johnson said. "They've pushed the rent over $1,000 a month for a one-bedroom, one-bathroom townhome. When I first moved here - I actually found my original lease - it was $560 a month. Before these new owners, it was $784."

A landlord may raise the rent for tenants with housing choice vouchers, but there are special guidelines. The landlord first needs to submit a request through the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. Requests are approved as long as the rent requested doesn't exceed the rent charged for comparable, unassisted units in the same market area.

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For his part, Johnson has given up on Michigan.

"It's like this everywhere in the state," he said. "I was hoping to retire here. I've made some friends in the complex, I used to hand out flyers to stay busy - but now, there's nothing to keep me here."

When he reads about affordable housing projects in the city of Holland and Holland Township, with rental prices well over $1,000, Johnson feels even more secure in his decision to leave.

More: Holland affordable, accessible housing project takes step forward

"They're squeezing those of us with extremely low income out of the picture - completely," he wrote in an email to The Sentinel following the publication of a story about a planned affordable housing development in downtown Holland.

"I receive just under $15,000 (per) year, and the rates you quoted for these new 'low income' homes would leave me with nothing to pay my bills or much less put food on my table," he wrote.

Drawings show the proposed location of a pair of buildings on Hope Church and First United Methodist Church property off of 10th Street where Dwelling Place is planning affordable apartments.
Drawings show the proposed location of a pair of buildings on Hope Church and First United Methodist Church property off of 10th Street where Dwelling Place is planning affordable apartments.  

According to Housing Next's 2021 Housing Needs Assessment, Ottawa County is short in every type of rental housing - from low income to affordable workforce to market rate. Low-income housing is defined as $625 per month or less, and the need between 2020 and 2025 is 1,421 units.

The affordable housing project Johnson cited in downtown Holland ranges in rent from $706 for a one-bedroom for those earning 40 percent of Ottawa County's Area Median Income to $1,694 for a two-bedroom for those earning 80 percent of the API.

Organizers of the 46-unit development also hope to procure 11 vouchers for income-based rental assistance for households with an adult living with a disability.

But the disconnect, to Johnson, is startling.

"Daniel Webster would turn over in his grave," he said. "There's two different meanings for affordable housing. You might even call it a double standard. Nowadays, landlords are asking for income of two to three times rent, just to even apply. What is wrong with this state?"

In early August, Johnson got word he might finally have found a new place to live - and he's not looking back.

"The West Michigan area was something I liked as a child, but as an adult, putting it bluntly, it sucks worse than a broken vacuum cleaner and I can't wait to leave."

- Contact reporter Cassandra Lybrink at cassandra.lybrink@hollandsentinel.com. Follow her on Instagram @BizHolland.

This article originally appeared on The Holland Sentinel: Holland resident talks leaving Michigan after affordable housing nightmare

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