Downtown plan offers new hope for the homeless population

Housing Commission, CATA seek to provide housing, homeless services across from the Transportation Center


The Lansing Housing Commission and the Capital Area Transportation Authority have plans for separate projects that would transform most of a square block on South Grand Avenue across the street from the CATA Transportation Center.

The proximity to the bus station is strategic because the proposals seek to benefit homeless and low-income residents.

LHC has proposed 63 apartments above 2,200 square feet of retail space. Executive director Doug Fleming estimated the cost at $22.5 million. Most apartments would be priced for low-income tenants, but some would be market rate, he said. 

The project would occupy most of the east side of the 400 block of South Grand, which stretches north to south between Kalamazoo and Lenawee streets and west to Cherry Street. A small strip mall anchored by Baryames Cleaners would remain at Kalamazoo and Grand.

Meanwhile, CATA is eyeing the construction of an administrative building with space for homeless services on the south end of the block that the city’s old Center for the Arts — which housed BoarsHead Theatre — occupied. It would possibly have apartments as well.

Both projects, with their emphasis on helping low-income and homeless people, are strategically located across the street from the CATA Transportation Center. LHC would need to demolish buildings that were the home of Davenport University before it moved to 200 S. Grand Ave. in 2011.  CATA would build on a city-owned parking lot that replaced the arts complex after it closed about the same time.

 The housing commission project, called Riverview 220, is farther along.

“It’s gonna be the first mixed-use building in the city” of its type, Fleming said, referring to the preponderance of units priced for lower-income residents.

“It’s a model that’s been used in Detroit and Grand Rapids and a lot of other cities, but we’re doing the first one here in Lansing. We need more of that.”

Fleming said the agency is working with Chesapeake Community Advisors of Baltimore. Chesapeake, a for-profit business, has consulted on over 90 properties in 15 states, according to the company’s website, including affordable housing. 

He said that LHC and the Boji Group, which owns the old Davenport property, have signed a letter of intent for the sale. LHC would pay about $600,000.

Fleming said LHC is awaiting word from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority if the project has qualified for 9% low-income housing property tax credits, which are investment instruments it can sell to investors for financing the project.

“Riverview 220 has the current high self-score in this past April round,” Fleming said, referring to a measure called a Qualified Allocation Plan. He said it is based on several criteria, “like the location of the proposed project to medical care, grocery stores, etc., how walkable it is to other amenities and some other financial considerations.”

Four percent low-income housing tax credits are another possibility if the agency loses out on the 9% credit. 

In what Fleming calls “Phase II” of the development, CATA has asked the state to allocate $15 million for its project, which would front on Lenawee.

The new facility, which is still in the very early planning stages, would include office space, one-stop homeless assistance and possibly a daycare facility.

Bradley T. Funkhauser, CATA’s executive and CEO said the organization also wants to partner with a housing organization to place apartments above the first-floor CATA operations. 

How many CATA employees would move to the new facility is unknown, said spokesperson Lolo Robison. 

“That hasn’t really been fully nailed down yet, but certainly the majority of our customer experience team will be housed where the bulk of our customers converge. That much is certain,” she said. 

It is also unclear how many executives would relocate to downtown from the headquarters on Tranter Avenue in southeast Lansing. It is not on a public transit line, making access difficult for many of CATA’s users. 

The move comes as CATA, like many businesses and social services agencies, has seen a surge in the homeless population in Lansing. Many have no place to go during the day, when the shelters shut down, and travel the buses or hang out in the bus station. 

“We need to hit this head-on and do our part,” Funkhouser said. “I believe that we need to have what I call a triage center down in this building.”

The triage center would be a one-stop location to assist homeless residents in accessing various support services, including emergency housing, food, medical care and more. 

CATA has not always been seen as friendly to homeless people. In fact, while Lansing was being socked by a polar vortex in late January 2017, two founders of the nonprofit organization Punks With Lunch, Martin Mashon and Julia Miller, were arrested for trespassing when they were passing out food and other survival essentials to homeless people caught in the deadly cold snap. Mashon was also charged with obstructing and resisting an officer during the arrest as well. The duo was found not guilty of trespassing in a May 2019 trial in 54-A District Court, but Mashon was found guilty of resisting an officer. 

Funkhouser, who started in January 2018, said the incident was a “lesson learned” on his part. He said he realized change had to come from the top in CATA and that it has been moving to do so. 

“We are a neighbor. We are a facilitator down in south downtown of daily life. And we need to talk to people and if they need help,” he said. “We need to understand where to get that help for them.”

The arrests resulted in three reforms. Lansing Police officers are no longer stationed in the center; social service agencies like Advent House, which provides housing resources to homeless people, are working on site;  and the cafe has been shut down. This past winter, the facility was opened as a warming center, but it was quickly swamped by people seeking shelter. 

The idea for a new facility grew out of a visit to Traverse City, Funkhouser said.  

“We saw a facility up in Traverse City that was a combination of a transit center and affordable housing,” he said. “Immediately we said, ‘My God, that’s what we need to do.’ This would be phenomenal because, being a planner, and working on transit-supportive design, we could do something downtown where we are able to put in office space on the ground floor, and then possibly three stories above it of housing.”

Mayor Andy Schor and public agencies such as Lansing Economic Area Partnership, the Community Foundation, Delta Township and the Lansing Board of Water and Light supported the $15 million request in a joint regional funding request submitted to the Legislature this year. 

“CATA is an active partner to the Capital Region Housing Collaborative and looks forward to partnering with other local housing-development resources to bring to fruition our plan for affordable residential spaces with improved access to transit Services,” the document disclosed. “CATA is seeking funding for the transit portion of this project which is a single floor in the development. CATA anticipates the housing component would be funded separately by a property developer by way of a Joint Development relationship.” 

The request also sought $3 million to $5 million in additional funding for homeless assistance in Lansing. Activists have said the population has swollen by 300 percent in the last year. 

State Sen. Sarah Anthony, who represents much of Lansing and parts of Eaton County, chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“We’re aware of the requests,” she said. “But we’re still negotiating the entire budget. I am not certain what will or won’t make it into the budget. But I am advocating for a lot of exciting Lansing area projects for this budget.”



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