Seniors fight to save their gardens at Grange Acres in Haslett

‘Eyesores’ causing erosion at HUD housing complex, management firm says


Joan “Ma” Kittle, a seven-year resident of the Grange Acres senior housing community in Haslett, isn’t able to work on her small garden plot as much as she’d like to these days.

“I’m 89 years old, so when I go to work out in the yard, I only work for about three to five minutes. Then I come in the house and lay down for half an hour,” she explained.

With that said, Kittle added, those few minutes of working in her garden, which was bee-themed and featured a sign that read “Bee Happy,” brought a great deal of enjoyment into her life.

“Even the maintenance people would often come by and  holler, ‘Be happy!’ I’d also have people I didn’t even know stop and tell me they enjoyed the decorations,” Kittle said.

Unfortunately, Kittle’s garden has now been relegated to a patch of dirt after Grange Acres’ management company, First Housing Corp., issued a March 1 notice instructing residents to remove “personal property, ornaments, decorations or landscaping of any sort” by May 31. Kittle complied early.

First Housing acted on behalf of Grange Acres III/IV Nonprofit Housing Corp., the apartment complex’s owner.

David Gerchak, First Housing’s vice president, said that while many residents’ garden plots had “become eyesores,” the deciding factor was logistical issues that surfaced while his team was designing replacement retaining walls throughout the property.

“We've been investing a lot of money into it, including for the retaining walls. What we’ve discovered is that these plants, trees and bushes are causing erosion, so we’re going to have to get rid of some of that to finish them,” Gerchak said.

Some of Grange Acres’ 400 residents see things differently, however. More than 100 of them signed an April 25 letter opposing the plan. On Saturday (May 18), with only two weeks until management can start removing any lingering plants or decorations, nearly two dozen gathered in the heat to protest at the corner of Marsh Road and Hillcurve Avenue.

Susan Hughes, a six-year resident, was among them.

“I’ve been a rebel since I can remember,” she said, citing her activism while attending Michigan State University during the Vietnam War. “We even gave the finger to Tricky Dick once,” referring to President Richard M. Nixon.

Hughes, 70, didn’t think she’d ever return to the picket line again. But losing her garden, and especially her many bird feeders, was a step too far.

“I can’t tell you how important it is to go out and see some nature. The bird feeders alone kept many of the residents going during COVID. Now, by removing the gardens, they’re going to create an urban desert here,” Hughes said.

For his part, Gerchak contended that First Housing “compromised as much as we could.” In its March notice, it offered each resident three plastic replacement flowerpots to keep on their porch or balcony. They also plan to expand an existing centralized community garden, where Gerchak said residents are free to plant their own flowers and vegetation.

“We’re not trying to start a big commotion, we’re just trying to make improvements,” Gerchak said. “But these are unauthorized gardens, and some residents are acting like there’s no alternative when we actually built them the community garden, which we’ve had for a long time and are expanding.”

Hughes and other protesters said it isn’t viable for many residents to utilize that community garden as intended, however, because of its distance, which is three-tenths of a mile or farther.

“We have people that are disabled, and half the people here don’t drive. How are some of these people going to get there? They just want their little plants outside their door,” Hughes said.

Kittle, who uses a wheelchair, agreed with Gerchak that the community garden was a nice amenity — but only for residents who are physically able to make the trek.

“By the time I get to the garden, I’m tired, and I can’t lay down there for five minutes. So, unfortunately, that doesn’t help many of us at all,” she said.

When asked about those concerns, Gerchak said First Housing is looking at next year’s budget to add gardens throughout the property.

He said some residents have actually expressed support for the changes.

“A lot of them are telling us, ‘Thank you for doing this.’ But they are, unfortunately, the silent majority. There's a group of six to 10 people that are the ones who are really pushing this,” Gerchak said, adding that recent social media posts have overlooked the numerous improvements he said First Housing has made at the complex.

I used to work as a contractor for HUD, so I've seen a lot of apartment complexes, and this one is probably one of the nicest in the state,” he said, referring to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which subsidizes the property.

 “We replaced all their air conditioners and heating and fans. We come out and pick up garbage by their door three times a week. We're trying to do improvements whenever we can, but you never hear about that.”

Gerchak also noted that Grange Acres could encounter issues during state inspections due to erosion if the gardens stayed.

“They just changed the inspection protocol, too, so we also wanted to make sure we didn’t have any problems there,” he explained.

Some residents still have their doubts, though.

“Erosion 101 is that you should plant more plants to hold the soil. But, for some reason, that’s what they’re still telling us,” eight-year resident Evert Smith said.

According to First Housing’s March notice, residents are also prohibited from flying flags “beyond the outside walls of the buildings.”

“My son is 100% disabled from Afghanistan, my dad carried shrapnel in his head and his knee and my grandfather died overseas. Now, I can’t even put a flag out on holidays to honor them. It’s just cruel,” Hughes said through teary eyes.

While maintenance staff will remove any gardens or decorations that remain after May 31, resident Robert Flanders said some residents still intend to protest until the very end.

“The Meta Peace Team reached out to us last week offering to train us in civil disobedience, and we have residents who are open and willing to make human chains in front of our gardens if it comes down to that,” Flanders said.

Residents differ in their outlook. Hughes said she had “no optimism whatsoever” that the gardens could still be saved, while Kittle is still holding out hope.

“I can’t see why they won’t change their mind,” Kittle said. “We’re not asking for diamonds and gold, we’re just asking to have a little enjoyment in our lives.”

Grange Acres, senior housing, HUD, Susan Hughes, Evert Smith, Joan Kittle, gardens, landscaping, protest, picket, David Gerchak, First Housing Corp.


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