The East Lansing City Council will likely approve nearly $500,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) dollars to support local non-profit service organizations and public improvement projects during next Tuesday’s Council meeting (May 23).
The U.S. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has made funds available through the CDBG program to East Lansing and other cities since the 1970s. HUD requires funds be used toward support of low-to-medium-income communities. Funded projects can vary from affordable housing to domestic violence support, sidewalk improvements, and efforts to help low-income senior citizens.
In the past, the City of East Lansing’s use of the funds has involved controversial decisions, with one case even leading to the city being required to pay back $134,330 in 2018 after funds were improperly used to construct a retaining wall on the then city attorney’s private property. For over a decade, East Lansing also used CDBG funds to pay for the Avondale Square project, which wound up costing taxpayers over $5 million to build that subdivision of owner-occupied homes.
The City of East Lansing has long taken advantage of the fact that the off-campus student population makes East Lansing appear to have pockets of poverty where it doesn’t really. The federal maps don’t distinguish between genuinely low-income areas and areas dense with college students who earn little. The city tends to direct CDBG funds to the student-heavy areas because those fit the federal guidelines for the grants, using the money to do things like improve sidewalks in those areas.
At its May 9, 2023, meeting, the City Council held a required public hearing on the matter.
Matt Apostle, Community and Economic Development Specialist, spoke about the recommendations made by the Community Development Advisory Committee, a body composed of members of city commissions.
Representatives for the 2024 fiscal year’s committee included Jessica Crawford from the Commission of the Environment, Sam Larson from Housing, Liz Miller and Julia Walters from the Human Rights Commission, Adam DeLay from Parks & Recreation, Eg Wagner from Planning, Babette (Babs) Krause of the Seniors Commission, Mitchell Moore from Transportation, and Matthew Burns from the University Student Commission. (Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg served as council liaison.)
“These are people who are just residents that have some level of specialized background related to local government because they’re representatives from one of these boards or commissions,” Apostle said in an interview with ELi. “And they’re all coming together with their unique perspectives. I teach them about CDBG, we go through the whole process, they get kind of this general understanding of what the program’s about and they just get to make the decisions about what they would like to recommend to the Council to fund.”
Of the $462,406 in CDBG dollars allocated for the City of East Lansing in the coming fiscal year, only 15% can be allocated to “public services,” approved activities by nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies that serve low- and moderate-income populations.
“The idea of capping out public services,” Apostle said, “is that the federal government saw back when they first started making CDBG programs, that there was a potential for cities to just give all of their money to nonprofits [because] it makes the work of the city a little bit easier in a sense, I suppose because you were just a funder for people who were doing work. And the point of the CDBG program isn’t just to support low-income people through public services, but it’s also the infrastructure piece. Sort of the brick and mortar infrastructure is a key component of CDBG…revitalizing low-to-moderate-income communities through infrastructure is a key component of it, infrastructure and housing. So they wanted to make sure communities were paying attention to that and spending even the majority of their budgets there.”
As is typical, the advisory committee is this year recommending using the full 15% allowed to support public services.
In this cycle, 12 applicants made bids for East Lansing’s pot of money for public services.
In December 2022, Apostle and city staff hosted an informational session to benefit both the advisory committee and applicants, walking them through the deliberation process and federal guidelines. The city shared the applications of the 12 organizations vying for a block grant on its website so community members could also weigh in on the selection.
In the advisory committee’s recommendation to Council, three public services recommended to receive close to the full amount requested are the East Lansing Public Library (ELPL), Tri County Office on Aging, and a group called Grit, Glam, and Guts.
The library asked for $2,000 (the committee is recommending a $1,600 grant) for summer outreach to Deerpath Apartments at 1290 Deerpath Lane, a complex serving low- and moderate-income residents through HUD subsidized apartment waivers.
“This program will include hands-on activities for children and teens via the Library on the Go van,” said ELPL Director Kristin Shelley in an email to the advisory committee. “We will provide books, snacks, and take-aways for children and teens.”
The Tri-County Office on Aging applied for a $10,000 grant for its Meals on Wheels programming, saying that, at that funding level, it could provide “1,552 healthy, well-balanced meals for five low-to-moderate-income participants in the City of East Lansing for the fiscal year 2024.” It will receive $8,580, if Council follows the advisory committee’s recommendations.
Grit, Glam, and Guts (GGG) is a non-profit that supports girls ages 12-17 in “eliminating barriers to success, maximizing potential, empowering them to gain self-awareness, developing a healthy self-identity, and also recognizing and engag[ing] in the power of her voice.” The organization has existed in Lansing since 2011 and these funds would be devoted to creating an East Lansing chapter for up to 15 girls.
“We expect more than 50 percent of students in the GGG East Lansing chapter to identify as Black, mixed-race, or Hispanic,” the application stated.
GGG requested $5,150, with the advisory committee recommending a grant of $4,290.
EVE, Inc. applied for $25,000 to support its work in providing emergency shelter and legal advocacy to those experiencing domestic violence and sexual assault. The advisory committee voted to recommend only $9,530 because “EVE served predominantly Lansing residents” and EVE was asking for a much larger grant than they had in previous years without a description of how services would be enhanced.
East Lansing will be receiving approximately $20,000 less in CDBG funding than it did in fiscal year 2023.
Apostle said the lesser amount didn’t cause him any worry and that the number ebbs and flows, with the city receiving more than half a million dollars several years ago.
Under HUD’s rules, up to 20% of the total granted to the city is allowed to go to the administration of the CDBG block grants. Originally, the proposal was to use that full 20% to pay for administration. But, after funds came in lower than expected, Apostle reduced the proposed administrative costs by more than $3,000.
The remaining monies are being recommended for use on public facilities, infrastructure and housing.
The City of East Lansing asked for $175,000 to construct new sidewalk ramps for three intersections of John R Street between Burcham and Cahill Drives. The application claimed the area serves “several hundred to thousands” of residents and students on a daily basis.
The ramps would comply with the Americans with Disability Act, and this area qualifies for CDBG funding because students’ low incomes makes the area appear as a pocket of poverty on federal maps.
The advisory committee, however, only recommended a grant of $86,720 of the $175,000 requested for these sidewalk improvements. The committee saw the sidewalk project as less important than the improvement of Emerson Park, the only city park south of the Red Cedar River. That project was recommended to receive $124,825 of the $175,000 the city requested for it.
Various ongoing projects are also recommended to receive funds in the coming year, including the Homeowner Rehabilitation Program, a collaboration between the City of East Lansing and Capital Area Housing Partnership (CAHP). Since 2012, the program has supported the rehabilitation of 14 low-to-moderate-income homes.
This program provides up to $24,999 in an interest-free loan to income-qualifying homeowners who want to remedy housing code violations, weatherproof their homes and improve accessibility. In return, homeowners must agree their homes will not be used as rental properties for up to 30 years, leading to more stable homeownership communities.
These block grant recommendations are expected to be on the agenda for approval at the Tuesday, May 23, City Council meeting.