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Housing Incentives for Michigan Early Childhood Educators: A Win for Us All

April 27, 2022

This blog, written in collaboration with Kathy Szenda Wilson, highlights the work that is being done in Michigan to lift up the voices and needs of the child care workforce.

Kathy Szenda Wilson

Kathy Szenda Wilson has invested more than 20 years in systems building within philanthropy and community development to improve the lives of children and their families. She founded and co-leads Pulse at the WE Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. Pulse is an early childhood systems-building organization dedicated to improving child and family outcomes. In 2020 she was elected as Battle Creek’s Ward 4 City Commissioner, where she advocates on behalf of children and families within her district. She is an accomplished facilitator, coach, storyteller, and trainer. Her trademark empathy and ability to synthesize and weave together ideas and experiences help systems, organizations and individuals surface their best ideas and move forward toward their goals.

When we learned our Network’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) request for early learning educator housing incentives received the second highest rating from the City Commission, we were thrilled. But the truth is, this win was years in the making. Pulse at the WE Upjohn Institute for Employment Research leads a network of community stakeholders committed to ensuring that families with children have what they need to thrive. That includes access to quality, affordable child care. Pulse has long advocated in Battle Creek to lift up the voices and needs of the child care workforce, so we were well positioned to lead the group to this victory. Here are some of the issues we have sought to resolve through our work in general, as well as through our ARPA proposal.

Housing as a Social Determinant of Health

At Pulse, we see early educators not as a monolith but as whole people with needs that must be met, particularly if they are to carry out the important work they do. As the pandemic has shown us, the economy shuts down when they can’t do their job. Unmet housing needs impact their ability to effectively accomplish their work, which impacts the degree to which children and families thrive.

The early childhood workforce encounters housing challenges not only regarding where they live, but also if they are interested in starting child care businesses. For example, they may want to be home-based providers but, as renters, it’s possible that their landlords won’t permit them to use their homes to provide services. There may also be limitations for renters from a licensing perspective.

Ideally, both our license-exempt providers and our family, friend, and neighbor providers will take part in the incentives, which will include down payment assistance as well as rental assistance, but we still have to determine what the eligibility criteria will be. One thing is certain, however: we will continue to underscore the fact that all types of providers make up the system; if we only focus on licensed providers, we limit access for families, which impacts their well-being.

Changing Mindsets

In building our infrastructure, we have faced a two-fold challenge: 1) getting many of our child care professionals to even consider themselves business owners, and 2) helping Battle Creek’s economic development partners understand that the educators don’t have the access they need at least in part because they don’t know that they may qualify for available supports. We have found it essential to have an explicit strategy on our team to 1) understand the nature of child care business ownership, 2) provide potential business owners the tools they need to be successful, and 3) create shared metrics for ourselves, the city, and our economic development partners in order to hold each other accountable.

The Proposed Housing Incentives

The City’s ARPA allocation provides $150,000 a year for three years. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation committed to a 2:1 match and has offered to supplement this amount if we find the demand is high. We anticipate this solution will alleviate some of the financial burden on our early care and education professionals, and that it is working as a retention tool – all of which we have to track.

Many of our partners work countywide, and we don’t want to limit where folks can rent or buy, so we’re still working out those details.

Also, we’ve learned that many of our early childhood professionals are either uninsured or underinsured. In addition to the housing incentives, we plan to offer telehealth services that will provide access to health services for those who need them.

Looking Forward

It may be that our ARPA proposal was successful because of our ability to help people see how connected we all are, that when we support each other in ways that value our shared humanity and are not just transactional, we support all others with whom they come in contact. We know that our goals won’t be achieved overnight, but when they are met, their results will be tangible and visible. I’m hopeful that a year from now we’ll be able to look at data and point to the impact we’ve had on the sector as a result of providing access to these incentives. We have our work cut out for us, but there is inspiration in knowing that when you do the work well, all boats rise.


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