Why Personal Narratives are so Persuasive – and How to Make Your Narrative Especially Compelling

It’s one thing to read a statistic that 50% of renters in a neighborhood are housing voucher recipients. It’s another thing to sit across a dining room table from one of those renters and hear her frustrations with the lack of viable housing options and how she felt trapped in this particular neighborhood where she worried about her kids’ safety. 

Both pieces of information – the statistic and the woman’s story – ultimately pointed to the same broader issue: the housing voucher system was reinforcing segregation and contributing to pockets of concentrated poverty in neighborhoods that had already experienced significant disinvestment. As I reported in 2019 on the factors that fueled this trend and explored potential ways to balance the local housing market, I was struck by the importance of bringing together a variety of types of information in order to explain this complex situation well.

Personal narratives are a vital part of how we make sense of the world around us. Journalists often refer to this as “putting a face on an issue,” knowing that people relate to people more than facts and figures. And there’s more than conventional wisdom backing up this approach: A whole body of research points to what makes personal narratives an especially persuasive form of communication. 

Research shows evidence alone can be persuasive, if a few key factors are in place: a credible messenger, citing sources of information perceived as unbiased, and tailored framing of the information to the audience to make the facts seem new and directly relevant to their money, time, and other resources. 

But the path to persuasion changes when we shift from analytical, evidence-based claims to conveying information through narratives. 

With narrative messaging, people don’t lead with the same degree of resistance they would bring to an analytical argument attempting to convince them of something – especially if they have preconceived opposition to the idea. When engrossed in a story, we’re more likely to accept the beliefs and themes subtly presented and allow those beliefs to shape our attitudes, compared to a case for or against a hot-button issue. 

It’s hard to argue with someone’s personal experience. 

The academic term for this persuasive effect is “narrative transportation,” the experience of being transported – mentally and emotionally – into the world of the story. All narratives are not created equal, and research offers insights into what elements make for an especially “transporting” story. 

The story needs to have a relatable narrator or characters, a cohesive plot, vivid imagery so the audience can visualize what’s happening, and plausibility – the sense that these people and events could exist, even if we’re talking about a fictional story. 

If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class, these elements – character, plot, setting, descriptive details – probably sound familiar. Good storytelling is good storytelling, whether you’re a researcher trying to understand what type of messaging is most likely to persuade or a writer trying to hone your craft. 

For me, there’s a certain magic that happens when the principles of persuasive communication meet good storytelling. It’s why I’m passionate about helping people tell their stories well and finding a platform for a diverse set of perspectives to guide how we approach complex issues.

Do you want support in shaping a personal narrative?

I offer one-on-one writing coaching and narrative building workshops, which help participants develop the skills to share their stories in meaningful ways as op-eds, personal essays, blog posts, or advocacy statements.

How to Create an Effective Communication Plan

Want to learn more about what goes into a strategic communication plan? I’ll send you a template to get started.

Read More

What is ‘Strategic Communications’? And Why Do You Need a Plan for It?

Why I Want to Amplify Stories from the Margins 

Hi, my name is Lauren. I’m a writing coach, strategic communications consultant, and founder of Lauren Slagter Strategic Communications and Stories from the Margins. I facilitate writing circles, provide editing support to create high-quality written content, and advise on communications strategy for organizations that serve marginalized groups.

I believe when we’re tackling complex social issues, we need to draw from all available sources of expertise, including — and especially — people whose lived experience gives them a first-hand understanding of the systems that so many of us agree are broken. Stories from the Margins is an effort to ensure the stories of marginalized groups have a platform, and I want to share more about drew me to this work.

Read more: What is ‘Strategic Communications’? And Why Do You Need a Plan for It?

I’ve spent my whole life consuming, collecting, and creating stories. One of my earliest storytelling ventures involved pounding on the sticky keys of my grandparents’ typewriter, chronicling the adventures of a mouse named Molly who lived on the shore of Lake Huron and befriended animals in the woods. My literary influences at the time — I was probably 8 years old — included “Stuart Little” and “The Borrowers.”

I’m drawn to the power of stories to connect us, to help us make sense of the world around us, and to cultivate empathy by giving us a glimpse into what life has been like for someone else.

I’m fascinated by the mechanics of good stories, eager to deconstruct and try to reassemble them until I understand what makes them tick. And I’m drawn to the power of stories to connect us, to help us make sense of the world around us, and to cultivate empathy by giving us a glimpse into what life has been like for someone else.

Lauren Slagter: woman with dark shoulder-length hair, black jacket, standing with arms crossed.
Lauren Slagter

I studied journalism at Grand Valley State University and decided to make a career of writing other people’s stories. Upon embarking on my first reporting job at a small-town newspaper, I was surprised by the stories people wanted to tell me as long as I was holding my little reporter’s notebook. I was allowed to ask people about their finances, their kids, their health, their sexuality. I asked them about their dreams and challenges, what factors influenced the decisions they made, and whether they had any regrets about the outcomes of those decisions. I learned so much from listening to those stories, and I always took seriously the fact that people trusted me to be their messenger. 

Journalism taught me storytelling could be a public service, and I worked hard to present people’s experiences in a way that contributed to our collective understanding of an issue. 

I spent eight years as a journalist, winning public service and enterprise reporting awards from the Associated Press and Michigan and Indiana’s press associations for my coverage of education, housing, and poverty issues. Then I transitioned to a different style of storytelling, working in communications at the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions initiative. For the past three years, I’ve translated academic research on the causes and consequences of poverty into actionable steps for policymakers, journalists, service providers, and community organizers. 

From watching how some of the nation’s leading poverty scholars approach their research, I gained a better understanding of the ways broad systems and public policies shape our individual and collective stories. I learned how decades-old stories continue to influence the education, housing, and job opportunities available to us today. 

I learned evidence alone isn’t always persuasive. You need a savvy strategy to make your point relevant to the people who can do something about it. 

I read the research on which interventions show the most promise, and I learned evidence alone isn’t always persuasive. You need a savvy strategy to make your point relevant to the people who can do something about it. 

As I delved deeper into the world of strategic communications, marketing, and how to elevate experts’ opinions in public discussions, I realized there isn’t always a good mechanism for including the stories of marginalized groups in conversations with decision makers.

When tackling complex social issues, we need to draw from all available sources of expertise, including — and especially — people whose lived experience gives them a first-hand understanding of the systems that so many of us agree are broken. 

With Stories from the Margins, writing circles are a first step in empowering people to develop their personal narratives and reflect on their experiences. In addition to facilitating writing circles, I provide writing coaching and editing support to prepare writing circle pieces for publication as op-eds, blog posts, or personal essays. And I offer strategic communications consulting on how to build personal narratives — which research shows are especially persuasive — into a broader campaign to raise awareness of an issue, advocate for change, or highlight your organization’s impact. 

I’m not doing this work alone. I’m interested in collaborating with organizations that serve marginalized groups, communications strategists, journalists, activists, creatives, and storytellers of all kinds. 

Here are four ways we can connect: 

  1. Email me at bylaurenslagter@gmail.com to set up a time to discuss your communications needs and project ideas. 
  2. Sign up for my newsletter for practical tips on storytelling, strategic communications, and working with journalists.
  3. Join the Stories from the Margins community on Instagram and Facebook
  4. Write with me at the Finding Your Voice Writing Circle, which meets monthly on Zoom. 

Together, let’s tell better stories. 

What is ‘Strategic Communications’? And Why Do You Need a Plan for It?

Often when I tell people I work in communications, their response is along the lines of “OK, so … what does that mean?” I get it. “Communications” is a broad term, and we all spend our days communicating with numerous people in a variety of ways. So what does it actually mean to specialize in communications work? 

For me, it means I’m paying careful attention to messaging — word choice, framing, and calls to action. I’m thinking about the intended audience of the messaging: what is important to them, and where do they turn for trusted information? I draw from research on the types of messaging that are most persuasive and “sticky,” and I follow best practices for the most effective ways to deliver a message. Good communication is about ensuring impact matches intent and conveying information in a way that is useful to your audience. 

“Strategic communications” is the big picture version of this work. It refers to how your organization communicates its mission and positions itself as an actor in society. This high-level strategy brings alignment to your other communications activities — like internal communications, public relations, media relations, marketing, and social media — to ensure your efforts send a cohesive message that advances your organization’s mission. 

This saves you time, money, and effort, because you only invest in communications projects that help you meet your goals.

Strategic communications plan tips and examples

A strategic communication plan includes an in-depth analysis of your target audiences, using market research to understand their existing attitudes about your work and what motivates them. These insights inform messaging that clearly conveys the value of your work to each group and motivates them to take action to support your cause. 

If you’ve ever struggled to come up with content to fill your website and social media pages and wondered how to tell the story of the work you do, a strategic communication plan can be the roadmap that gives you direction. 

Or maybe you’re sharing plenty of content, but you’re not sure if the pieces add up to a cohesive message or if your output is reaching the people you want and having the impact you intend. A strategic communication plan can help align your communication efforts, and the plan establishes clear communication objectives and identifies metrics to gauge whether your messaging is reaching the right people at the right time.

If you’re curious about what all goes into a communication plan, I can send you a template to get started.

I specialize in communicating about poverty issues, especially related to education and housing, and I’m interested in working with organizations that serve marginalized groups to help center their clients’ perspectives in their communication efforts. If you’re ready to talk about how a strategic communication plan can elevate your organization’s mission, advocacy campaign, research findings, or upcoming event, I’m here to help

Notes from 2020

Things to Do in Captivity

Pace the room and look out the windows. 
Watch spring’s warmth slowly green the grass and call buds from the barren tree branches.
Greet birds on their northerly migration. 
Glare at the neighborhood cats making themselves at home in your flower beds. 

Laugh with your partner, cook with your partner, fight with your partner. 
Wonder why you chose this person as your partner, because wouldn’t this captivity be more bearable if it was yours alone? 
Weep with gratitude for how safe you feel with your partner’s arms around you. Make love to your partner. 
Talk until you run out of things to say to each other then say them again. 

Make lists: of meals for the week, movies to watch, books to read, things to buy on that distant day when you will venture to the store again, places to travel when the world becomes safe. 
Scraps of scribbled lists meant to bring order to the chaos and direction to the emptiness of the days will soon cover every surface of your home. 

Reach for music, books, art in any form. Dance and sing and draw and write.
Creativity is our link to an outside world that once contained something beautiful. 
Creativity is our only hope of returning to that place someday. 

Wander around your yard.
Dig your hands into the soil, dirt beneath your fingernails as you plant tomatoes and flowers whose names you’ve already forgotten. 
Take in deep lungfuls of the sweet air, fresh with the smell of the earth opening to receive the morning rain. 
Out here you can move instead of think. 

Sit with your dog. 
The small weight of his soft head on your leg smooths your jagged edges. 
The simple pleasures he pursues in a day — a nap, a meal, a walk around the neighborhood— begin to seem profound. 

Stare at the mirror for hours.
Until you’ve memorized every mole and wrinkle on your face, every dark corner of your soul.
Until you can’t stand to bear witness to the messiness of yourself anymore. 
There is nothing to do but be present. 

Inspired by “Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale” by Dan Albergotti, featured in Laurie Wagner’s wild writing course.

This Poem Cannot Discover the Vaccine

This poem cannot discover the vaccine. 

This poem cannot reopen the restaurants and gyms so people can make a living. 

It cannot deliver masks and keep us protected.

This poem cannot give you a hug, no matter how much you need to feel the weight and warmth of another being in your arms. 

This poem will not post on Facebook to shame the people who don’t agree with it. 

It will not show up at the capitol with a rifle to demand things be different. 

This poem will not reopen the schools or supervise your children.

It cannot pass a relief package, send you a check, pay your rent, or extend your unemployment benefits. 

It will not hord the toilet paper, and it doesn’t stand on the Xs in the grocery store checkout line. 

This poem will not bomb your Zoom meeting or make an excellent point with its mic on mute. 

This poem will not stay 6 feet away, no matter how wide a berth you give it or how many dirty looks.

It will not wash its hands and it refuses to thank healthcare workers. 

This poem doesn’t play by the rules of our “new normal” or any normal.

This poem exists outside the pandemic. It rises from a path through the woods at dawn, as slices of sunlight filter through the trees and disperse little clouds of mist hovering around the highest branches, where solitude doesn’t feel like isolation. 

Inspired by “What This Poem Will Do” by Anne Haines, featured in Laurie Wagner’s wild writing course.

9 Things to Know About Helping in a Pandemic

  1. We have to pass out the food on the sidewalk. People can’t congregate and share air in the community center, so we carry heavy boxes of food to the folding tables set up outside. 
  2. There are too many volunteers, armed with masks and plastic gloves. We breach our six-foot barriers as we mill around waiting to distribute meals and homework packets since the schools abruptly closed. We are eager to do anything that feels like helping or anything that interrupts our new state of lockdown. Mostly we can do nothing. 
  3. Cars line up before the distribution shift starts. Parents pull forward and roll down their windows, their voices muffled by masks as they tell us how many kids they need to feed that week. We count out the plastic grocery bags, each holding seven days’ worth of Pop-tarts, sandwiches, fruit cups, crackers and milk cartons. 
  4. The bags are much smaller than bags of seven days’ worth of my meals would be.
  5. Hundreds of meals are gone in an hour. We pile the grocery bags into their cars, fill the lap of the kid buckled into the passenger seat, cover the floorboards in the backseat, and load up the trunk. “Thank you,” they say. “Have a blessed day,” we say. 
  6. The teachers helping pass out meals sometimes break the pandemic rules and lean into a car to hug a kid.
  7. Fewer volunteers show up as the weeks pass, but there are still too many of us because fewer parents arrive at the new distribution times and locations. We duck behind the cement pillars in front of the high school to get out of the chilly April wind and wonder if there are hungry people who don’t know we are here or can’t get to us. 
  8. Between cars, we talk about podcasts we like and who’s been laid off by the shutdown. One woman debates whether to attend the funeral of a relative who died from COVID-19, knowing her loved ones could spread the virus when they gather to mourn. 
  9. People pull in with their back seats already piled high with meals from other pick-up sites, and they tell us they need more because they’re feeding a daycare or a neighborhood. We count out the bags. We are not supposed to ask questions. “Thank you,” they say. “Have a blessed day.” 

Inspired by “9 Surprising Things Worth More Than This Shimmering Metal” by Hannah Norman, featured in Laurie Wagner’s wild writing course.

You Can’t Have it All

You can’t have it all but you can have an afternoon of kayaking with your parents, paddling across the glass-flat blue water sparkling with the sunlight that finally broke through a hole in the clouds.

You can’t have it all, but you can have protesters fill the streets, children with small fists raised, crowds chanting for justice in the wake of another Black man killed by police. 

You can’t have it all but you can sip wine in a chair pulled up by the bonfire with your brother and sister-in-law, watching the dogs chase each other down the sandy beach while the day’s last golden light fades into that distant line where the sky meets Lake Huron. 

You can’t have it all, but you can have a president who condones white people marching with rifles to demand their right to a haircut and threatens military violence against Black people marching with bullhorns to demand their right to not be killed with impunity. You can have endless social media outrage and people more concerned about the rights of the murderer than the rights of the innocent. 

You can’t have it all but you can listen to your grandmother tell stories from her childhood while she offers you snacks, and you can hug her extra tight when you tell her good-bye.

You can’t have it all but you can have a speechless broken heart for the pain, grief, unrest, division and racial strife in our country. 

You can’t have it all but you can have all this in one day. You can pray for healing. 

Inspired by “You Can’t Have it All” by Barbara Was, featured in Laurie Wagner’s wild writing course.

Thank You

A string of lights wraps around the front porch railing of the house across the street, which has never been decorated for Christmas before, and we say thank you for dots of color and light in the darkness.

Death counts rise and hospitals fill to capacity as the virus continues to spread despite our best half-hearted efforts, and we say thank you to the exhausted nurses and doctors layering on PPE to check on the patients. We say thank you to the scientists who have discovered a vaccine to end all this. 

Another police officer kills another unarmed Black man, and we say thank you to the weary folks who gather in the streets, petition the people in power and post on social media to remind us this is still a tragedy and this is still injustice, but we could choose another way. 

Hang colorful bulbs on the Christmas tree, arrange the carved wooden Nativity set on the shelf, bake great-grandma’s cookie recipes, and wrap boxes of gifts for our loved ones in crinkly red paper. We say thank you for anchoring traditions and finally something to celebrate at the end of this endless year. 

Spend quiet evening after quiet evening sinking deeper into the couch — reading, playing cards, watching TV, listening to music — and we say thank you for these ways to wait out the pandemic. 

Headlines expose more lies and incompetence from our nation’s leader, and we say thank you to the voters who decided this man will soon be out of power. 

Masks on at the grocery store, curbside service at the library and our favorite barbecue spot, and we say thank you for the chance to make brief eye contact with the people keeping our community running. 

Days when we would give anything to know how much further to the finish line of this mandated stillness, and we say thank you for the revelation that we were never in control anyway. 

Slow mornings of prayer and writing and coffee, and we say thank you for peace in the midst of this storm. 

Waves of grief and morning tears, and we say thank you that this fresh loss we thought would overwhelm us has instead opened new spaces in our hearts. 

For 2020, we say thank you. 

Inspired by “Thanks” by W.S. Merwin, featured in Laurie Wagner’s wild writing course.

My Toxic Relationship with the News

“Who would I tell if I came across a body now?” I wondered wistfully as I crossed the wooden bridge over the river, heading to yoga class as the warm summer sun started to slip below the row of picturesque brick storefronts in the downtown district.

The yoga classes were supposed to mask my distress over recently selling out on my dream job. My first purchase with my new obscenely large paycheck had been a high-end pink yoga mat and unlimited classes. Before, on my reporter’s salary, I scraped to afford drop-in classes a few times a year at this studio. 

The problem was every time I walked across the bridge to the downtown studio, I couldn’t help but think of a time months earlier when I was on my way to yoga class and saw first responders pulling a body from the river. I sent the tip to my coworkers in the newsroom as I walked into the yoga studio — after debating whether I should skip my class and start reporting on the scene myself. When I checked my phone after the closing “namaste,” my coworkers already had the story online. 

Now, there was no need to gather news tips. For the first time in a decade, it wasn’t my job to report the news. 

My dream job had become too heavy. The weight started to lift as I toured the campus building where I would begin my new job as a university “communications specialist,” a title that felt as foreign as the buttoned-up aura of academia. Between taking in the vaulted ceilings and art-lined hallways of my new workspace, I noticed the exterior doors were always unlocked and no one monitored who entered the building. Newsroom security had been tight, with locked doors and ID checks to enter. We went through active shooter training after the 2018 mass shooting at the Capital Gazette in Maryland shook the whole journalism industry. An armed guard arrived in the office any time the threats aimed at our staff reached a certain pitch, and warning flyers on the doors showed the mugshot of a man who had repeatedly shown up to aggressively complain about our news coverage. 

“Oh right, people don’t want to harm you for doing this work,” I commented to one of my new coworkers. 

But my lighter reality wasn’t necessarily easier. I felt like an outdoor cat abruptly allowed inside; while I was thankful to be out of survival mode, I didn’t fully understand the house rules. I didn’t know how to sit through a conversation without scribbling in a reporter’s notebook. The summer days in my new office passed slowly, calmly, absent the adrenaline rush of breaking news or battling for public information. I wasn’t sure how to tell what I’d accomplished without page views or bylines to count. Escaping the endless stream of online comments critiquing everything I created was a relief — and a quick way to feel irrelevant. Now that I had the freedom to show my bias about what was happening in the news, I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say. 

I started taking walks after lunch to break up my workday, an impossible luxury when trying to finish a story on deadline. As I sat on a bench looking over the grassy campus quad, I kept thinking of lazy summer afternoons more than a decade ago, when my college roommate and I sprawled out on blankets in the patch of grass behind our apartment and talked for hours. Our conversations drifted to the careers and families and lives we might make for ourselves someday. I had always pictured myself as a journalist. 

At a loss for who I was supposed to be if not a reporter, I turned to my friends from my first newsroom. We gathered at the lakeside on hot weekends in July and August for countless bottles of wine, a sunburn or two, and marathon sessions of dancing and drinking through music festivals. In not so many words, I tried to ask the people who knew me when I fell for journalism whether I would be alright without it. They told me they still want to read what I write. They said contentment is more fulfilling than fleeting bursts of joy. They said I might always feel this way, and life would go on.

They had been through their own versions of this break-up. As recent college grads, we had landed together at the same small-town newspaper for a handful of years. We spent our days together reporting the news and our nights together at the bar next door. Then, one by one, we’d gone our separate ways — my coworker-turned-husband and I to another newspaper, everyone else to something else. At a time when one journalism job was hard enough to come by, Marty and I managed to work together at three different papers. But I was fully aware our path to new newsrooms would always be paved with layoffs and buyouts and “restructures.” Eventually, I lost sight of my way forward amid the rubble of the collapsing industry.  

For months after my departure to what journalists call the “dark side” of communications, I obsessed over parsing which parts of journalism I had loved and which parts made me leave. The conclusion I reached — after meditating on it through those many yoga classes — is the line between the two is incredibly thin. I watched my husband continue reporting, pitying his tether to the news cycle and envying the stories he wrote. I cheered on my reporter friends and wondered if they judged me for leaving, like I had judged the journalists who left before me. 

The summer wound down with a former coworker’s wedding, and I was surrounded by people from that world I was pretending not to miss. I caught up with my first editor Dave, who’s now a college newspaper adviser, and found myself asking if he felt conflicted sending the latest crop of college graduates into this industry. Like any good reporter, I noticed he skirted the question and instead said he teaches them to be storytellers, which will serve them well in many lines of work.

“It’s not like when I promised you if you gave me two or three years, there’d be a bigger opportunity in journalism waiting for you,” he said. “I can’t tell them that.” 

I remember him saying that when he hired me. I was 21, a month out of college and had no idea what I was doing. For some reason, Dave kept believing I could be a good journalist and so I kept trying to be. And his promise had borne out. When I cried myself to sleep the night of the wedding, I was mourning that we can’t make the same promises to the next generation of people like me, who think the thing they might be best at is reporting the news. I was mourning the disorienting trajectory that led something I once loved to become untenable.

My yoga membership reached the six-month mark, and I signed up for another one as the leaves changed color and fell from the trees. I sleep better these days, and my fingernails no longer peel and tear off like they used to when I was constantly stressed. I realized there are no “bonus points” for sacrificing personal peace for work, even when you attach to that work such lofty ideals as upholding a cornerstone of our country’s democracy. I’m learning to show up in my life as a whole person, rather than as a reporter whose value depends on her ability to deliver the next big headline and keep herself out of the story. And I’ll probably always miss the magic of strangers trusting me to share their stories and the gratifying challenge of deploying every analytical and creative instinct at my disposal to try to tell those stories well. Who wouldn’t miss the greatest job in the world?

My new job didn’t change my pre-pandemic commute, other than making it a half-mile shorter. So every morning, the familiar route accentuated my new destination. I used to check Twitter at stop lights to see what stories the other news outlets published or compose emails in my head, trying to figure out the right combination of words to get people to give me information they’d rather not. Driving by a school would remind me I needed to follow up on the FOIA request I’d filed with the district, and passing through the ring of businesses around campus prompted a fresh list of calls I needed to make about which restaurants were closing, which were opening, and which were being forced out by rising rents. Before I left the house, I would have sent my editor a list of headlines for the stories I planned to finish by the end of the day, and I knew I should have the first one filed by 10 a.m. if I wanted to deliver. 

After I left journalism, I took the bus to work and looked out the window at the trees. The news was something to consume with my morning coffee, and then I’d go about my day.

Modern-day segregation: How vouchers keep the poor out of rich neighborhoods (The Ann Arbor News)

YPSILANTI TOWNSHIP, MI — Courtney Vesey’s 30th birthday dinner was leftovers she pulled from the fridge and ate standing alone at the kitchen counter. There was no cake.

She spent the quiet mid-December evening with her boyfriend, Mike Ponds, and her four kids. Romeiro, 12, Marcquise, 11, and Ramone, 8, watched cartoons in the back bedroom and took turns flexing to see who had bigger muscles. Two-year-old Alaya toddled around the house with her mom’s phone.

Vesey had three weeks to move her family into a new house and didn’t know where they’d go. That worry overshadowed any birthday festivities.

“I just want to be accepted, for my voucher to be accepted,” she said, dressed up for her birthday, with shimmery eye shadow and gold dangly earrings.

Ramone “ReRe” (left) and Romeiro “RoRo” Buckner work out side-by-side inside their bedroom at their West Willow home, Friday, Dec. 14, 2018 in Ypsilanti Township. (Ben Allan Smith | MLive)

Ramone “ReRe” Buckner, 8, wrestles with his brothers (not pictured) while his sister Alaya, 2, sleeps on the couch at their West Willow home on their mother’s 30th birthday, Friday, Dec. 14, 2018, in Ypsilanti Township. (Ben Allan Smith | MLive)

Vesey is among 3,252 Washtenaw County residents who receive a Housing Choice Voucher, a federal subsidy created more than four decades ago to help the poor gain entry into better, safer neighborhoods.

However, the private housing market dictates where Section 8 housing vouchers are accepted. Washtenaw County largely pushes these folks into already low-income neighborhoods – some of which are riddled with violence and drug activity – according to an analysis of voucher data from 2016 and 2017 by MLive and The Ann Arbor News.

Tenant screening policies, fees and high security deposits keep voucher recipients out of more affluent areas with better job opportunities and schools like Ann Arbor, Saline, Dexter or Chelsea – even if they can make rent.

(Kate Howland | MLive)

Fifty percent of renters in Ypsilanti Township’s West Willow neighborhood use housing vouchers, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

About 200 voucher recipients live there – effectively making West Willow a subsidized housing complex, but without the support services traditionally offered by public housing.

Vesey was among those funneled into West Willow. After seven months, she was desperate to get out.

“I don’t want my kids to be a part of this culture,” she said in a December interview.

Related: 5 ways Washtenaw County could prevent segregation via housing voucher

(Kate Howland | MLive)

Jo Ann McCollum, president of the New West Willow Neighborhood Association, poses for a portrait at the Community Resource Center on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018, in Ypsilanti Township. (Ben Allan Smith | MLive.com)

Death of an American dream

West Willow – full of single-family homes with fenced-in yards, churches, a park and an elementary school – sounds like an ideal place to raise a family.

“I have this vision of this neighborhood being affordable to live in, friendly, safe,” said Jo Ann McCollum, New West Willow Neighborhood Association president and a homeowner there with her husband since 1994.

“I want it to be sort of like a model neighborhood where you don’t have to have a lot of money, you don’t have to have a lot of education to live a high-quality life.”

In some ways, West Willow has fallen short of McCollum’s vision, as the ups and downs of the auto industry determined the fate of the neighborhood.

This undated photo of West Willow shows the neighborhood’s original houses, which were built in the late 1940s. (Courtesy of Ypsilanti Historical Society)

West Willow was built in the late 1940s as a subdivision for executives and managers at the nearby Willow Run Bomber Plant, which Ford had then recently sold to Kaiser-Frazer Corp.

General Motors bought the plant in 1953, which helped to stabilize the neighborhood even though GM offered fewer jobs than Kaiser-Frazer, said local historian Matt Siegfried.

“You see this ratcheting down of jobs since the end of World War II,” he said. “You can see how the starts and stops for the plant would lead to starts and stops in housing production.”

In 1960, the 770 homes in West Willow were occupied by white homeowners, according to Census data. The neighborhood nearly doubled in size by the mid-60s as more houses intended for factory workers were built, Siegfried said.

By the early ‘70s, after changes in federal law that theoretically prohibited race-based discrimination in home sales, a few black families had moved to West Willow.

Auto companies hired more black workers in the ’70s, and houses in West Willow were affordable for blue collar workers like Robert and Sandra Harrison, who both worked at Ford’s Rawsonville plant when they bought a house on Desoto Avenue in 1974.

“We moved in and we just never moved out,” said Robert Harrison, now 76. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re in a good neighborhood. It just needs a little tender, loving care.”

Workers build houses in West Willow in 1955. (The Ann Arbor News archives courtesy of Ann Arbor District Library)

The gradual influx of black families to West Willow prompted white families to move out, Siegfried said.

GM layoffs and a recession in the ‘80s raised unemployment and lowered property values in the triangular-shaped neighborhood bordered by U.S. 12 and I-94.

Gangs that cropped up in West Willow around that time brought a wave of violence and drug activity that continues to ripple through the neighborhood today. For decades, residents and police have tried to curb the criminal activity, with varying success.

Behind the numbers: Ypsilanti-area crime statistics from 2008-12

However, some longtime residents say the accounts of gang activity in West Willow are exaggerated.

“West Willow became racialized,” Siegfried said. “The fact West Willow is black and working class makes it a ‘bad neighborhood’ compared to other areas around here.”

In 1992, GM closed its Willow Run transmission plant and moved thousands of jobs to Texas. The company maintained a powertrain plant at the Willow Run site, with fewer jobs available.

Black political power in southeast Michigan was largely tied to the United Automobile Workers, Siegfried said, so the downfall of the auto industry hurt the black community.

“We get a kind of bottoming out of living standards and political power and voice,” he said.

The offices of the New West Willow Neighborhood Association on Tyler Road, Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. (Ben Allan Smith | MLive)

Scenes from Ypsilanti Township’s West Willow neighborhood, Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. (Ben Allan Smith | MLive)

The Great Recession of 2007 brought a new layer of hardship.

In 2008, West Willow had the second highest foreclosure rate in Washtenaw County, with 12.5 percent of the neighborhood’s 1,089 mortgages in foreclosure, according to data collected for a federal grant.

At that time, 59 percent of mortgages in West Willow had higher-than-recommended interest rates and fees that made homeowners more vulnerable to foreclosure.

“Just that look of all these for sale signs on these homes changes things,” McCollum said. “It was like a mad rush. People lost their homes or were trying to sell them.”

GM – which had been Ypsilanti Township’s largest taxpayer –  completely closed the Willow Run plant in 2010.

In 2012, Willow Run schools closed Kaiser Elementary in West Willow, and the following year the struggling school district itself disbanded.

Property values plummeted, and more renters moved in after investors bought up the inexpensive houses.

In 2005, 28 percent of houses in West Willow were rentals, and 71 percent had a market value between $90,000 and $113,000, according to Washtenaw County data.

Post-recession, in 2017, rentals made up 46 percent of West Willow houses, and 97 percent had a market value of $70,000 or less. At the same time, the racial makeup of the neighborhood shifted, and 75 percent of West Willow’s 3,180 residents in 2017 were black.

The graphic shows the change in owner-occupied versus renter-occupied houses in West Willow from 2005 to 2017. (Courtesy of Washtenaw County)

The graphic shows the change in state equalized value of property in West Willow from 2005 to 2017. The market value is approximately double the state equalized value. (Courtesy of Washtenaw County)

Alex Thomas, 49, a community activist who grew up in West Willow, was surprised by how much the neighborhood had changed when he moved back in 2016 after spending eight years living abroad.

There was more litter on the streets, fewer children playing outside and the closure of Willow Run schools took away a “focal point” of the neighborhood, he said. He didn’t know many of his neighbors anymore.

“It was just shocking seeing the decline in the neighborhood,” Thomas said.

In the struggling real estate market, housing vouchers brought steady rent checks.

The maximum voucher amount is based on a county-wide formula, so West Willow landlords accepting housing vouchers can charge more for rent than they otherwise could in a high-crime neighborhood in a low-performing school district.

“That was an incentive for some of the last holdouts to move and use their home as an investment property,” Thomas said.

Meanwhile, the area’s lower property values have hollowed out Ypsilanti Township’s tax base, making it more difficult to provide basic services and maintain infrastructure.

“That’s individual people’s property values, but that’s the community’s tax base, too,” said Teresa Gillotti, Washtenaw County’s Office for Community and Economic Development director.

“It’s just like kicking you while you’re down.”

Courtney Vesey (top left) poses for a family portrait alongside her boyfriend, Mike Ponds (top right) and her four children, Romeiro Buckner (top middle), Ramone Buckner (bottom left), Alaya Buckner (bottom middle) and Marcquise Buckner (bottom right), outside their West Willow home on Friday Dec. 14, 2018, in Ypsilanti Township. (Ben Allan Smith | MLive.com)

Courtney Vesey (right) locks the door to her mother’s apartment before leaving to drop off her children for their first day back to school following winter break on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, in Ypsilanti Township. (Ben Allan Smith | MLive)

The quest for a fresh start

Vesey was 16 and pregnant when she first considered applying for a housing voucher. She wanted a place of her own once her child was born and knew she’d need help paying rent.

She spent six years on the waiting list before receiving a voucher in 2012.

In that time, Vesey graduated from Belleville High School, welcomed three sons to her family and lived with relatives and her children’s father.

In 2016, Vesey lost her voucher after failing to disclose a change in her income. Pregnant with Alaya at the time, she moved in with her children’s father again. Their landlord ended their month-to-month lease, and they struggled to find a new place to live.

In February 2018, Vesey and her four children landed in a homeless shelter. Three months later, they moved into a house in West Willow thanks to the Rapid Rehousing program that provides temporary rent assistance for people who are homeless.

Two-year-old Alaya Buckner laughs while she plays on the stairs of her grandmother’s apartment on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, in Ypsilanti Township. (Ben Allan Smith | MLive.com)

Rapid Rehousing paid a decreasing amount of Vesey’s $1,200 rent each month, and she knew she could not afford the place on her $700 a month income.

Plus, Vesey wanted to move away from the drug deals she said she saw on the street outside her house, the threat of gun violence and the worries her sons would start smoking marijuana with other neighborhood kids.

“You’re raising your child different,” she said. “It’s hard to be different in an environment like that.”

Vesey received a new housing voucher in November and quickly ran through the list of properties recommended by the Ann Arbor Housing Commission and Section 8 website. There were no units available that could accommodate her family.

She and Ponds started calling any property in southeast Michigan and Ponds’ home state of South Carolina that seemed promising. They checked on about 275 rentals.

“When you realize (the apartments are) nice, you know not to call,” Vesey said. “You kind of look at the ones that are beat up a little bit and you shoot your shot with them.

“The odds are against you, so you’ve got to pick the worst place. But you’ve got to pick the best of the worst.”

(Kate Howland | MLive)

By law, landlords are not required to accept housing vouchers. Ann Arbor’s and Ypsilanti’s non-discrimination ordinances include source of income, so landlords cannot deny prospective tenants solely because they have a housing voucher.

However, apartment complexes can set a minimum credit score for tenants or charge high application fees or security deposits, which are not covered by housing vouchers.

Ann Arbor’s housing market lets landlords set rent higher than the voucher payment limit, so there’s little incentive for them to accept vouchers and reduce profits.

“You can’t get into Ann Arbor,” Vesey said. “They either tell you that they don’t accept Section 8, or they tell you that you have to meet their criteria. If I met the criteria, I wouldn’t need Section 8.”

Between 25 and 30 percent of people who receive Housing Choice Vouchers from the Ann Arbor Housing Commission don’t find a place to use them within the 60- to 90-day deadline, said Executive Director Jennifer Hall.

There’s a variety of reasons for that, said AAHC Voucher Program Manager Misty Hendershot, including the lack of affordable or satisfactory housing options, poor credit history or criminal record.

“With affordable housing being limited right now in Washtenaw County, even though we’re giving out all these vouchers to people, they’re having a hard time finding places to stay,” she said.

From left: Siblings Ramone “ReRe,” 8, Marcquise, 11, and Alaya, 2, play on an air mattress during Marcquise’s birthday party at their grandmother’s apartment on Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019 in Ypsilanti Township. Courtney Vesey and her four kids spent more than six weeks staying at Vesey’s mother house while waiting for paperwork to be processed for their new apartment.

Vesey found out on New Year’s Eve the apartment complex she had her eye on in Greenville, South Carolina, accepted Section 8 and had an apartment available.

While waiting for the paperwork to be processed, Vesey and her kids have spent more than six weeks sleeping on the floor at her mother’s apartment, their belongings packed in black garbage bags piled in the living room.

“I’m a little nervous – just about starting all over again,” Vesey said in early January as she planned a trip with her dad to go see the apartment.

As moving plans materialized, Vesey left the pharmacy technician job she’d had for less than three months.

The extra income could jeopardize her Social Security disability payments, Vesey said, and her pharmacy tech certification wouldn’t transfer to South Carolina.

Vesey’s housing voucher is the main source of income to pay $843 a month for the new three-bedroom apartment.

“The voucher itself is really a good stepping stone for a family who doesn’t have money to be able to afford housing on their own,” she said. “But all I can say is that it was very difficult for me, just very challenging. I got more ‘no’ to my Section 8 voucher than I got ‘yes.’”

This piece won second place for best public service from the Associated Press, second place for news enterprise reporting from the Michigan Press Association and second place for public service from MPA. 


5 ways Washtenaw County could prevent segregation via housing voucher

Editorial: With voucher system broken, Ann Arbor needs real action on affordable housing

Ann Arbor’s historically black neighborhood is the hottest market in town (The Ann Arbor News)

Pedestrians walk along Miller Ave near Miller Manor in Ann Arbor as seen on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018. (Ben Allan Smith/MLive.com)

ANN ARBOR, MI – A young Russ Calvert would curiously watch as pigs were unloaded at the Peters Sausage Co. slaughterhouse on Summit Street, a block from his north Ann Arbor home.

Calvert, now 75 and living on a lake near Chelsea, grew up with his parents and four siblings in a modest two-bedroom, 740-square-foot house on North Fourth Avenue in Kerrytown.

When the young Calvert wasn’t hanging around the slaughterhouse – which sat adjacent to Lansky’s Junkyard in the residential area – he’d play pool and go to Boy Scout meetings at the Dunbar Community Center, an alternative to whites-only youth activities elsewhere.

He also played hockey at the ice rink at Summit Park – now Wheeler Park – which in 1968 expanded to include the property where the slaughterhouse and junkyard once stood.

“I hate to use the word poor, but we had a roof over our head, food on the table,” he said.

At that time, their neighborhood was one of the few places in Ann Arbor where black people were allowed to live.

Little remains of Kerrytown and Water Hill as “old neighborhood” residents like Calvert knew it in the 1950s and ’60s.

Located directly north of Ann Arbor’s downtown, with Water Hill on the west side of Main Street and Kerrytown on the east, these neighborhoods are again in the midst of transformation.

Since the Great Recession of the early 2000s, home prices there have rebounded nearly twice as fast as the city as a whole.

In the past 12 months, the average sales price for houses in Water Hill and Kerrytown was $543,611, compared to $370,768 citywide during that same time, according to the Ann Arbor Area Board of Realtors.

It’s “just good old-fashioned gentrification,” said Jack Brown, the board of realtors president elect and Howard Hanna real estate services associate broker.

But some current residents worry that – like the black community that faded away a generation ago – their eclectic neighborhood as they know it also will cease to exist.

Before fair housing

In 1960, 38 percent of residents in what’s now Water Hill and Kerrytown were black. By 1970, black people accounted for 45 percent of the area’s residents, according to U.S. Census data.

At that time, black people in Ann Arbor had few alternatives.

Ann Arbor implemented a fair housing ordinance in 1964 — the same year the federal government passed the Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination based on race, religion, sex or national origin related to voter registration, schools, employment and public accommodations.

Four years later, the federal Fair Housing Act took effect and prohibited landlords or sellers from discriminating on the basis of race and other protected classes. It wasn’t until 1974 that the federal government passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which made it illegal for creditors to discriminate.

Prior to that, realtors could openly refuse to show black people houses for sale in certain neighborhoods, and banks and the federal government could deny mortgages based on a person’s race.

Neighborhood associations could prohibit selling or leasing a house to people of color. White people were afraid black neighbors would lower their property values.

Relegated to north Ann Arbor, many residents there forged deep bonds. An annual cookout where “old neighborhood” residents reminisce and catch up is now in its 22nd year.

Social events revolved around two prominent black churches and the Dunbar Community Center, now called the Ann Arbor Community Center.

Growing up, Audrey Lucas, 84, sang in choirs at the Dunbar Center and Second Baptist Church, where she’s still a member and the church clerk.

The Rev. C.W. Carpenter, who led Second Baptist for 35 years, was influential in her life, Lucas said, and he fought “urban renewal” proposals in the 1960s and ’70s that would have forced black families out of their neighborhood.

“He had very firm ideas on how we represented our race,” Lucas said. “You had standards … and you just learned from seeing and doing and knowing that the people that surrounded you in church wanted the best for you all of the time and were always in your corner.”

An era of change

From the 1970s through ’90s, the Water Hill and Kerrytown demographics again shifted.

Fair housing laws theoretically meant black people could purchase houses in other neighborhoods. People who grew up in Water Hill and Kerrytown were ready to move away and start their own families. And the city began improvements that made the neighborhoods more attractive to white families.

“It was young people really, and they didn’t want to stay here anymore,” said Diana McKnight-Morton, a Washtenaw Community College trustee who grew up on West Kingsley Street in what’s now Water Hill and whose parents ran DeLong’s Bar-B-Q Pit on Detroit Street in Kerrytown for 37 years until it closed in 2001.

Urban renewal plans called for a Beakes-Packard bypass across Water Hill and Kerrytown, but that project was abandoned in 1972 due to public resistance. At that point, the city already had bought some people out of their houses to make way for the bypass, including Shirley Beckley’s family.

Today, condos have replaced Beckley’s childhood home, across West Kingsley Street from where McKnight-Morton grew up. Neither of the girls had siblings, and they would frequently spend the night at each other’s houses and roller skate through the empty stalls at the farmers market in Kerrytown.

“I can’t move back in where I grew up, because I can’t afford $500,000,” said Beckley, 76, who now lives in an apartment in Pittsfield Township. “We don’t have our black community.”

From 1970 to ’80, the black population in Water Hill and Kerrytown went from 45 percent of residents to 25 percent, and that continued to drop to 18 percent in 2000, according to Census data.

The graph shows the number of black people as a percentage of the total population in Water Hill and Kerrytown as well as Washtenaw County as a whole, from 1960 to 2016, according to the U.S. Census. (Lauren Slagter | MLive)

Diane Black, 69, and her husband at the time were among the white residents who moved into Water Hill in the ’80s. Black still lives in the house on Spring Street they purchased in 1987, after renting a house in the same neighborhood on Chapin Street for several years.

When they first moved in to the two-story, three-bedroom house, Black and her ex-husband, an architect, slept in the same room with their two young sons while they gradually fixed up the rest of the house one room at a time, she said.

Although the house needed work, the location was good, and Black could walk to work when she held jobs at Del Rio, a former bar on West Washington, and the former artist and dance studios on Chapin Street.

Along with the Black family, artists and musicians congregated in Water Hill in the ’80s and ’90s.

Paul Tinkerhess – the man credited with coining the name Water Hill – and his wife Claire moved to Miner Street in 1992. They couldn’t find a house they liked and could afford in Ann Arbor, so they bought a vacant lot on Miner Street and had a house set for demolition on Ashley Street moved there.

The Tinkerhesses, who own Fourth Ave. Birkenstock in Kerrytown, play music, as do their three sons. The family soon realized there were other musicians and singers living within a few blocks of them.

In 2011, Tinkerhess launched the Water Hill Music Festival, which invites people to watch the neighborhood’s musicians perform on their front porches the first Sunday in May.

“That’s when the name really stuck,” he said.

Tinkerhess realizes the things he likes about the neighborhood – proximity to downtown, parks and the Huron River; friendly neighbors; and a nonprofit that shovels sidewalks in the winter – also make the area attractive to others and have prompted this latest round of gentrification.

“There’s less cultural diversity than 25 years ago. Fixer-uppers are being fixed up. Developers are tearing down some perfectly good houses and filling in the backyards with structures that are two times the size and three times the price,” he said. “Some of that is painful to watch and leaves us with the challenge of figuring out how to protect our neighborhood and city from gentrification.”

Housing crash and condo boom

Developer Tom Fitzsimmons started building housing in Water Hill and Kerrytown around 2005, and he’s helped to create hundreds of units in the area since then.

There were a couple of difficult years following the housing market crash in 2007, Fitzsimmons said, but now he and other developers are barely keeping up with demand.

“I’m very concerned on where this is going,” Fitzsimmons said. “If we price everybody out of the market, we can’t build anything. A big issue that we have is market demand and people wanting to live downtown. Twenty to 30 years ago, people wanted to live in the suburbs.”

Since 2010, Water Hill and Kerrytown have seen a 133 percent increase in average home sales price, according to the Ann Arbor Area Board of Realtors. By comparison, the city of Ann Arbor as a whole has seen a 69-percent increase in average home sales price in the same timeframe.

The table shows real estate statistics for the Water Hill-Kerrytown area and the City of Ann Arbor as a whole, according to the Ann Arbor Area Board of Realtors. (Milton Klingensmith | MLive) 

Larrea Young and Robbie Kozub, who are white, started renting a house in Water Hill in 2015. At $1,500 a month, their three-bedroom, one-bathroom house within walking distance of downtown Ann Arbor was a “dirty steal,” said Young, 26.

Kozub is a woodworker and works for Zingerman’s, and Young is a freelance illustrator and graphic designer. The young couple, who married in 2017, connected with the “artists and hippies” living in Water Hill, and they enjoy walking their two dogs around the area and frequenting Ann Arbor Distilling Company and Big City Bakery.

But now that they’re looking to buy a house, they can’t afford to stay.

“We wanted to stay in the neighborhood, but the houses don’t really sell anymore for under $400,000,” Young said. “I like the artsy feel, but as an artist I can’t afford to live here.”


Ann Arbor resident Shirley Beckley talks about growing up in the “old neighborhood”

This project took second place for best multimedia storytelling in the 2018 Michigan Associated Press Media Editors awards.