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Planning for Gentrification: the Grand Rapids Planning Commission

May 17, 2016

Local politics is often the most critical. People are more likely to be engaged at the local level and often feel they can have a direct impact on policy.ContentFile-10

However, local politics also has has a tendency to allow people with greater privilege to gain access to decision-making, whether this is through elected office or board appointments. In Grand Rapids, the amount of money spent on running for city commission seats has grown exponentially and board appoints often are determined insiders and those connected within certain political circles.

Take for example the Grand Rapids Planning Commission Board. This board is made up of 9 members, who, like most boards in Grand Rapids, are appointed, not elected. Being appointed often translates into those who have greater access, greater privilege and disproportionately higher class status.

The current make up of the Grand Rapids Planning Commission Board is disproportionately made up of professionals or those who own businesses. Here are the 9 Planning Commission Board members and what status they hold within the community.

  • Kyle Van Strien – Co-Owner of Long Road Distillery
  • Thomas H Koetsier – Koetsier Realty LLC
  • Stephen Ruis – Co-Owner of Art of the Table
  • Paul Rozeboom – Professional Engineer and principal shareholder of C2AE, a consulting engineering and architecture firm
  • Rick Treur – Director of Annual Giving and Alumni Engagement at Calvin College, Leadership Grand Rapids graduate
  • Erica Curry Van Ee – Urban Curry Consulting, LLC
  • Reginald Smith – Calvin Theological Seminary
  • Mary Angelo – former Director of Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association
  • Walter M Brame – Insurance Sales Representative at Bankers Life and Casualty Company & former Director of the Grand Rapids Urban League.grand-rapids-planning-commission

Given the current make up of the Planning Commission Board, it doesn’t come as a major surprise that the majority of them have been approving many of the development projects that have come before them over the past few years. Many of them would benefit in some ways to have new developments approved, because it would bring more upscale consumers and residents to the city and in some cases near the businesses they own and operate. These new development projects and the upwardly mobile class status of those the develop projects have attracted, are one of the major factors in the ongoing gentrification of Grand Rapids.

This is even reflected in a recent exchange between someone with Grand Rapids Homes for All and members of the Planning Commission Board/Staff in a document dated April 28, 2016.

Mr. Bartley related receipt of an email from Chuck Skala, Grand Rapids Home for All, regarding the GVSU Medical Education facility expansion, Coit Square condo project and the Rise project on Benson, and other proposed developments involving the demolition of existing rental homes and the displacement of families residing in those homes. He asked that as these projects come before the Planning Commission for review that they consider the impact on displaced families, especially with the current crisis in lack of availability of replacement housing for these families. He asked that the Planning Commission ask staff to include displacement impact as part of their analysis of proposed projects. He asked that the Planning Commission ask developers how they plan to accommodate families they are displacing. It has been their experience that displaced renters aren’t likely to attend public hearings regarding projects affecting them. In such cases decision makers sometimes rely on the opinion of neighborhood associations that may be disproportionately weighted in favor of home owners that stand to benefit from new development contrasted with renters who will be displaced. They request that the Planning Commission make a concerted effort to determine the impact on displaced families and provisions to accommodate them.

Mr. Bartley explained that he shared the communication because it is public comment, they were asked to share it, and it is certainly something to think about. Mr. Bartley advised that staff doesn’t believe the Planning Commission can include that as a Standard of review however; it isn’t a land use Standard. Staff intends to craft a response to explain their position.

Ms. Curry Van Ee asked if there is anything included in the Great Housing Strategies report regarding displacement that could be referenced in staff’s response.

Mr. Bartley replied that depending how you look at it the entire report affects that. There are no mechanisms to control rent and none of the strategies or recommendations from the report includes rent control.

Ms. Angelo asked if staff has any knowledge about how many people are being displaced with these projects. When visiting proposed project sites that include proposed demolition it seems that the homes are largely vacant. Mr. Van Strien asked the vacancy rate in the city.

Mr. Koetsier advised that the vacancy rate of active rentals is 1%; the lowest in the country. Not only is development removing homes but rental homes that go on the market are being purchased by owner-occupants and tenants are being displaced. He noted that development is part of the solution. When tearing down 11 houses and replacing them with 60+ apartments gradually the situation will improve.

Ms. Turkelson related that staff continues to have meetings on Great Housing Strategies and ways to implement it. She advised that staff is working on an analysis for the City Commission regarding how many units are being lost to development and how many units are replacing them. With the vast majority of the projects more units are being created by the new development.

Mr. Rozeboom asked if the City Commission can deny a rezoning request based on affordability.

Mr. Forshee advised that he would discourage that. The City Commission should be using similar Standards that the Planning Commission considers. His opinion is that because zoning flows from the Zoning Enabling Act that it limits that power. Ms. Turkelson added that they are also bound by the Master Plan.

What is instructive is the perspective. Mr. Koetsier, with Koetsier Realty LLC, states:

“Not only is development removing homes but rental homes that go on the market are being purchased by owner-occupants and tenants are being displaced. He noted that development is part of the solution. When tearing down 11 houses and replacing them with 60+ apartments gradually the situation will improve.”

First, many of the homes that Mr. Koetseir says are being purchased by by owner-occupants isn’t consistent with what has been happening in many of the recent development projects. For example, in the Belknap area, houses have been demolished, and the newly approved RISE Real Estate project on Michigan will demolish roughly a dozen homes and several commercial buildings. 

Mr. Koetsier also states, “development is part of the solution.” This has not been the case when it come to affordable housing. Virtually everything that is being proposed is either “market-rate” or very high end. Ms. Turkelson also states, “With the vast majority of the projects more units are being created by the new development.” While it is acknowledged that there are more new units being created, a very small percentage of them are not affordable for working class individuals or families.

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One can see from the graphic above when the term for each of the Planning Commission board members will end. What would it take to have new board members come from the ranks of those most impacted by gentrification? Is this even possible? Should those most impacted from ongoing development projects engage in movement building instead? Should both be done? Important questions for those who care about housing justice.

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