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The Affordable Housing narrative in Grand Rapids: Which Voices do we hear?

June 17, 2016

Last week, there was an article in MiBiz, entitled, Seeking affordable housing solutions: Arguments emerge for added density, more income-inclusive options in GR

The narrative follows much of what we have seen lately from commercial news sources, which has either been either journalism as cheerleading or the more sober reporting that talks to experts on the issue of affordable housing.calgary-ab-december-14-2014-a-calgarian-holds-up-a-sign

What we have not seen much have been the voices of people who are directly impacted by the lack of affordable housing, whether that is home owners or renters. Such voices are critical for us to have a better understanding, not so much of the politics of affordable housing, but the consequences of the lack of affordable housing.

We were able to talk with four people, all of which in different parts of Grand Rapids, who have been experiencing the direct consequences of the housing crisis, particularly around the issue of affordable housing.

The first person has chosen to remain anonymous. They live on the west side of Grand Rapids.

One of the reasons I moved to the westside was because of the relative low cost of housing compared to Heritage Hill and other parts of the city. I lived in the SWAN neighborhood close the John Ball Park for a year before the landlord (Urban Pharm at the time) decided to raise the rent of our 3 bedroom apartment from $650 to just over $900. An increase of almost $300 a month without them doing any renovations whatsoever to the property.

From there I moved to the West Grand neighborhood. I was lucky to find an affordable apartment closer to downtown. However the reality of living here for more than a few years seem dim. I live on 4th St and Broadway, just across Union Square Condos. With the recent developments on Bridge St, the New Holland Brewery opening shop on Broadway/Bridge St, and new duplexes built just a few houses down from ours on the same street, I know my days are numbered. Although rent has increased slightly the last couple of years ($10 one year, $25 last year), the fear of another year of rent increase lives in the back of my mind has me already looking at other living options farther away from the city core.screen-shot-2016-05-11-at-7-41-04-am

The second voice is someone who lives in the northeast side of Grand Rapids and identifies as  a queer, multi-racial, disabled, artist and has also chosen to remain anonymous.

I’ve been in the same apartment, in the Creston Neighborhood, for 9 1/2 years. My landlord has never raised the rent in that time because he was happy to have someone who stayed and didn’t cause problems (I also haven’t been locked into a lease after the first year.) He has had a difficult time renting out the apartment above me with long-term tenants and the last tenant up there stayed for 2 years but was a regular domestic violence scene. This is the neighborhood I grew up, and have lived in off and on throughout over 40 years, though I have since lived all over the city as well. When I was growing up here the neighborhood was mostly homeowners, now it is rental properties more than not. Some of the homeowners now are more diverse, and there are a few long-time home owning residents who complain about how the neighborhood has “changed” but explicitly mean the fact that it isn’t just white people anymore.

Although my rent hasn’t gone up (yet), I have been paying attention to rising housing costs because I have had to consider the possibility of moving, trying to figure out ways to get more space for making art without having to pay for a separate studio, looking to get away from increasingly vocal racist neighbors, etc. I’ve looked at apartments that are not half as nice as my own or as well-cared-for but cost 1.5x what mine does. Trying to find a little more space meant doubling my rent, even in questionable quality. The current going rate for my apartment would be $850-1,000. I know this not only because I’ve paid attention to the market, but because my landlord just sold the house and I listened to realtors telling potential buyers that $850 was too low to ask in this market. I pay $545 right now and have a lease until September 2017, because my landlord wanted to protect me as long as he could.

I’m a disabled full-time student who isn’t able to work full time. Outside of my student loans, my main income comes from the occasional sale of artwork and freelance writing. I was working a full time job until two years ago and struggled even then to pay the rent, utilities, and stay fed. I would also describe the neighborhood as a food desert, since the closest grocery store was dingy, dirty, and overpriced, and has since closed. Since losing my job I’ve also watched the neighborhood go through major shifts and changes. An entire section of Plainfield that has lain mostly empty and crumbling for 20 years is suddenly being revitalized through tax incentives to the men that owned it all this time. There is an increase in white people moving into the neighborhood who openly intend gentrification. I know this because I see the increase in young middle class white people out jogging, walking their dogs, etc. Because of my light skin and being outside with my own dog, I’ve had the opportunity to meet many of them and it doesn’t take long for them to spout something overtly racist about how they can’t wait until the neighborhood is cleaned up for them. Several have told me they could rent in EGR if they wanted to, but that they have chosen this neighborhood as part of “revitalization” or to buy their first home.

I know that next summer I will have to start figuring out where I will live next. I don’t yet know the new owner of this house or what they expect, so it’s entirely possible they will be anxious for me to move out so they can fix the apartment up to rent it out again. Obviously my rent will be significantly more than it currently is, whether I stay here or move elsewhere. I can’t even begin to wrap my head around how I will pay a higher rent, much less get together a deposit to move. I hear about “affordable” housing developments all over the city but none of them have been remotely affordable. I’m currently working a minimum wage minimal hours part time work-study job at my university. I don’t qualify for any kind of job that can afford the new rental rates in this city. I mean, I know a lot people who have professional jobs and are renting rooms or living with several roommates because rent is too high otherwise. There is the added difficulty of finding a place that will rent to me because I have a rescue dog who serves as my emotional support animal. It’s really hard to find a place that will accept her at all, and the ones that do not only require an extra deposit but even higher rent. There is a really high chance that about the time I am turning 43 years old I too will have to revert to renting a room in a house full of strangers, and also somehow find and pay for separate studio space to continue to work. Even that is an overwhelming prospect, since it’s not like studio space is cheap and widely available either.

I hear about the additional plans for my neighborhood – the new brewery (as if beer can somehow save the world) – and I have a few home owning friends in the neighborhood who watch how their property value is climbing in anticipation. I don’t see how that in any way helps those of us who are poor in the neighborhood. When the Creston Market did its whole revitalization efforts it was obvious that they weren’t fixing it up for the needs of the current residents but for the residents they aspire to. The same can be said for the brewery and any other new businesses coming in – they aren’t coming here to benefit long-time residents but to carve out space for an influx of new upwardly mobile people. To do that, they have to push us out. One of my home owning friends who is watching the value of his house increase says he refuses to be pushed out of the neighborhood. But he owns, and he’s white, so he admits he has little fear of being pushed out and is aware that most of us here don’t have those protections.screen-shot-2016-05-11-at-7-44-46-am

The third person we spoke with is Liam Bailey, who has lived in numerous parts of Grand Rapids and currently lives in the southeast part of Grand Rapids. Liam identifies as a local queer social justice activist.

For me, I have never had a problem getting into a space, but I have had a huge difficulty in finding affordable rent, especially in a place that is not a “slum.” I use this term because, some of these landlords are slumlords. The houses that I could pay for are a max $450 a month. I was living in a place near downtown that was $450, but it was in a basement level, which had the furnace in it, which meant that the landlord had constant access to our space with limited notification for me.

Landlords are generally unwilling to keep the inside up unless you are willing to pay out the ass for it. I pay $720 a month now, even though this area is considered “sketchy.” However, most of the neighbors are students and in many ways this neighborhood is the new Wealthy street and is being gentrified rapidly.

I live with 3 other people, which makes it cheaper, but that is because it is out of need. I have a month to month lease. The landlord is very nice to me, but I still feel unwilling to push any limits. I know that if people are willing to pay $1,200 for a one bedroom downtown, they could charge more here, so I don’t ask for much of fear that I may lose the option to live here.

Living on the westside was the worst experience I have ever had. The landlord did virtually nothing for up keep. The landlord next door cleaned out the basement which exposed us to both a serious mold and cockroach problem. The landlord we rented from was unwilling to deal with it, so we had to deal with the mold and the cockroaches.

My current landlord could charge a whole lot more, probably double, which is why I am reluctant to push on any issues. Just down the street, north of Pleasant, they charge $4,500 for renting the whole house.

Pixie Properties is company where I rented from for a while in the downtown area. We lived in the basement, which was unfinished, just bare cement. Three of us paid $450 per person. The  bedrooms were essentially cement squares. The ceiling was exposed and the pipes had hot water running through them and it was so hot in the winter that we needed to keep the windows open. I complained about it and they threatened me.

Rent has gone up every time I have moved since 2011. I am being priced out of Grand Rapids  I don’t have a car and so I need to live near the downtown. The current development projects only exacerbate this process, which is why I can’t think of the lack of affordable housing as anything other than gentrification.Severe-Housing-Cost-Burden-by-Race-Ethnicity

The fourth person we spoke with is Maurice Warner. Maurice, an African American, lives on the northeast side, near 196.

Approximately nineteen years ago my partner and I moved from Chicago to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Our one bedroom apartment in Hyde Park cost (at that time) $675 per month…with no utilities. At the time, I considered us fortunate to land a two-bedroom apartment in Heritage Hills for $580 per month– utilities not included. Unfortunately, our relationship expired before the apartment lease did, and I ended up living with a friend for the next year—paying $300 a month for a one room space, with access to computer services, cable television and all the electricity and gas I could use. Eventually the very first apartment I rented after leaving this space was a 2 bedroom unit that included all amenities (no washer & dryer); all for the unheard of price of $450 a month. The unit was in Eastown, so I was quite thrilled with the close proximity to one of the more dynamic parts of G.R.

Then came the gentrifiers.

The property owner that I rented from was moving to Canada–so, a negotiated sale was made…without my knowledge. When the new owner notified me of the sale, he asked how much my present rent was. I told him $450 monthly. He grimaced, and said that he wouldn’t be able to rent for that amount. He said that $550 would be the new monthly rate—and if that was agreeable, I could stay.  Since, at the time, I was fairly comfortable with the location, I agreed. What I did not know at the time was that my new landlord planned to leave his wife, rent out the large 3 bedroom ground level unit below —and, move into the upper 2 bedroom space; the one that he’d just agreed to rent to me. Of course he didn’t tell me this at the time; I’d find out four months later—after he’d finished resurfacing the floors, painting the walls, remodeling the kitchen and adding a deck to downstairs unit. The day finally came when, after I slipped my next month’s rent into his mailbox, he slipped into my mailbox a letter—informing me that I would need to vacate the apartment before the first of the next month.  But, not to worry: he had some “friends” who had rental properties available. I declined his thoughtful largesse and informed him that I preferred to find my next place on my own.

Three weeks later I moved from Eastown to the NE part of G.R., on College St.—between Michigan and Leonard. I’ve always hated moving—but when done with the kind of duress and haste that a landowner ambushes you with, well…it can leave a person more than just a bit angry. All in all, I was quite lucky to find a two-bedroom unit available in Grand Rapid—in September; and one that didn’t require a security deposit to boot! I thought that the gods had begun to smile on me.

Boy, was I wrong. Unbeknownst to me, I’d gone from the frying pan…into the fire. This 2 bedroom apartment had an advertised rental rate of $520/mo. I was now being told that was actually $535/mo. O.K…fine. $535 it is; besides…I’m somewhat desperate. So…I manage to get some friends to help with the move, and arrive to find that carpet has not been shampooed. I can tell because the saucer-sized deposit of dried vomit is still quite visible—although (thank goodness) the smell is gone. Additionally, there are no blinds on any of the windows. The property management rep and I had done a walk-through the previous week, and I was assured that these deficiencies would be corrected by my move in date. Nonetheless, we get everything moved in (working around the dried vomit, which I resolved by renting a shampooer the next day. Additionally, I grew tired of waiting for the blinds to arrive, so I went and purchased some of my own.

In short, my relationship with the property management people did not improve: I had to call and “request” lawn maintenance during the summer months (I was lucky is the grass was mowed more than two times during the summer). Snow removal was the responsibility of the tenants. At the time of my lease renewal I was informed that the monthly rent would increase by $10/mo. Time would prove that this would become a standard practice around lease renewal time: there would inevitably be a monthly increase of between ten and fifteen dollars.

I could additionally add that with the increase in the monthly rent every two years ($300 extra this year) that the property management also now wants tenants to sign subsequent leases for 1 ½ years, instead of the previous 1 year agreements.

And on it goes. Being on a fixed income comes with its own unique set of challenges—but when coupled with the slumlords you sometimes find yourself dealing with…well….it can at times feel unbearable.

These are just four stories of how the lack of affordable housing is deeply and personally impacting people in Grand Rapids. We believe there are thousands of more people who are experiencing a similar fate, yet we rarely hear their voices.

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