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When the Market Dictates Housing Policy: Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce event advocates false solutions to current housing crisis

October 17, 2016

On Friday, I attended a gathering hosted by the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce focused on the issue of housing. The event was part of the Chamber’s ongoing Issue Summits.

The actual title for the event was, “Housing for a Growing City.” The title alone makes clear the purpose of the gathering, which was to talk about meeting the “growing demands” for housing in Grand Rapids. However, for the Chamber and many of those in attendance, “housing demands” translated into market rate housing.screen-shot-2016-10-16-at-11-41-33-pm

The event began with Kevin Elsenheimer, who is the head of Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA). Elsenheimer didn’t speak for very long and began by showing a clip of a video about the old Klingman building that has been turned into subsidized housing. It was interesting that the head of MSHDA began with this project, since much of what he discussed did not address the growing need for affordable housing. In fact, throughout the day, the presenters had a hard time naming it as affordable housing and kept using the phrase the missing middle.

It is worth noting that included on the board of MSHDA, is part of the West Michigan elite and a major property owner with CWD, Scott Wierda. Wierda married into the DeVos family. 

After Elsenheimer spoke, they brought up 5 panel members to further discuss housing issues in Grand Rapids. The panelists included Kurt Hassberger (Rockford Construction), Ryan VerWys (ICCF), Lamont Cole (Grand Rapids Urban League), Monica Steimle-App (616 Development and Gustavo Rotondaro (Métrica).

The Rockford Construction representative began the panel session by saying that they see both sides of the housing issue, even though he never clarified what he meant by this. He mostly talked about the the supply and demand aspect of housing and that “market rate housing is important.” Hassberger ended his comments by saying that they (Rockford) could not address the missing middle, since it is “not affordable to build.”

Another panelist was Ryan VerWys with ICCF. He talked about how ICCF helps people who fall through the cracks and he plugged the more recent project they are behind, which is the Tapestry Square Project in the Division/Wealthy St. area. VerWys did note that Rockford Construction does provide the majority of the construction work for their projects and that ICCF was waiting to hear about state subsidies that might result in ICCF run housing on the westside.

Another housing developer, Monica Steimle-App, with 616 Development, stated that what her company does is to create community and how her organization was looking forward to working with Downtown Grand Rapids Inc to attract more people to the area and to make sure that “housing is available to everyone.” This last statement seems to be in conflict with the practice of 616 Development, which has a growing track record of gentrifying neighborhoods.

The last panelist, Gustavo Rotondaro, provided some data showing that 52% of renters in Grand Rapids are spending more than 50% of their income on housing. He also gave data to show that the average White family makes just over double the amount of money that African Americans make.screen-shot-2016-10-16-at-11-42-10-pm

The data seemed to shake things up a bit and prompted some from the audience to ask more poignant questions.

One African American woman stated that she grew up in the area, had moved away and is now back living in Grand Rapids. She said that since she returned, many other black friends have said to her, “Why did you come back? There isn’t much here and we are faced with the same issues that the black community has always faced. She then said that people being forced out of neighborhoods through gentrification is wrong and asked  the panelists what they were going to do about it.

The guy with Rockford Construction said, “they haven’t caused this (gentrification) and don’t support it. He then defends landlords, who have “real costs” and that “they need to make a living.” Hassberger also stated that what Rockford Construction does borders on being philanthropic.

What was so problematic about this forum was that the so-called experts were mostly made up of people who made their profits or their salaries off of housing. In fact, the primary sponsors of the event were corporations notorious for making huge profits, including some local housing developers and real estate firms.

Another major problem with the forum is that those who spoke and made up most of the audience were people with tremendous professional, racial and economic privilege. These were not the people most impacted by the current housing crisis. In fact, many of them were responsible for perpetuating the current housing crisis.

Until people who are most impacted by the housing crisis are actually leading a movement to create housing justice, we will continue to rely on developers, politicians and non-profit agencies to make decisions and set policy that will not fundamentally change to socio-economic reality in West Michigan.

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