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Recommendations from Mayor’s Affordable Housing Committee: Maintaining the status quo while appearing to promote housing justice

April 6, 2017

Last summer, Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss announced that she was forming an affordable housing committee, with the intent of addressing the crisis Grand Rapids has been experiencing around cost and availability around affordable housing.

Since last fall, a committee has been in place and has been meeting to discuss the issues of affordable housing, along with putting together a list of recommendations for how to address this crisis. However, before we get to the recommendations, it seems important to provide some context to what has been happening in recent years around housing and gentrification in Grand Rapids.

The Grand Rapids Housing Crisis

For years now Grand Rapids has been involved in a development boom, with new projects being introduced on a monthly basis. Besides the downtown development boom, there are other areas that have also experienced major development changes, such as along the Wealthy Street corridor, the Michigan Avenue corridor, the near westside between Bridge St and West Fulton and the Belknap neighborhood, just to name a few.

The majority of these new projects are based around creating market rate housing, housing that has and will attract mostly professionals and those aspiring to be part of the capitalist class. Such projects have led to the physical displacement of working class individuals and families, with the bulldozing of homes, to the increase in rental costs that many of these neighborhoods have experienced because the landlords/property management companies know they can charge more.

In addition, with Grand Rapids being in the national spotlight, it has attracted many more investors from out of town, even out of state, who realize that investing in Grand Rapids in very profitable. The corporatization of housing in Grand Rapids is growing, with no end in sight, since the vacant housing market is less than 1% and rental units are mostly adopting market rate prices. 

There have been some affordable housing projects announced in the past year, but these projects are woefully inadequate in terms of the need and in some cases involved some of the same developers that are creating the problems to begin with.

Representation on the Mayor’s Affordable Housing Committee

One concern from the very beginning, when it was announced that the Mayor was forming this committee, was who would have a seat at the table. Here is a list we received from someone who also sits on the committee.

Jordoun Eatman, David Allen, Sonali Allen, Anne Armstrong, Connie Bohatch, Max Benedict, Neil Carlson, Lamont Cole, Laurie Craft, Patricia Kelly, Kurt Hassberger, Mike Hawkins, Ruth Kelly, Tim Kelly, Alicia Key, Lynn Locke, Adelyn VanTol, Joshua Lunger, C. Frank, BriAnne McKee, Jon O’Connor, Clay Powell, Erica Hooser, Darel Ross, Gustavo Rotondaro, Kristin Turkelson, Suzanne Schulz, Monica Steimle, Celeste Vaught, Stacy Stout, Ryan VerWys, Ryan Wheeler, John Wheeler, Jesica Wood, Kara Wood, Landon Bartley, Amy Snow-Buckner, Audrey McIntosh, Nancy Haynes, Tracie Coffman, Jonathan Klooster, Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, Greg Sundstrom.

Those on this list are either elected city officials, city staff members, representatives of development companies and non-profit organizations. There are some housing advocates who are part of this list as well, but the majority of people who make up the affordable housing committee are those who by virtue of what they do and who they work for, will be unwilling to significantly challenge the status quo around housing, development, racial justice and economic issues.

An equally important point to raise is, who is not part of this committee? It can not be emphasized enough, that those who are Most Impacted by the current Housing Crisis – those displaced, working class people, marginalized communities of color, and queer youth – are not part of this committee. In fact, one could argue that they are the most important people in terms of making recommendations, since they are the ones who are currently experiencing the housing crisis.

Affordable Housing Recommendations

The 82-page report that was recently released consists of a lot of technical language and is not the most user-friendly document, but it is worth reading if we want to understand the framework that those who are members of this committee have put forth. 

There are three major aspects of the report. First, is a list of how funds should be used coming from the Grand Rapids Affordable Housing Community Fund. Second, there is a list of short-term recommendations, then followed by some long-term recommendations.

There are 24 short-term recommendations:

  • Reduce PILOT fee from 4% to 1%, Market rate developers qualify for PILOTS if affordable housing
  • Re-focus on homeownership
  • Incentives for small scale development (residential/commercial)
  • Reduce or subsidize City fees (i.e., water and sewer connection fees, LUDS, HPC, permits) Neighborhood Enterprise Zone
  • OPRA
  • Brownfield
  • Development agreement
  • Expedited permitting
  • Move to monthly water bills
  • a: Density bonus, b: parking reductions, c: affordable housing prerequisite
  • Homeownership and rental balance for healthy market and Tag parcels to an affordability index, to know affordability ranges
  • Number of unrelated people, raise from current four
  • Allow Accessory Dwelling Units by right
  • Non-condo zero-lot-line
  • Setback requirements, minimum lot size, building area, building width for single family
  • Mixed housing types
  • Height restrictions, increase
  • Eliminate lots of common ownership
  • Eliminate minimum lot width requirement in Traditional Neighborhood zone district and Lot width requirements for two families
  • Income Limits and Lead Practices for Tax Foreclosures
  • Layer lead abatement/housing assistance
  • Residential Rental Application Ordinance
  • Reduce or eliminate monitoring and blight fees for non-profits awaiting redevelopment

Most of these recommendations seem to be centered around construction and development and do not address the actual needs of the thousands of families currently experiencing the housing crisis. Again, this is not surprising, considering who is sitting at the table.

One short-term solution, which we have suggested, would be to have the city stop giving major tax-breaks to developers and to instead divert that money to the Affordable Housing Community Fund. In addition, the Affordable Housing Community Fund should have 50% or more of those determining how the money will be used, be from impacted communities. 

The long-term solutions continue much along in the same vein, which focuses on mild reforms that often benefit developers and home owners. There is a long-term recommendation about living wages, but with no real clarification. Certainly if people made $15 an hour, what many groups are calling for as the new minimum wage, it would make a difference in terms of what people could afford. However, even living wages have limitations.

The national Homes for All group has the following principles/values that would actually make more sense in terms of providing a framework to actually achieving housing justice, although these are values that those currently making a profit off of housing would never adopt. They also are committed to having this movement being majority led by those most impacted by the current housing crisis. Here are those values: 

Community and Housing are a Human Right: Our homes, our communities and the land upon which we live are not a commodity to be exploited for profit, they are precious resources that should be used to meet people’s needs.

• Land and housing should be collectively-owned and controlled by communities: We reject corporate and Wall Street ownership of land and promote alternative models that increase democratic participation and control over land & housing in our communities.

• Land and housing should be developed in a way that is sustainable for the planet.

• Land and Housing should be accessible, permanent, quality, and connected to economic, social and cultural networks and institutions.  No person, regardless of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, age, ability, citizenship or previous criminal or housing record should be denied a home nor forced to live apart of the networks and institutions our communities rely on to survive and thrive.

The Grand Rapids Chapter of Homes for All is working on trying to implement these principles. You can contact them at info@grhomesforall.com.

The recommendations put forth by the Mayor’s Affordable Housing Committee will be discussed at a meeting on Thursday, April 20, from 3-5pm at City Hall. However, the public is only allowed to observe, not to provide input, yet another indication of how this process is designed and how it has been managed.

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