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Housing Justice through a Historic and Intersectional Lens: Looking back, imagining forward and fighting right now

May 11, 2017

(The following post is based on a presentation given on May 10 at the monthly gathering hosted by Spectrum Health Healthier Communities.)

What I want to do is look at a brief history of housing justice in Grand Rapids, then look at the current housing crisis and lastly to discuss some possibilities about how to organize for the future.

This first slide is important because we need to acknowledge that the founding of Grand Rapids is rooted in the displacement of the Anishinaabe people that lived along the Grand River in the early past of the 18th century. The imagine you see here is of some of the early christian churches, because they played a significant role in the displacement of Indigenous people.

The early displacement is what Native scholar Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz names as Settler Colonialism, where Euro-Americans took Native land and colonized those communities, slowly pushing them out. This reality needs to be named the original displacement, which is what the West MI blog, If theRiver Swells, has identified it as such.

The above slide is a picture of the home of one of the furniture barons in Grand Rapids, William Gay. The amazing account of the 1911 Furniture Workers Strike by Viva Flaherty, documents that most of the 8400 people working in the furniture industry in Grand Rapids at the time, the average wage of those furniture workers was $1.91 per day. Thus, most of those who worked in the furniture industry did not own their own homes and the homes they did live in were very basic, often with extended family members. This wealth disparity between furniture barons and furniture workers translated into the capitalist class living in luxury and working class families living in substandard housing.

In the next slide below, we can see a map of the city of Grand Rapids, which at the time of the 1911 furniture workers strike had 12 wards. One of the lessons that the furniture barons learned during the 1911 strike is that working class people had too much support and sympathy at the city government level. The capitalist class crafted a ballot initiative in 1916 to change the city charter to reduce the political structure from 12 wards to three wards, a ballot initiative that was passed. This meant that the diverse ethnic communities in Grand Rapids now had less political representation after 1916, which is important in thinking about the larger political climate and how that impacted housing justice at the time. Essentially, the charter change was a form of class warfare against working class people.

The next several slides looks at how racism and White Supremacy has factored into housing issues, particularly as it impacted the African American community. The first example looks at how white residents in Grand Rapids felt so privileged that they could actually petition the city government to deny black people to buy homes and move into white only neighborhoods. Housing segregation was systemic in the early part of the 20th century and was perpetuated because of the structural racism that existed at that time.

The next slide in many ways speaks for itself, since it provides a snapshot of the housing conditions of the African American community in Grand Rapids, based on a 1940 Urban League report.

The next slide provides a summary of another report produced by the Urban League in 1947, which has a section on the housing conditions for the Black community in 1947.

After WWII, much of the US highway system was constructed. In Grand Rapids, the construction of US 131 and 196 resulted in the destruction of hundreds of homes and the displacement of roughly 4,000 working class families. You can see from the images below that just east of St. Adalbert’s Catholic church, where the beginning of US 131 was being constructed, was once an area where hundreds of homes stood. The other photo depicts the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce sponsored ribbon cutting of the opening of the highway in Grand Rapids, especially since their members were not negatively impacted by the destruction of homes and displacement.

This next slide is based on the research conducted by Todd Robinson for his book, A City Within a City. Robinson makes the point that there was massive White flight beginning in the 1960s, since White people did not want to share neighborhoods with African Americans and because of the fear that White people had as it relates to the growing political disenfranchisement of the Black community. Not only did White people move to the suburbs, they took a great deal of wealth with them that deeply impact neighborhoods throughout the city.

The 1967 riot in Grand Rapids was sparked by police repression of several black youth in July of that year. Some of the rage in the Black community targeted rental units in the southeast side and businesses that were owned by White people. The images you see below are from the corner of Jefferson and Buckley SE and Pleasant St, near Jefferson. In addition, you can see the front page of the Grand Rapids Press from July 26, 1967.

What is instructive from some of the media coverage of the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids, were the comments from white people in communities close to Grand Rapids. In the slide below you can see the White Supremacist attitudes reflected in the comments, attitudes that mirror much of what we have seen since the Ferguson and Baltimore uprisings in recent years.

Lastly, after the 1967 riot occurred, the Planning Commission from the City put together a report about the riot, along with recommendations. The report is entitled, Anatomy of a Riot, which you can read at this link. It is interesting that the report suggests that the market should determine housing outcomes for the African American community.

Now that we have looked at some of the historical context into housing issues in Grand Rapids, lets look at the current crisis. I was asked to look at the homeless population and at least provide some data on those currently experiencing homelessness. First, maybe we could use the following definition of what it means to be homeless.

Next, we can look at the fairly current data taken from the Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness. This data only reflects the number of people that were living in shelters, transitional housing, on the street or in cars.

What is problematic about this data is that is woefully underestimates the amount of people who are homeless, since it doesn’t include those that are temporarily staying with friends/family. The data also doesn’t include the thousands of people who are a paycheck away from being evicted or foreclosing on their homes because of losing a job or lack of adequate income. What I am proposing is that we view housing justice through a more complex and intersectional lens, that moves beyond the language of homelessness to what we might call Housing Insecurity.

All of these populations have been negatively impacted by the current housing crisis and are experiencing housing insecurity. Lets begin by looking at the issue of poverty in Grand Rapids and Kent County. This first slide is based on data from Kids Count Michigan and shows that 1 in 5 children lives in poverty. In the case of Black and Latino children the number is 1 in 4 are living in poverty.

In this map, one can see that higher levels of poverty are disproportionately located in neighborhoods where Black and Latino families live.

In this next slide you can a graphic from a recent report that identifies Grand Rapids as being 3rd on the list of top 10 cities with inequality.

In the following slide, we see another map based on a study done by the Economic Policy Institute, which shows the Grand Rapids/Wyoming metro area as having the worst income disparity in Michigan.

The next slide simply reflects the massive amount of wealth disparity between just two families and half a million children living in poverty in Michigan.

The graphic below shows the growing number of millionaires in Kent County from 2010 to 2014. This data can be found at the following link.

The next slide provides data on what someone would have to earn in Michigan in order to be able to afford rent.

The reality is that many people earn well below the $15.16 an hour that is necessary to rent in Michigan. In fact, the current minimum wage in Michigan is $8.90 and hour and will only increase to $9.25 an hour in 2018.

This next slide, produced by the group, Grand Rapids Homes for All, makes the point that while rent has nearly doubled in the past 10 years, income has not for working class people.

The next several slides look at how certain vulnerable and marginalized population have numerous obstacles to face in order to find adequate and affordable housing. This first slide shows how queer and trans youth are negatively impacted because of the homophobic and transphobic culture we live in.

If you are caught within the Prison Industrial Complex, housing because even more precarious, especially since it is nearly impossible to find housing with a felony conviction in Michigan.

For those who are undocumented, finding housing is also extremely difficult. The next slide reflects what the State of Michigan says about the necessity of having documentation in order to rent.

Now, let’s turn to how gentrification impacts people throughout Grand Rapids. The real consequences of gentrification can be felt by the increased cost of rent, the physical displacement of people and the destruction of homes from development projects and the social and cultural marginalization that people experience in gentrified neighborhoods.

The first example is from the GVSU incursion into the Belknap Neighborhood, where the university took out an entire block of homes and displaced dozens of working class families in the process.

The GVSU destruction of housing also opened up opportunities for private developers, like Orion Construction to develop expensive market rate housing such as their Gateway project.

A second example can be seen on the near westside, with all the development that Rockford Construction is involved in. In the pictures below you can see just some of the houses that were demolished, which displaced numerous families.

This destruction of homes and displacement of families has paved the way for what Rockford Construction calls the “super block” project.

Another issue that is connected to all of these recent development projects resulting in the gentrification of neighborhoods, is the massive amount of state and city tax breaks being given to developers. Millions of dollars are provided in tax breaks for market rate housing projects while there is an urgent housing crisis confronting thousands of working class individuals and families. In addition, the power structure in Grand Rapids is putting an emphasis on creating more tourism and recreation while thousands of people are faced with a housing crisis.

The last slide that looks at the impact of gentrification in Grand Rapids is based on a recent Michigan Radio story called Push Out, which affirms what many people have been saying for years. The report also shows the dramatic increase in out of town and out of state investors that are buying up property since Grand Rapids housing prices have sky-rocketed.

Now lets talk a bit about how we can organize around housing justice. The slide below is making the point that we need to implement all of the ideas as a way of recognizing the intersectional nature of the housing crisis. There is no one single answer, but the need to implement a variety of tactics and strategies in order to have get what is necessary. People need to make no less than $15 an hour in order to afford the current housing costs. Tax breaks should primarily be given to those who will be building affordable housing. We have to stop tearing down houses and be about the work of rehabbing houses for working class families. The city needs to put restrictions on the amount of properties that outside investors and investors in general can own in the city. There needs to be a development process that begins with the neighborhood, where people have a direct say in any proposed development project in their communities. We need a viable Tenant Union that will be made up of tenants that are most impacted from the current housing crisis, which will allow them to engage in rent freeze campaigns, like what we see happening all across the country.

Lastly, we need to seriously look outside of government to more autonomous ideas and actions that create housing justice. What would it look like for more people to practice radical hospitality and to provide free spaces in their homes for people who are housing insecure? We don’t need more shelters, we need people willing to take care of each other. We also need to develop more coop housing options and collective living opportunities that not only could solve some of the housing crisis, but could provide a catalyst for people to experience a less expensive and less stressful life. Considering how many churches we have in this city, what would it look like for churches to buy homes and then provide them to people who want to buy or rent a home at a fair price as a means to offer concrete support for families experiencing the housing crisis. Again, we need to rehab housing and stop demolishing homes. A great model is what was started by Habitat for Humanity, a model which could be replicated by all kinds of collective entities. People could get involved with Grand Rapids Homes for All and work on the issues they are focused on, along with introducing the idea of Community Land Trusts into how we can protect and expand housing justice in the city.





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