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Grand Rapids, Development and Equity in a Market-driven economy

November 27, 2017

On Friday, MLive ran a story based on new recommendations from the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use that would promote greater equity with development projects in Grand Rapids. 

These recommendations are necessarily new, as they come out of a report that was presented to Grand Rapids by the Rose Center in March 2017, which we reported on

The MLive article lists nine recommendations from the Rose Center, but before we address those recommendations, it is important to state a few things up front.

First, a major problem with these recommendations are that they are rooted in idea that we can achieve equity within a market-based system of capitalism. There is just no historical evidence that equity can be achieved within a system of capitalism. In fact, within a market-based system we can be guaranteed that there will be greater inequity – class, racial and gender inequity.

Second, the recommendations keep using the incentives and incentivizing. Instead of using the term incentivizing, why don’t we name what it incentives are, which are taxpayer subsidies or the transfer of public money into private hands. When a developer proposes to build a new condo project, the city offers subsidies or the transfer of public money into private hands. These “incentives” suggest that the private sector cannot make these development projects happen without public funds. This is simply not true, rather it means that a private development company will see more immediate returns on their investment. We all need to have a more serious discussion on whether or not the public wants to see more of their money subsidizing the private sector.

Now, lets turn to the 9 recommendations.

  1. Incentivize development beyond downtown – For me, this sounds like they want to expand the same kind of development process used in the downtown area and expand it to other parts of the city. For those who have not bought into the market-based mindset, the development that has occurred in recent decades in downtown GR has primarily benefited the wealthier sectors of this community and at the same time further marginalized those experiencing poverty and communities of color, particularly in the Heartside area. This first recommendation simply means they want to duplicate the downtown development model in our neighborhoods.
  2. Create a community land trust – This recommendation is misleading, since they are talking about what the city government could do to purchase/access more land for “affordable housing.” Community Land Trusts are really born out of resident-led efforts to protect areas of land from developers and gentrification. Instead of just talking about the city getting access to more land for housing, how about the city encouraging residents to look into creating community land trusts that would give residents more control over the future of neighborhoods that are threatened by private developers. 
  3. Stop putting so many incentives towards parking lots and garages – This recommendation makes sense, since they emphasize more public transit and not promoting a car culture. However, this recommendation needs to take into consideration that there is also a history of white supremacy and contempt for the those experiencing poverty to create walkable communities that primarily benefit white professionals and white members of the “creative class.”
  4. Require developers using public incentives to use local businesses – I get the intent of this recommendation, but just because a business is local, doesn’t mean what they do promotes justice and equity. Amway, Rockford Construction, Wolverine Oil & Gas, Meijer, Wolverine Worldwide and Universal Forest Products are all local companies, but none of them are about creating greater equity in the community.
  5. Put an equitable economic development strategy in writing – This recommendation seems to be about promoting greater transparency. While I am in favor of increased transparency it doesn’t really address whether or not equitable economic development can occur.
  6. Consider creating a city Department of Transportation – I’m not sure that creating more government entities is the solution. What if people who live and work in the city have more say in developing more efficient and just ways for people to move about in this city. Such an effort should also be led by those who are the most marginalized in our car-dependent culture – those with disabilities, people experiencing poverty, communities of color.
  7. Advocate for state policy change for popular incentives – This recommendation makes tax credits for developers an incentive that should be pushed at the state level. However, instead of focusing on more transfer of public money to the private sector, how about returning to a state policy that would promote rent control. A statewide rent control policy would do more to benefit those being priced out of neighborhoods than promoting more “incentive” programs. The realty sector would fight having a rent control policy in place, but tenants could begin by creating a union that would give them power to fight for rent control and other issues, while not having to wait for a state policy.
  8. Create a new position in city hall to facilitate engagement – This recommendation makes it clear that the city currently does a poor job when it comes to community engagement. Creating such a position will not necessarily mean more people will be involved in future planning. If you look at the Planning Commission right now, it is made up of too many people who benefit from development projects and not those who are most impacted from such projects. The problem is that the city too often gives private developers too much power. Instead of just creating a community engagement position, there needs to be a commitment to giving neighborhoods and residents more power in determining the future of their communities.
  9. Start a citizen’s learning institute – This recommendation seems rather patronizing to me. People need to be informed about what is happening in their neighborhoods and what the city process is when developer approach them, but that shouldn’t require a  citizen’s learning institute. Besides, what good does it do for people to have a better understanding of how the city too often sides with private developers in this process. Ultimately, people need to feel empowered to take more ownership in their neighborhoods and this is already happening, despite what developers and the city government are doing. Just look at the pushback from the AmplifyGR development plans

Again, it is important to emphasize that market-based solutions will not create more equity in the city. In fact, this is a sentiment that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr shared.


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