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After critiquing the AmplifyGR development proposal, Together We Are Safe announces they will be working to form a Tenant Union

March 1, 2020

GRIID – With the recent statement on AmplifyGR, why did TWAS feel it was important to make such a statement?

TWAS: AmplifyGR recently received preliminary approval for their Phase I plans by the City Planning Commission. Yet at the hearing we heard from so many in the community that had real concerns and that felt that things were going too fast.  Our neighbors, our friends hadn’t been able to attend community engagement meetings – either they hadn’t heard about them or they hadn’t been able to attend, or it already felt like it was not for them. 

We also feel there’s a huge difference between managed, facilitated “community engagement” as opposed to deep community conversation that arises in an organic way.  We noticed a disconnect from what we had heard in 2017.  In 2017, even folks at AmplifyGR said they were considering putting the land in trust and letting the community decide the plans.  At the very least, as many of us in the community said back then, we wanted signed Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) that we could hold them to, contracts that would outline things like:

  • rent control,
  • jobs and businesses going to the community,
  • true living wages ($15 an hour isn’t enough in this housing market),
  • collective management of some assets – the community growing together.

We haven’t heard anything more about those.

We also noticed there were some respectability politics at play – we heard representatives of churches, non-profits, businesses, and homeowners speak in support of AmplifyGR.  These folks are great; they’re important voices in the community.  But it’s the folks who are even more marginalized – like some of us who are renting, or are underemployed, or are living with chronic illness, or our existence has been criminalized in some way so either we have a record or a family member who is incarcerated – we didn’t feel like we were hearing enough from those of us. 

In fact, some of the homeowners we were talking to were wanting “the criminal element” out of their neighborhood.  We felt like if the community was having a deeper and more inclusive community conversation, and really talking to everybody, that would be a different conversation – it would have to be because people experiencing incarceration would be more involved.

So it seemed important to point all that out, while there’s still time in the narrative to make more space for it, before it goes to the City Commission.

GRIID – You mention towards the end of the statement on AmplifyGR that your group is wanting to form a Tenant Union in the Greater Grand Rapids area. Why did you choose to announce a tenant union attached to a response about AmplifyGR?

TWAS: Renters make up a third of the population of Boston Square, and almost half of the population of Grand Rapids as a whole.  We realized that in order for us to hear from more of us who don’t have access to property ownership, for whatever reason, we needed to be intentional about making space for our stories, and making space for our organizing.

We believe it’s really important to have a tenants union because our communities deserve a voice for the people, created by the people, and with the best interest of the community in mind.

GRIID – Is the announcement about a tenant union connected to the increased levels of gentrification we are seeing in this community? If so, how do you think a tenant union will act as a counter to some of the effects of gentrification and housing insecurity?

TWAS:  Absolutely, yes.  One of the most frequent concerns we heard at the City Planning Commission Hearing was about gentrification, and it makes sense.  If the plans go through and AmplifyGR sells those renovated spaces, even if they guarantee jobs to the people in the neighborhood, property values and taxes will rise, and so will rents.  If the jobs are paying $15 an hour it’s not going to cover increased rents – you can see it coming, that people will get pushed out again.

If we make space for renters to share their stories and to hear each other – how we’ve been pushed out of our neighborhoods by so-called “urban renewal” and rising rents – then we make space to organize for something better.  We are setting up a framework that encourages the deep organic conversations that we are longing to hear.

GRIID – What kind of power could a tenant union have that is different than the approaches that all of the other housing rights groups are working on in this community?

TWAS:  We can take care of each other so we’re not alone.  Because we will be led by renters, for renters, we would do things in a way that reflects our needs.

For instance, the places we can afford to stay now, in neighborhoods that aren’t yet gentrified, are often in bad repair.  But if we work together, we have collective power.  Then nobody has to go through it alone.  If a person needs repairs on their place, a bunch of us can call the landlord, and we can help them report a landlord who is trying to evict them based on their request for repairs (because that happens a lot).

We’re not as interested in talking to the City Commission – lots of people do that already, so we feel like that need is filled.  It’s become “business as usual” to have folks like us on the brink of losing our housing again and again, and we want to disrupt that by using our power together. 

So our unique focus is on taking care of each other, claiming our power in numbers, and getting results when it comes to property maintenance, keeping our rents down, and anti-eviction measures.

Together We Are Safe will be announcing their first tenant union meeting soon, so check their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/TWASforMLK/. 

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