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We need a Housing Justice movement that is led by those most affected and a guaranteed living wage in order to overcome the current housing crisis

August 28, 2022

Grand Rapids is facing a housing crisis. Few people would deny this fact. Grand Rapids City Officials are well aware of this fact and are doing what they think is needed to address to problem.

On August 18, the City of Grand Rapids posted the following under the news section of their website:

Over the past decade, more than 100 Grand Rapidians have volunteered their time serving on groups such as the Great Housing Strategies and the Housing Advisory Committee. Each initiative prompted revisions to City policies and ordinances that promoted creation and access to all levels of housing, but primarily affordable housing.

Despite advancements to remove barriers and make housing development easier in Grand Rapids, the demand for housing is outpacing development.

Housing remains a key focus of the City – something that’s imbedded in its strategic plan. In July 2020, the City commissioned a study that showed nearly 9,000 housing units — apartments, condos, single-family homes — were needed by 2025 to meet demand and avoid displacing residents. Progress is being made toward that goal – 1,045 new housing units have been added since that time, with more than 1,000 additional units reserved for low- to moderate-income residents currently planned and in various stages of pre-development. In the wake of the pandemic, developers are struggling to meet demand due to labor shortages, high material costs, rising land acquisition costs and inflation.

In addition, there is also a 50-page report entitled, Redefining the Path Home: System Building for Housing Stability in Kent County, which was produced in 2020 and has some good data on the current housing crisis. This report came out of a group of people working to create that document and was facilitated through KConnect. The housing sector of KConnect states:

We are a committed network of community stakeholders creating a more comprehensive housing system driven by community data that prioritizes equitable housing access in Kent County.

Our community-based approach focuses on The Path to Housing Stability that moves from “No-Housing” to “Housed by Choice” and aims to develop an equitable housing system for all people in Kent County.

This brief statement from KConnect uses the term “stakeholder,” a term which has always confused me at some level. But is we want to see what stakeholder means to the Housing Kent people, here are the names of the Board of Trustees:

  • Tasha Blackman – President and CEO of Cherry Health
  • Rosalynn Bliss – Mayor of Grand Rapids
  • Michael Bohnsack – President Bohnsack and Associates
  • Eric Brown – President and CEO Urban League of West MI
  • Lynn Ferrel – Program Director Frey Foundation
  • Raquel Guzman – Partner Avanti Law
  • Brad Kessel – President and CEO Independent Bank
  • Josh Lunger – Senior Director of Government Affairs Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce
  • Pamela Parriott – Director of Philanthropy DeVos Family Foundations
  • Al Vanderberg – Kent County Administrator
  • Mark Washington – City Manager/City of Grand Rapids

In addition, there was a group of community partners who developed the 50 – page report we mentioned earlier, which we can read on page 4 of the report.

In looking at the Board of Trustees for Housing Kent and the community partners group, it is very apparent that most of those listed are people who operate within systems of power – government representatives, business owners, Non-Profit Directors, Law Firms, etc. What you do not see listed are people who represent those directly affected by the current housing crisis – people who can’t afford to buy a home, those who are renters, those facing eviction, those living in homeless shelters and the unhoused.

This isn’t a new dynamic, where those making the decisions or creating a strategic plan about an issue are not made up of those most affected by the issue being addressed. In the 1980s, I was part of the Homelessness Task Force, which was part of the work being done by the Grand Rapids Area Center for Ecumenism (GRACE). Now, in the 1980s, I was living at Koinonia House, which was a community house that practiced radical hospitality. We had two rooms in our house, which were used for hospitality for those who were unhoused, had fled domestic violence or were refugees. Between 1984 and 1998, we offered hospitality to over 300 people who were in need of temporary housing, until they could find something more permanent. Sometimes people just needed a few days to figure out what to do and sometimes people needed 6 months to find housing stability. Doing radical hospitality work, certainly sensitized me to those who were experiencing a housing crisis, especially the unhoused. If there was anything I learned from that experience, it was that those who are most affected by a housing crisis need to be the primary people making decisions or coming up with ideas about how to achieve housing justice.

The entire history of social movements is predicated on the fact that they are led by those most affected. The Abolitionist Movements was led that those who were formerly enslaved, the labor movement was led by workers, the LGBTQ movement was led by those in the LGBTQ community, and the immigrant justice movement is being led by immigrants. Therefore, the current housing crisis should be led by those that are the most affected – people who can’t afford to buy a home, those who are renters, those facing eviction, those living in homeless shelters and the unhoused.

Unfortunately, this is not happening. So, what if the City of Grand Rapids and the Housing Kent would provide the space for those most affected to meet, plus they would need to provide transportation, refreshments and a stipend, since those most affected are struggling to survive. Now, I don’t expect that this is what will happen, since this would be a significant paradigm shift for those working in systems of power, even though it is possible. What we do know is the most effective housing justice efforts across the US are led by those most affected. Take for example the national movement known as Homes for All. Homes for All, which is part of the Right to the City Movement, is rooted in the belief that, “housing is a human right and that every person deserves a safe, affordable and permanent home.” This national movement is led by those most affected from the current housing crisis. 

Therefore, since the strategic plans that the City of Grand Rapids and Housing Kent have developed to address the current housing crisis do not center those most affected and are not led by those most affected, their plans will likely fail, or at best they will continue to perpetuate the same inequities. This has to change.

However, there is another glaring problem with the strategic plans of the City of Grand Rapids and Housing Kent, which is an economic justice problem. One critical problem for those who are seeking to buy a house or rent in this area, is that people do nor make a living wage. If the goal if for people to have housing stability, housing that is affordable, whether we are talking about owning a home or renting, then people need to make a living wage. 

The current housing market in Kent County is through the roof, which makes home ownership extremely difficult, unless you have a household income that is comparable with the cost of housing. In the graphic above, which was produced by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, you can see that people in the Grand Rapids/Wyoming area need to earn a minimum of $20.02 to afford the average cost of rent. Now, we know that there are literally thousand of individuals and families who are not earning $20 an hour, and thus cannot afford to pay rent. Yes, there are rental assistance programs, but they are all temporary. In both the City of Grand Rapids and Housing Kent’s strategic plans, there is no mention of the need for people to earn a Living Wage, which ultimately means that their strategic plans will once again fail.

From my own reading of history, those is positions of power rarely ever make decisions to do things like make housing a human right, unless of coursed they are forced to do so by grassroots social movements. If we are being honest with ourselves, the only way we can get out of the current housing crisis is to have a housing justice movement that is led by those there are most affected and to guarantee that everyone living in Kent County earns a livable wage. 

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