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We don’t need more services for the unhoused, we need real policies and practices that will end housing insecurity in Grand Rapids

January 16, 2023

During last week’s Grand Rapids Committee of the Whole meeting, there was a presentation by City staff, which provided a brief history on homelessness in Grand Rapids, along with a bit about what the federal government was doing beginning in the 1980s. However, just before the presentation, it is worth sharing some comments from City officials.

Mayor Bliss stated, “Today was an important conversation that we needed to have publicly as we talk about, what is the state of the current system, what is working well and what is not working, and how does the city play a role in improving services for individuals experiencing homelessness?

The Mayor’s statement was then followed by a few comments from City Manager Mark Washington, who said, “We know that this can be an issue that polarizes people based on your perspective. So what we hope to do is just call it like it is, balls and strikes, and share the facts about what’s happening in our community in terms of the people that are partnering in this work, and to look for opportunities in the future to improve on the work that’s going on.” 

Beginning at 2:50:40 into the video for the City meetings last week, is when Grand Rapids City staff did their presentation on a history of homelessness and government response. What follows is a critique of that presentation.

Before we get to the critique, I think it is important to stop using terms like homelessness. Homelessness is too limited a term, since not everyone who is facing eviction ends up being homeless. Many people go live with relatives or friends when they are housing insecure. Housing insecurity is a more accurate term, since it doesn’t limit the discussion to just those who are homeless, but those who can’t afford rental costs and those that are facing eviction. 

One of the first things that a city staffer said that is worth thinking about, was the City’s 3 pronged approach in dealing with the unhoused: investing in facilities, investing in services and systems, and investing in enforcement. The first two do not address root causes, thereby perpetuating a system of charity and other social services that will never end housing insecurity. The fact that enforcement is the third prong, makes it clear that the City of Grand Rapids will not hesitate to use or involve the GRPD. This third prong in the City’s approach could more accurately be termed the use of force within a larger carceral system.

A second Grand Rapids City staffer then presents some history. They do mention that Mel Trotters has been around since 1900, but fails to critique the White Savior institution that is not interested in ending housing insecurity, rather they want to continue to provide people of faith with an easy opportunity to donate money to an institution that ends up perpetuating inequality and housing insecurity.

In addition, this history of housing insecurity misses so much of the history that needs to be talked about, beginning with the original housing insecurity and housing displacement act, the settler colonialism of indigenous people. See the GRIID article entitled, Housing Justice through a Historic and Intersectional Lens: Looking back, imagining forward and fighting right now. 

The City Staff presenter then talks about the 1980s and the various federal government responses, such as creating a task force on homelessness in 1983 or passing the first legislation in 1987 to respond to homelessness. What is painfully missing in this history lesson, is the fact that the Regan administration did everything it could to roll back social policies going back as far as the new deal, to attack unions, to perpetuate systemic racism, and to escalated the war against working families. All of these factors are what contributed to housing insecurity in the 1980s. 

Next the presenter talked about policies beginning in 1995 called Continue of Care. These policies were about directing funding to communities that saw an increase in the number of unhoused people. Ironically, the very next year, the Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which essentially ended welfare as we knew it.  Coupled with the Crime Bill in 1994, the Clinton Administration escalated the war against working people that the Reagan administration had made a priority in the 1980s.

The City staffer then shifted to talking about Grand Rapids and the unhoused, beginning with groups like to Coalition to End Homelessness, which has been around for nearly three decades. What was not discussed is that the unhoused population and housing insecurity has increased during the past three decades in Grand Rapids. This tells me that what groups like the coalition are doing are ineffective or worse, they are perpetuating the problem. 

Since the Coalition to End Homeless has been created there have been other groups like the Essential Needs Task Force at the county level, and more recently the Housing Stability Alliance and Housing Kent. While there have been some positive evolutions with these institutionalized groups/efforts, they have by enlarged failed to address the root causing of housing insecurity. 

Certainly one of the largest factors in perpetuating the housing crisis and housing insecurity is the massive wealth gap that has been happening for decades all across the country, but has increased since the 2008 economic disaster. In 2016, Grand Rapids had the largest wealth gap of any city in Michigan, according to research done by the Economic Policy Institute.

Another factor that contributes to housing insecurity is how so many people do NOT make a living wage. In the last ten years the cost of buying a home and the cost of rent have gone through the roof. Therefore, one solution to ending housing insecurity would be to pay people a livable wage. From all the research I have done on a living wage, there is no consensus on what that would mean in Grand Rapids, but $25 an hour seems to be the minimum to make a living in this city. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, people need to earn $20.02 an hour to afford the average cost of rent in Grand Rapids. What is the City of Grand Rapids, all of these groups like to Coalition to End Homelessness and the Essential Needs Task Force, plus all of the shelters like Mel Trotters, along with groups like ICCF, what if they all publicly declared that a great step towards ending housing insecurity would be to pay people no less than $25 an hour? These groups have not made such a public declaration, which leads me to believe that they really don’t want to end housing insecurity. 

Next, we need to talk about the need to challenge the power of the Real Estate industry and the Rental Property Owners Associations. Both of these entities have powerful Political Action Committees and make substantial campaign contributions to elected officials, as we documented in 2022.

One concrete policy action that the City of Grand Rapids, the shelters and other non-profit housing groups could support would be to re-institute rent control in Michigan. Rental control can be a useful tool to limit the rental property owners from raising rental fees too high and too fast. 

Grand Rapids likes to think of itself as a city with lots of people of faith. If that is the case, then why are congregations not providing radical hospitality – temporary housing – for people who are housing insecure? How many families who identify as religious have empty bedrooms that could be used by people who are currently housing insecure? Faith institutions could also be about the business of creating housing co-operatives, which would not only make it less expensive for people, but also more options for housing that would counter the housing market narrative.

Other options/solutions would be to limit large corporate property management companies of real estate investors from operating in Grand Rapids. This would also be a useful policy for Grand Rapids to adopt, along with matching funds for affordable housing to that of the amount of money that developers get as tax incentives or Brownfield development benefits. 

When the City of Grand Rapids says they want to invest in services, invest in facilities and enforcement, they are acknowledging that they do NOT want to end housing insecurity, they only want to do triage and put a bandaid on the problem. These bureaucratic responses are not acceptable and we must make demands, demands that are rooted in justice and social transformation. Here Dr. King had something to say about making demands: “We are now making demands that will cost the nation something. You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with the captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult waters, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a Democratic Socialism.

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