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Dissecting the Grand Rapids State of the City speech

March 26, 2023

If you want to read the text of the Mayor’s State of the City speech, WGVU posted it. You can also watch the speech, which in many ways provides details the public would miss by just reading what was said.

Before we hear from the MC or the Mayor, the video version of the speech has three slides that repeat for 5 minutes. One slide just says, The State of the City 2023, but the other two slides (shown here above and below) are lists of corporate sponsors for the event. Now, why does the City even need corporate sponsors for the event? Maybe it was to cover the cost of renting the venue and the cost of refreshments to this invitation only event. It used to be that anyone from the public was invited, but is recent years it has become an invitation only, which means that those invited are in full support of what the City is doing. It also means that any dissenting voices are NOT invited, which also means any chance to question or confront City policies are eliminated. 

Even if the corporate sponsors are meant to cover the costs, it sets a bad tone for the entire event. First, it gives a free pass to those companies, since they are now seen as “friends” of the city. Second, it raises questions about what kind of relationship the City has with these corporations, corporations which have a history of exploitation and political manipulation. Third, there are four companies that benefit from the construction boom addressed in the Mayor’s speech – Rockford Construction, Triangle Construction, Diversco Construction and Progressive AE. Then there are three DeVos owned entities listed as sponsors – Amway RDV Corp and AHC Hospitality. I don’t think I need to argue why partnering with the DeVos family is problematic, but you can always look at The DeVos Family Reader for details.

Kent County Commissioner Tony Baker acted as the MC and asks elected officials to stand up during his opening comments. I’m always confused as to why elected officials are given that kind of recognition at these events. Aren’t they supposed to be there on behalf of the residents? I mean, no one else was asked to stand up, not health care workers, neighborhood organizers, teachers, mental health workers or volunteers of any kind, which as we know, are often the very people who make things happen.

Eventually Mayor Bliss comes to the podium and begins with the obligatory thanks, then begins by stating, Over the past year we continued to make considerable progress toward this next version of Grand Rapids. The Mayor then gives a list of several items, even naming several new neighborhood businesses that have opened. There was lots of economic rhetoric, such as economic growth, industrial growth, opportunities, transformative civic projects, and employment and wages are expected to grow locally. Does this mean that businesses will start paying a living wage so people can afford rent or even a home mortgage? Does thus mean that industrial growth doesn’t mean exploiting workers or the environment? Are the transformational civic projects going to lift up the most marginal in this city? 

The Crisis of Policing

Mayor Bliss then thanks Police Chief Winstrom, by saying, “It was also almost a year ago that Patrick Lyoya was tragically killed.” He wasn’t tragically killed, he was murdered, shot in the back of the head by a GRPD cop who was sitting on top of Patrick while he was lying face down on the ground. 

Chief, we are deeply grateful for your leadership this past year and your ability to listen, build accountability, trust and meaningful partnerships to ensure Grand Rapids remains one of the safest cities in America. 

In October, GRIID wrote a response to this claim of Grand Rapids being the safest city in Michigan, a claim made by the group Wallethub. In that GRIID post I wrote: 

In the Home & Community Safety category, the only reference to policing is, “Law-Enforcement Employees per Capita.” The WalletHub survey completely ignores anything about how local police departments target certain populations or what the public thinks about the role of policing in their community. 

Mayor Bliss then brags about the fact that there are now social workers and mental health workers who respond to calls with cops. Some cities are actually just sending out social workers and mental health workers, without cops. More importantly, we need to really think through and be critical of this practice of pairing cops with social/mental health workers. The national organization Interrupting Criminalization has great resources and a toolkit, providing critical analysis in response to what Grand Rapids is doing, particularly with their report, Beyond Do No Harm Principles.

Interrupting Criminalization also provides monthly trainings entitled, “Building Coordinated Crisis Response: A Learning Space for groups and organizations responding to crisis without police.” You can register for those trainings online at this link.

The Mayor went on to say, “The best response to violence is to stop it before it starts.” While I would agree with this sentiment, the Mayor’s notion of violence is limited to physical violence, or what the GRPD would identify as “criminal.” However, violence is also structural. When people don’t make enough money to support themselves or their families – like a living wage – then that is violence. When people can’t afford rent in the current housing market, then that is violence. When people who identify as trans are confronted by constant harassment, intimidation and transphobia, that is violence. This is where the real prevent starts, is to address structural violence, which is often the root causes of people engaging in street level violence. 

The Housing Crisis

The Mayor then shifted her comments around housing, “I mentioned last year, we are in a housing crisis because we have more people than homes. And our population is growing fast.”  While this statement might be true, it doesn’t address two fundamental aspects. First, the real housing crisis that exists for thousands in this community is affordability. When people don’t make a living wage, they can’t afford to either purchase a home or they can’t afford to pay rent. The second issue is whether or not growth is fundamentally a good thing. Now, within the framework of free market Capitalism, growth is always encouraged, but growth also means a burden on ecosystems, plus it increases the likelihood of creating more social and economic problems. Lastly, I think more housing units will be great for construction companies, developers, realtors and landlords/property management companies. It will not be beneficial to lots of residents who are being priced out of the housing market. Until we make sure that the thousands of people who can’t afford housing in this market, we will continue to displace people and push some sectors of the population out of the city, which has already been happening since the 2008/2009 economic crash.

Now, Mayor Bliss goes on to say that the City of Grand Rapids currently has more than 1,000 affordable homes and apartments in the development pipeline, but many of these new “affordable housing units” are not truly affordable. First, many of the new housing units that are apartments will cost more than many people can afford, regardless of the fact that they are calling it affordable housing. Second, most of these “affordable” housing units have been subsidized by public tax dollars that will fund the building of the units, meaning the money will go to developers, construction companies and non-profit housing entities. This is a temporary solution. We need to make sure that everyone makes a living wage – which would be a minimum of $25 an hour – for people to be able to afford rent or mortgage payments.

Mayor Bliss then states, “In 2022 we seeded the fund with 5 million dollars that will be dispersed yet this year. This year we will grow the fund by another 10 million dollars.” If the City of Grand Rapids was serious about re-directing money to fund truly affordable housing, then they could do what people have been demanding since June of 2020. People have demanded that the City reduce the GRPD budget to the 1995 City Charter mandated level of 33%, which would free up about $10 million every year. Imagine home much new housing could be built for that and how much in would benefit tenants who can’t afford rent right now? 

Lastly, when the Mayor names private and non-profit developers as central players in the current housing crisis, it limits our ability to radically imagine other ideas, ones that are not driven by Market Capitalism. On February 19, GRIID wrote a response to the Chamber of Commerce created Housing Next plans, which included the following ideas for how to address the housing crisis.

  • Paying people a livable wage, which right now would be $25 an hour minimum
  • Reducing the wealth gap in Kent County, where there are over 600 millionaires, but 25% of the population subjected to poverty.
  • Government regulated rent control
  • The creation of Tenant Unions to support tenant struggles and to develop tenant power in the face of landlord/Property Management housing, which is about maximizing profits, not the well being of tenants
  • Stop the influence peddling from Real Estate and Rental Property Associations, especially during election cycles, as we documented in 2022. 
  • Re-direct part of the massive GRPD budget to go towards housing, and redirect past of the massive US Military Budget ($858 Billion for 2023) and use it to provide housing for people, particularly the most marginalized communities.
  • Practice Radical Hospitality, particularly in the faith communities. Imagine home many people who are currently housing insecure, could benefit from the resources and hospitality of the faith communities. 
  • Limit large corporate property management companies or real estate investors from operating in Grand Rapids/Kent County.
  • End government subsidies/tax breaks for developers.
  • Promote cooperative housing and Community Land Trusts.

Mayor Bliss then shifts gears by saying, “We are seeing an explosion of entrepreneurship across our City,” when talking about neighborhood development. She lists several neighborhood businesses in the process. The Mayor then began to talk about the City’s “campaign to revitalize the Grand River corridor.” This of course is a campaign centered on developments projects, not on environmental sustainability, plus it re-affirms the City’s Settler Colonial history.

The Mayor then wraps up her State of the City speech by saying things like, “From policing – to housing – to our economy and environment, we are genuinely addressing root causes of issues that have simmered under the surface for generations. We are not doing it by hastily pushing top-down solutions.” Um, yes, you are. The City’s community engagement process is weak, and most times laughable, as we recently saw with the Public Safety meetings held in Grand Rapids last week. Plus, there are so many people who are invited and then appointed to various boards, most of which are people who work with or are representing members of the Grand Rapids Power Structure, as we noted in an October 2020 article. 

The Mayor of Grand Rapids then ends with lots of lofty language, positive language about progress and diversity, but even with all of the rhetoric, it is impossible to ignore all of the serious social problems this city faces. Personally, I do not trust the City of Grand Rapids, nor it’s corporate partners to do what is right, especially for the most marginalized in our city. I trust grassroots and autonomous projects and movements that not only pressure local government, they create and implement projects that do not rely on systems of power and oppression, like corporations and cops.

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