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3 Questions for ICCF since they acquired 177 homes in recent deal worth $14.5 million

December 13, 2017

In March, we reported on the corporatization of rental housing in Grand Rapids, based on a study we did in part of the southeast area of the city. We found that the private equity firm known as RDG Fund-5 LTH LLC, owned the most rental units in the Garfield Park area.

Then in May of this year, Michigan Radio came out with a documentary called Pushed Out, which also looks at how private equity companies and larger property management companies began buying hundreds of properties after the 2007/2008 economic crash. The Michigan radio documentary made the point that the corporatization of rental properties is one of the major contributing factors to the increased cost of rent.

A few months ago it was announced that the Inner City Christian Federation (ICCF) was in the process of buying all the homes that RDG Fund own in Grand Rapids and Lansing, a total of 177 homes. Last week, MLive reported that the deal has been finalized between ICCF and RDG Fund, totaling $14.5 million. After reading the MLive article, I have several questions for ICCF about the deal.

First, ICCF lists several “affordable housing agencies,” including LINC, the Kent County Land Bank, Habitat for Humanity and AmplifyGR. When did AmplifyGR become an affordable housing agency? AmplifyGR has no history of promoting or offering affordable housing, so why are they listed as an affordable housing agency? AmplifyGR has only existed for about 1 year and already has been questioned by many in the community on their intentions around development issues and transparency in the Boston Square and Cottage Grove neighborhoods. 

Second, the MLive article lists several area foundations as contributing to the cost of the purchase of the RDG Fund properties – The Barnabas Foundation, CDV5 Foundation, Peter C. and Emajean Cook Foundation, Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation, Frey Foundation, National Christian Foundation West Michigan, David and Carol Van Andel Foundation, Jandernoa Foundation and the Wege Foundation.

Most, if not all, of these foundations were founded by members of the capitalist class and many of them, especially the DeVos, Van Andel and Jandernoa families all have a history of supporting public policies that benefit those with wealth and punish individuals and families who are struggling financially. These families have a history of funding political candidates which are supported policies like Right to Work, attacks on public sector pensions and doing away with minimum wage laws. You can see from this chart, that these families have been major contributors and those they contribute to have supported policies that promote austerity measures. (See the Michigan Campaign Finance Network report

One question for ICCF, based on their funding sources for this deal, is how much money did they receive from each foundation and under what criteria did these foundations donate money?

The ICCF director is quoted in the MLive article as saying. “the foundations are investing in the housing market instead of the stock market or bonds, in what VerWys calls program related investment.” A third question would be, what does the ICCF director mean by program related investment? While the city of Grand Rapids is experiencing gentrification in many of the neighborhoods, what does it mean to have the most powerful families contribute to the ICCF deal?

These questions are particularly relevant considering the lack of transparency in the case of the AmplifyGR process, where millions of dollars were spent purchasing properties in two neighborhoods without people from those neighborhoods even being aware this was happening.

These questions arise from my own experience of working with those who have experienced homelessness and have been forced out of their neighborhoods because of the impact that gentrification has had. These questions are rooted in the spirit of housing justice, which not only includes the principle that housing is a right, but that the entire community should have a say in what happens with housing and development in this city. I am sharing these questions with ICCF and see if they respond.

Betsy DeVos Watch: The Education Secretary once again speaks to an organization that the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation gives money to

December 12, 2017

One pattern, which has emerged in the first year that Betsy DeVos has served as Secretary of Education, is that she has a tendency to speak at events hosted by organizations that she and her family foundations have provided substantial funding to.

In July, DeVos spoke at the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) annual gathering.  Betsy, and several members of the DeVos Family have been a financial contributor to ALEC over the years. Then, just a few months ago, the Acton Institute hosted their annual gathering, where DeVos was again the keynote speaker. Betsy DeVos and other members of the family have contributed substantially, but the Secretary of Education used to sit on the board of the Acton Institute. Betsy’s mother, Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, is a current member of Acton’s board.

Less than two weeks ago, DeVos was the keynote speaker at the annual education summit hosted by the Foundation for Excellence in Education. DeVos was a member of the Foundation for Excellence in Education board of directors, until she was chosen by President Trump to run the Department of Education. As in the case of the other examples, the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation have contributed significantly the Foundation for Excellence in Education

The Foundation for Excellence in Education is a group founded by former Florida Governor, Jeb Bush. The mission and focus of the group is around so-called School Choice, which essentially means they promote charter schools and school privatization. 

Like many of these right wing think tanks, the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) works closely with the American Legislative Exchange Council on education reform policies. FEE also is a member of the State Policy Network, which provides resources and guidance on implementing neoliberal policies at the state level.

You can read the speech that DeVos delivered at the annual education summit, but there wasn’t anything knew or terribly interesting. DeVos continued her usual talking points around making students and parents her priority and why education reform – charter schools, school privatization – are necessary. 

There were two things that DeVos said, which are worth pointing out. First, DeVos thanked the woman who introduced her, Denisha Merriweather, was a recipient of at FEE scholarship while attending school in Florida and is now working for Betsy DeVos at the Department of Education.

The other comment from DeVos worth mentioning, also came at the beginning of her speech, when she said:

I’m happy to be back with so many friends at Excel in Ed, especially as you celebrate the 10th anniversary of this National Summit on Education Reform. The Summit has welcomed visionary and inspiring leaders from across government, business and academia, and, as those of you who attended the 2011 Summit in San Francisco will remember, even some friends from Sesame Street made an “unscheduled” guest appearance! I hope they’re not joining us again today!

What DeVos inadvertently does, is to acknowledge that people have been resisting the school privatization agenda for as long as she has been promoting it. Here is a short video, featuring the first Foundation for Excellence in Education summit speaker, Rupert Murdock, being interrupted in 2011.

When Betsy DeVos spoke at this year’s Foundation for Excellence in Education Summit, teachers again rallied to protest her visit to Nashville, where the summit was held just 2 weeks ago. 

Government Sources Yes, Community Voices No: More ICE Arrests in Grand Rapids

December 11, 2017

A Media Release from Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) from this past Friday begins by saying: 

A Mexican national in the country illegally, who has a prior conviction for assault on a law officer, is among 27 foreign nationals taken into custody during a four-day operation conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) this week in western Michigan, targeting at-large criminal aliens, illegal re-entrants and other immigration violators.

Such statements from ICE are standard, as they want to communicate to the news media and to the public at large that what they are doing is to, “focus its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security.

These media releases from ICE always make sure that they highlight the “worst” cases of immigration violations and in this case it was a Mexican national who had a prior conviction for assault on a law officer.

However, the reality is that most people that ICE has been targeting are people who entered or re-entered the US without documentation. There are many others with minor offenses, like driving without a license and other misdemeanor charges. For the most part, ICE is not arresting people who are a threat to national security. The people being arrested by ICE are often primary income earners with families and people who do work in the service sector, like migrant workers, food packers, janitors and restaurant workers.

This view that immigrants are portrayed as dangerous criminals is a strategy that was recently being promoted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). An article published in October by the independent publication, The Intercept, which included declassified e-mails from DHS, begins by saying: 

A directive to immigration officials across the country to try to portray undocumented immigrants swept up in mass raids as criminals came directly from then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, The Intercept has learned.

Unfortunately, when ICE raids, the public will rarely get a perspective outside of government sources. As we have reported on in the past, the local news media relies almost exclusively on the information provided to them by the Department of Homeland Security. Here is the ICE Media Release, which is repeated in one form or another by MLive, WOOD TV 8, WXMI 17 and WZZM 13. The TV stations don’t have any video, since none was provided to them by ICE and only MLive has a picture (here on the right), which they sourced as being from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

What this means is that the public only gets to hear what government sources have to say and those sources are not questioned or challenged. In addition, the public is not provided any commentary from those who were arrested, their family members, immigration organizations or members of the immigrant community.

Since the news media recycles the perspective of ICE on these arrests, the public rarely  is provided with information on immigration policy, the feat that these raids create in the community and how is impacts immigrant families.

In addition, since the news media does not question or challenge ICE officials, there are no follow up stories or investigation into the policies and practices of ICE. The news media could cite a new report from Human Rights Watch that was released last week, which challenged the ICE raids narrative. 

Another simple connection on this issue would be for local news media to look at the upcoming vote that will impact DACA recipients and their families. However, such stories are not likely to appear in local news sources and we end up with only a very bias government perspective.

Protests planned today in West MI against FCC efforts to destroy Internet Neutrality

December 7, 2017

Today, there will be hundreds of protest against the FCC plans to gut what is often referred to as Net Neutrality. If FCC Chairman Pai gets what he wants, the internet will be under greater corporate control and people will have to pay extra for access to websites, downloads and apps that are currently free. Here is a useful video that makes it clear why Net Neutrality needs to continue.

Now, battles over Net Neutrality are not new. In fact, they have been going on ever since the internet became accessible to the average person. However, the pressure to limit public access to the internet is getting another big push from companies like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T. FCC Chairman Pai is a former Verizon lawyer, which is why the protests today are being held at Verizon stores all across the country and in West Michigan.

There are protests scheduled in two locations in West Michigan today, at different times:

  • 11:00am at Holland’s Verizon store – 3351 W Shore Dr Ste 10 Holland MI 49424
  • 4:00pm at the Verizon store – 3850 Alpine Ave NW Comstock Park MI 49321

A sample of what could be handed out at these demonstrations, which are being coordinated by the group, states the following:

Net neutrality is the First Amendment of the internet. It protects our free speech in the digital age. Members of Congress must call on Chairman Pai to abandon his current plan to kill net neutrality because it will allow Internet providers  to control what we see and do online.

“Title Two” is the legal foundation for net neutrality protections. It prevents companies like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T from charging us all extra fees to access the websites, apps, and online services we depend on, and manipulating what we see with throttling, blocking, and censorship.

Net neutrality gives more people a voice than ever before. It’s what has made the Internet such a powerful platform for anyone who wasn’t given a voice or fair treatment by mainstream media. Without net neutrality, vulnerable communities would lose access to a critical platform for organizing and storytelling. Net neutrality repeal would be particularly devastating to communities of color, rural communities and low-income communities.

At this point, Rep. Justin Amash has not taken a position on Net Neutrality, but Rep. Bill Huizenga is supporting the end of Net Neutrality. Michigan Senators are split on the issue, with Sen. Stabenow supporting Net Neutrality, while Sen. Peters supports the corporate takeover of the internet. 

The original GOP Tax Bill would have benefited one of the most far right colleges in the country that many West Michigan elites support – Hillsdale College

December 6, 2017

It is not a stretch to say that the GOP Tax Bill will continue to war on working people, the poor and disproportionate communities of color. This graphic here, makes it clear who the primary beneficiaries are with the tax bill.

However, in addition to how this tax bill will benefit the rich, there are other aspects of it that we should pay attention to. For instance, there is a provision on page 289 that, “would exempt certain colleges from a special tax on university endowments. It would only apply to colleges that: 1. Did not accept federal funds, and 2. Had an endowment of at least $500,000 per student.” 

There is actually only one college in the entire country that meets this requirement – Hillsdale College, located in the southern part of Michigan.

Hillsdale College has an interesting history and is one of the colleges in the US that is deeply committed to far right/reactionary neoliberal economic policies. They boast of night taking any money from the federal government, as can be seen in this video that Hillsdale College created.

Investigative journalist Russ Bellant, has written several books on far right organizations and movements in the US and in Michigan. Bellant wrote the book, The Religious Right in Michigan Politics and The Coors Connection: How Coors Family Philanthropy Undermines Democratic Pluralism.

In The Coors Connection, Bellant describes the politics of Hillsdale College. Bellant says the school’s supports are a who’s who of the far right in US politics. Indeed, one of the former presidents of Hillsdale, was George Roche. Roche, while serving as President of Hillsdale College was also a member of the World Anti-Communist League (WACL).

Longtime Hiilsdale President Roche is opposed in general to social engineering plans, among which he includes affirmative action and public education. Roche has attacked the Civil Rights Restoration Act as frightening federal intervention. He calls affirmative action “the putrid backwash of all the tired social engineering schemes and complains that its advocates are so hypersensitive that a school’s unwillingness to set up advanced bongo drum programs is called racist.”

Bellant goes on to say:

“The selection of contributors for Hillsdale’s monthly magazine, Imprimis, also relfects the school’s far right political views. In one issue, Gerda Bikales, a founder and former executive director of the English Only organization, US English, condemned the advocates of cultural diversity and bilingual education. She attacked the skilled language planners and other militant advocates who promote bilingual education, as well as those who aggressively pursue diversity and cultural pluralism.”

However, don’t just take the word of Bellant, even a recent article in the New York Times made it clear that the politics of Hillsdale College are reactionary and far right.

Because Hillsdale College does not accept federal money, they do not have to follow federal policy, like Title IX.  As a result, the college does not follow Title IX guidelines on sex discrimination and the handling of sexual assault cases and it has refused to engage in the otherwise required reporting on student race and ethnicity, let alone develop an affirmative action plan. Not surprisingly, the school’s “race blind” admissions policy results in an overwhelmingly white student body.

In 2013, Dr. Arnn was castigated by Michigan legislators when, during testimony against the Common Core, he made a remark about officials who questioned Hillsdale’s racial record. Years before, he said scornfully, Michigan officials had come to the campus with clipboards, trying to count faces and prove, he said, that the college “didn’t have enough dark ones.” He later issued a barbed apology: “No offense was intended by the use of that term except to the offending bureaucrats.”

The New York Times article goes on to say:

It is no coincidence that Justice Clarence Thomas, an advocate of strict “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution, delivered the commencement address last spring, likening Hillsdale to a “shining city on a hill” for its devotion to “liberty as an antecedent of government, not a benefit from government.”

West Michigan Connection

So, in addition to the proposed tax bill being nothing short of class warfare, it also benefits a far right college that has connections some of the most powerful families in West Michigan.

The Van Andel Family has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Hillsdale College. Van Andel’s son, Steve, was a 1978 graduate of Hillsdale. In 2013, after he donated to graduate school scholarships and operations, Hillsdale named it’s graduate school of statesmanship in his honor. Lastly, Erik Prince, the founder of the private mercenary army, Blackwater, also graduated from Hillsdale in 1992, just prior to working on Patrick Buchanan’s campaign that same year.

Because of some push back, the provision to include Hillsdale College was defeated last Friday, just prior to the Senate vote on the GOP tax plan. 

Criminalizing panhandling again in Grand Rapids

December 5, 2017

The City of Grand Rapids once again is proposing a “ban” on panhandling in Grand Rapids, despite the fact that the ACLU has won a case against the city for a previously attempting to stop people from engaging in street panhandling.

In the name of public safety, 1st Ward City Commissioner Dave Shaffer, is proposing a new policy be adopted by the City of Grand Rapids, which would limit where and when people who are street panhandling can solicit financial support. (see new proposal)

However, this new proposal continues to sweep under the rug the harsh reality that there are plenty of people in this community that are struggling to survive. We know that Grand Rapids has the largest wealth gap in the state, according to a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute but such acknowledgements in Grand Rapids are hard to come by for a city that likes its claims to a booming housing market, ArtPrize and of course its Beer City status.

Now, I don’t want to over-simplify the issue of “street panhandling,” but the fact of the matter is that there are thousands of individuals and families in Grand Rapids who are living on the edge and thousands more who are one pay check away from ending up on the street. We cannot ignore or pretend that economic disparity in this community doesn’t exist and we must stop putting emphasis on charitable responses and start thinking about longterm strategies that actually create equity and respect the dignity of all people.

First, I use the term street panhandling, because it is important to acknowledge that the city leaders object to people in the street asking for financial assistance. Grand Rapids, like all municipalities, loves to give public money to the private sector is what are often referred to as tax breaks or subsidies. Just last week, the Grand Rapids City Commission awarded $29 million to a new theater and housing project in the downtown area. This is what we might call white collar panhandling, since those with economic privilege are taking money from the public. The major difference, besides the amount of money that is being given away to white collar panhandlers, is that the public usually finds out about the give-away after the fact. At least with street panhandlers, we all can chose to give or not give, instead of having someone else make that decision for us.

Now, people might argue that this is a good use of public money, because it creates jobs or serves a specific need, like housing and entertainment. We all know that the jobs argument is weak, since most of the jobs that will be created in the downtown theater/housing project will not pay enough to people so they could actually live in the housing units being constructed.

In addition, why is it that within this economic-driven world there always has to be priority given to what development projects will “give” us? Why can’t we say that participating in economic justice is a good, smart, just and compassionate thing to do just because it says we value the dignity of everyone in this community…….even if there are no strings attached?

Recommendations on what Grand Rapids could ban that didn’t mean shitting on people

Of course, I do not expect or think that this is what governments actually do. Therefore, those of us who give a damn about these struggles will have to be the ones to make these bans become a reality.

Back to Street Panhandling

The Grand Rapids City Commission will be hosting a Public Hearing on Tuesday, December 12 at 7pm during their regularly scheduled commission meeting. This would be a good time to communicate with those who run city hall, both before and during the commission meeting. However, again, I think we would be better off organizing to change things than simply appealing to those in power.

We’re Rich and We Do What We Want: A DeVos Family Reader

December 4, 2017

The following post is taken from the Introduction to the DeVos Family Reader, which can be downloaded at this link. The document is 350 pages and in six sections.

In Howard Zinn’s monumental book, A People’s History of the United States, he constantly juxtaposes the amazing things that people did to fight for liberation and the people behind the systems of oppression that social movements were fighting against.

This is exactly why I have spent years monitoring, investigating and critiquing the DeVos Family. They are the most recognizable and powerful manifestation of the systems of power and oppression in West Michigan. Now, I know there are plenty of people who share the belief that without the DeVos Family, Grand Rapids wouldn’t be where it is today. I fully agree with that belief, but for reasons that are the exact opposite of those who hold the most powerful family in West Michigan in high regard.

When Rich DeVos and Jay Van Andel founded the Amway corporation, they did so by embracing some of the most deeply entrenched lies about this country. Rich DeVos has written numerous books that promote his values. In his book Believe, DeVos, in talking about freedom, states, “that call of freedom went forth from a rugged wilderness, and Europe and Asia and Africa sent their sons of adventure to hew out a new society in a land of forests and savages.”

This statement from DeVos is essentially an affirmation in his belief of Manifest Destiny. For those who don’t know, the company that DeVos founded with Jay Van Andel, was originally going to be called The American Way, but was changed to Amway so as to abbreviate their take on Manifest Destiny.

In addition to believing in Manifest Destiny, Rich DeVos is also deeply committed to the values of capitalism, or what he likes to refer to as the free enterprise system. In his book Believe, DeVos states, “The free-enterprise system has outperformed, outproduced any other in the world. It is a gift of God to us, and we should understand it, embrace it, and believe in it.” 

The above statement is the perfect encapsulation of what the patriarch of the family, Rich DeVos, believes and is firmly committed to. The DeVos Family is a deeply religious  family, regardless of how one defines religious beliefs. The family comes out of the Calvinist tradition and are members of the Christian Reformed Church. However, the DeVos Family, in many ways embraces a form of Christian Reconstruction. Those who practice Christian Reconstruction theology believe that society should be governed by biblical values, rather than secular values. This is exactly why the family has for decades developed relationships and funded organizations that are deeply committed to homophobia, anti-reproductive rights, patriarchy, white supremacy and free market capitalism.

The DeVos Family not only supports these religiously motivated values by their support of certainly organizations, but by their deep commitment to influencing public policy. The  family has been one of the largest donors to the Republican Party for several decades now, at the federal, state and local level, as is documented in this collection of articles. In addition to supporting the Republican Party and GOP candidates, they also contribute to organizations that are committed to influencing public policy. In West Michigan, the DeVos Family has been involved in the financing, planning and development of groups like the West Michigan Policy Forum, the Acton Institute and the Right Place Inc. These groups all embrace the capitalist economic system and public policy decisions, which benefits and expands the power of those who make up these groups, including the DeVos Family.

What is ironic about the candidates and public policy that the DeVos Family endorses, is that those same policies end up negatively impacting communities of color, those who identify as LGBTQ, those experiencing poverty and immigrants. The irony is that the DeVos Family foundations end up contributing millions to West Michigan non-profits that provide services to the very same people who are negatively impacted by these neoliberal economic policies.

These are the kinds of themes that are explored in the DeVos Family Reader. In addition, we look at how the local news media has reported on the most powerful family in West Michigan, which has played a role in creating public misinformation. We also look at the strategic function of ArtPrize and what impact it has had on West Michigan. We argue that in many ways, ArtPrize functions has a great PR tool for the DeVos Family and its goals. In fact, such a belief was confirmed early on in the evolution of ArtPrize, when Sam Cummings, co-founder of CWD (of which the DeVos Family is part of) said, “Our long-term goal is really to import capital – intellectual capital, and ultimately real capital. And this (ArtPrize) is certainly an extraordinary tool.”

Lastly, we look at Betsy DeVos’ ascent to the White House as Secretary of Education in the section listed as Betsy DeVos Watch.

As I stated at the beginning of the introduction, I have spent years monitoring, investigating and critiquing the DeVos Family. This is an ongoing project and the DeVos Family Reader will continue to be updated. The contributions to the DeVos Family Reader have come from a variety of sources such as the Grand Rapids People’s History Project, an Indy newspaper from the 90s called The FUNdamentalist, Media Mouse and the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy.

Also, as stated before, I believe that in order to promote collective liberation and social justice for those most marginalized, we have to understand and resist the systems of power and oppression in this community. Looking into the history and practices of the DeVos Family, provides us with a clear example of how systems of power and oppression function in this community. I am deeply indebted to those who have been involved in this struggle and it is my hope that the DeVos Family Reader can be a useful tool in the ongoing struggle for justice.