The groups and coalitions in Grand Rapids, Mich., seeking to address the city’s housing issues are aplenty, and it’s no wonder why. The urgent demand for housing units is calling attention to the lack of development, driving up costs, and leading to displacement and overcrowding. Racial disparities in homeownership are staggering, and the cost burden of renting reveals the same inequality. Our homeless shelters are full, our low-income housing has a waiting list, and the end to the federal eviction moratorium is looming. The outlook is dire, and the needs are urgent.
As should be expected, the city’s government has joined in on the conversation. Of course, these issues are not new, and the city’s past inaction is to partial blame for the current state of housing. However, in great thanks to the voices of local groups and coalitions, addressing the housing crisis appears to be on the city government’s agenda. Now, the push continues for action.
Housing Next Report
This past year, the City of Grand Rapids hired Housing Next to join a group of public, private, and independent organizations working to address the city’s housing problems. Housing Next is a west-Michigan initiative that is “focused on supporting housing solutions for all income levels in our community.” As a part of the contract, Housing Next generated a 40-page report titled Housing Needs and Opportunities. The report details the housing needs within the city and the financial, environmental, political, and social forces that have led us here.
The city paid for the Housing Next contract with funds from the affordable housing fund, which contains an estimated $1M and is currently on indefinite hold by the lead of City Manager Mark Washington. The Grand Rapids DSA Housing Working Group and other organizations would like to see the housing fund re-activated and used immediately for emergency relief. The end to the federal moratorium is imminent, and an unhoused community proliferated in Heartside Park until it was torn down by city leaders and the Grand Rapids Police Department. Our community is in dire need of support, and the $1M will go a long way for those facing homelessness.
Takeaways from the Report
The Housing Next report begins with an acknowledgment of the Great Housing Strategies meeting conducted in 2015. More than two-hundred people from the community, including city commissioners, non-profit representatives, and private development stakeholders, identified eight goals and thirty-five actions to confront current and future housing issues. Housing Next cites Great Housing Strategies – Addressing Current and Future Housing Needs as the framework for their assessment.
The Great Housing Strategies workgroups—and subsequently, Housing Next—identified the following eight goals for housing in Grand Rapids:
- Provide a Variety of Housing Choices
- Encourage Mixed-Income Neighborhoods
- Create and Preserve Affordable Housing
- Support Low-Income and Vulnerable Populations
- Support Employers and Workforce Development
- Encourage Alternative Transportation and Parking Options
- Change Public Perception of Affordable Housing
- Advocate for Change to State and Federal Policies
Housing Problems in Grand Rapids
The eight housing goals laid out in Great Housing Strategies put an uncanny spin of positivity on the life-altering problems Grand Rapids residents are facing. Housing Next defines the following issues as the three most pressing in the Grand Rapids housing market.
The demand for housing units is at levels near unmanageable, particularly in amenity-rich areas. According to Bowen National Research, Grand Rapids requires 5,340 additional rental units and 3,548 for-sale units by the end of 2025.
The market is doing little to keep pace. Consequently, high-income households are pricing out low and moderate-income households, forcing them to move, rent at unsustainable rates, double-up in single-family homes, or face homelessness. This displacement will continue with increasing consequences unless the city “preserves” the affordability of existing units and ensures that more for-sale housing will be available soon (pg. 6).
Cost Burden of Renting
The cost of renting in Grand Rapids is pushing households into financial instability. In 2018, an estimated fifty-two percent of renter households in the city spent over thirty percent of gross income on housing expenses; this is considered a “cost burden.” These households are at the highest risk of eviction due to non-payment.
According to Housing Next, the city must implement “stop gap measures” to avoid housing instability as long term solutions—including livable wages, an adequate supply of housing at all price points, and accessible childcare—are put into place.
“Black, Indigenous, and People of Color have experienced much higher rates of housing instability and have faced steep barriers to homeownership. As investment in City neighborhoods continues, these households are least likely to benefit from the economic growth without market interventions.”Housing Next report, pg. 26
Due to generations of systemic racism, the rate of homeownership among Black households in Grand Rapids is nearly forty percent below the rate of homeownership among Whites. And, while the number of “cost-burdened renter households” affects all races, Black households and those headed by a person of color are thirty to forty-five percent more likely to be impacted by cost burdens than White households.
According to the report, the city must prioritize homeownership and wealth creation for Black households and households of color. “Wages, education and racial bias in hiring practices are also critical areas of focus to solve for this discrepancy” (pg. 7).
Following the city’s housing needs, Housing Next presented seven actionable tasks for immediate consideration:
- Preserve existing affordable housing wherever possible.
- Support tenant-based rental assistance and eviction prevention measures.
- Support more LIHTC (low-income housing tax credit) development.
- Leverage city-owned property to support new housing supply.
- Deep community engagement.
- Re-calibrate economic development incentives to support more affordability.
- Begin work to create a dedicated source of funding for housing.
The city will need to carry out these or similar short-term tasks as a safe-guard while they move forward with more long-term goals.
Holding the City Accountable
There is justifiable concern that the city will take very few steps past paying for the Housing Next report. Change does not occur overnight, especially when it comes to development. Yet, the Great Housing Strategies document is five years past, and many of the eight goals presented at the meeting have not been addressed, or the situations have regressed.
Take goal six, for example: Encourage Alternative Transportation and Parking Options. On August 1, 2020, The Rapid—the city’s central public transportation system—eliminated free transfers for riders paying cash, eliminated charge cards for riders paying without exact change, and eliminated the fare-free zone on the Silver Line and Route 19/Michigan Crosstown (source: WZZM13). These actions make alternative transportation less accessible and are therefore a direct contradiction of the coalition’s goal.
The Grand Rapids City Housing Commission cites several accomplishments of the past five years that are in line with the goals from the Great Housing Strategies, including creating affordable housing and supporting low-income and vulnerable populations. As of December 2020, however, the Housing Commission has long waiting lists for all of the agency-owned properties. They are not accepting applications for the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program for the same reason (source: GR Housing FAQs).
While the Housing Commission is not the only branch of city government responsible for improving housing market conditions, the lack of availability indicates that the city is already behind on demand. The undersupply is largely due to the commission’s intentional neglect of the very apparent needs of the city.
We hope that the city will take this crisis seriously, but local groups know better than to wait for action and carry on with their work.
Kent County is fixated on giving money to the police for surveillance instead of addressing the root cause of violence: poverty. The cycle of poverty is rooted in housing injustice. More than community coalitions, Grand Rapids needs leadership unbeholden to profit and willing to hold large corporations accountable and implement taxes that help every Grand Rapidian thrive. In the long run, homelessness is more expensive than housing the unhoused, and poverty leads to more crime.
That said, support from the community has been, and will always be, invaluable, especially when voicing dissent with the status quo. If you’d like to support the housing efforts in Grand Rapids, please consider volunteering or donating to the following organizations: