GRAND RAPIDS — The three new members elected to the Grand Rapids City Commission on Nov. 8 each plan to make housing and public safety key priorities.
Drew Robbins unseated incumbent First Ward Commissioner Kurt Reppart, and Lisa Knight also ousted incumbent Second Ward Commissioner Joe Jones. Kelsey Perdue won the Third Ward seat to replace term-limited Third Ward Commissioner Senita Lenear.
Common concerns that the commissioners-elect heard while campaigning was a need for more affordable housing and creative ways to address the housing shortage, as well as a need to improve public safety around the city. All three incoming commissioners also believe residents want to see more transparency from the city commission and more responsive commissioners.
As for public safety, the city of Grand Rapids this year has experienced 21 homicides, which is up from the three-year annual average of 19, according to a Grand Rapids Police Department dashboard that was last updated on Oct. 31. Crimes against people are up slightly this year from the previous three-year average, though crimes against property are down slightly, according to GRPD.
Meanwhile, a 2020 housing study conducted by the city, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, the Frey Foundation, K-Connect and Housing Next found that Grand Rapids will need at least 5,340 additional rental units and 3,548 owner-occupied units to satisfy housing demand and affordability by 2025.
Here’s a closer look at the three commissioners-elect and their top priorities once taking office on Jan. 1:
Knight said she ran for the Second Ward seat, which covers the northeast corner of the city, to continue the work she has been doing for years. Knight has a theater and advocacy background, and formerly was the chief operating officer at textile upcycling company Public Thread.
“A lot of people that I’ve talked to have said housing and safety were really at the top of their concerns, as well as looking at our business district on this side of town,” Knight said. “Wealthy Street is thriving, but what about as you come further north? We need to look at different opportunities for businesses and growth and make sure we’re equitable when we’re doing things and investing money.”
Knight also wants to ensure large projects are evenly spread throughout the city amid recent major development announcements downtown.
“We want to build soccer stadiums and amphitheaters and all of that, but we have people who are homeless,” she said. “A lot of money goes into downtown, but what about some of our other wards that aren’t getting money to revitalize and build and create? Those are some of the things that stick with me. You have to create tourism and vital areas for people to come and explore and spend their dollars here. That only helps our community and economy, but there are other people that live in this community that deserve to have those opportunities like everyone else.”
On housing, Knight wants to look outside of the city to see what other communities have done to pursue creative solutions, she said.
“Right now we know that on top of everything else with inflation, we have to be even more creative in how we support those who can’t afford quality housing,” Knight said. “There are a number of different things that have floated through my mind, such as zoning, tiny homes, container homes — I hope we are all willing to come to the table to find ways to address this.”
Public safety is also a major concern Knight encountered on the campaign trail, and she hopes to work with public safety departments to ensure “even more transparency and accountability” in policing, she said.
“I want to find more ways they can work with the community to have a stronger relationship of trust than what we have right now,” she said.
Perdue was born and raised in Grand Rapids and was introduced to local government at a young age when she served on the mayor’s youth council at age 15. The importance of paying attention to local government and elected leaders “came up time and time again” as she worked to advocate for her community, she said.
“Some of the big issues are economic development in the Third Ward,” said Perdue, who will represent the southeast corner of the city. “We still have a lot of vacant and blighted space. We want to make sure we are doing development right and inclusively as more of that comes to the Third Ward.”
Perdue also recently started working at Corewell Health in the healthier communities department as the director of community programs and innovation, overseeing community health programs around chronic disease prevention. She previously served as the Kids Count in Michigan director at the Michigan League for Public Policy overseeing data analysis and advocacy to improve children’s wellbeing.
“Obviously we have a housing crisis, so we definitely need to be part of the leadership and decision making around how to get us out of that,” Perdue said. “We know that the lack of supply is a big part of the issue, so making sure what is in the city’s power to do to make it easier to build and renovate housing at all price points is really important. We know we need more housing at every price point.”
Perdue’s approach to public safety is “holistic and emphasizes prevention,” she said.
“What we’ve heard from community and local police is that safety and crime prevention is about more than police,” Perdue said. “Folks need resources, opportunities and stability, and housing is also part of that infrastructure and access to care.”
Perdue acknowledged the “tension” among some Third Ward residents between large downtown projects and under-invested areas of the city.
“Those projects are attractive and are things we need and want in our city,” Perdue said. “On the other hand, there is that question of how that will impact the housing crisis and more folks with more resources being able to access what lower income folks can not.”
Perdue aims to advocate for engaging diverse and woman-owned companies in the construction and development phases.
“We also need to make sure we have a variety of entertainment options available to all residents,” Perdue said. “I want to make sure that we create strong partnerships and that I invite the community to the table as a thought partner.”
Robbins came to Grand Rapids to attend Grand Valley State University, and has lived in the city for nearly a decade. Robbins works at Gordon Food Service Inc. supporting the company’s human resources software, and also serves in the Army reserve. Robbins’ main focus is public safety.
“The biggest thing is safety,” Robbins said. “Police response times and crimes are also up. We still need a police department that’s fully staffed and highly trained to respond to calls when they do happen.”
Robbins was also drawn to run for the commission seat because “people do not feel like their voice is being heard” he said.
“Frankly, people want to get back to the basic approach of what the city exists to do, which is things like cleaning streets and ensuring a healthy living environment and safety for its residents.”
While Grand Rapids faces a lack of housing, it is not a Grand Rapids-specific issue and shouldn’t fall squarely on the city to fix, Robbins said.
“Opening up the first floor to be residential (in some areas) and not just retail helped,” Robbins said. “We should look at current ordinances because we don’t have to follow things we’ve done historically.”
Zoning requirements also should be reconsidered to allow for avenues to create more dense housing developments, Robbins said.
“It’s a very complicated issue and a lot of things go into it, but I’m a creative thinker and like to think outside the box,” Robbins said.
Robbins is excited about the several large developments planned in the city’s downtown, but he stressed that the people living in the city have the most knowledge about how development should be planned, and should be considered throughout the process.
“It doesn’t have to be either-or,” he said. “We can move forward in the future and have Grand Rapids as a world class city and continue to engage residents.”