GRAND RAPIDS — With development transforming the west side of Grand Rapids, organizations across the city are working together to combat the displacement of existing residents and protect affordable housing.
Many of the area’s long-time residents have struggled to keep up with the rapid rate of rent increases in what had long been a low-income neighborhood.
In an effort to assist those families, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation recently awarded a $500,000 grant to Habitat for Humanity of Kent County. The funds will go toward a new phase of Habitat Kent’s Building Blocks campaign, an initiative focused on building, acquiring and revitalizing homes near one another, then selling those homes to local families at an affordable rate through custom-tailored mortgages.
Through this second phase, it hopes to assist 120 families over a two-year period.
“When we looked at the data on the northwest side, where there’s significant growth and development that’s occurring, we wanted to ensure that growth was equitable and that folks who may not have the financial means to immediately participate in that growth were given an opportunity to realize its benefits,” said Brianne McKee, executive director of Habitat Kent.
The families partnering with Habitat Kent are generally those who had been renting for years before multiple development projects began to raise property values and attract higher-income families and college students, which have driven up rental rates in the West Grand neighborhood. For instance, companies in the craft beverage industry were among the first to make inroads into the area, with The Mitten Brewing Co. LLC and Long Road Distillers LLC leading the way, attracting a new market of consumers.
Another contributing factor has been a recent shift in the public perception of downtown living, according to Laurie Craft, program director for the Grand Rapids Community Foundation.
“A few years ago, if you lived in the city, it was considered lower income and not as desirable,” she said. “We have a generation of people who embrace urban living. There’s recognition that living in a walkable community is important.”
Local community leaders have supported development and growth, but they’ve also been outspoken about their desire to retain both the residents and the mixed-income nature of the area.
“Development is not a bad thing. Displacement is a bad thing,” Craft said. “There’s opportunities to improve a neighborhood and still maintain its culture, diversity and various income levels.”
Her organization is particularly eager to hold onto those families participating in its Challenge Scholars program, which provides academic support and financial aid to participating students from Union High School who go on to attend a Michigan college or university.
Concern over the situation has driven more than a dozen local organizations to form the WestSide Collaborative, a group dedicated to promoting equitable development and maintaining diversity in the area. Many of those same organizations were heavily involved in the Great Housing Strategies workgroup that took place in mid-2015. Organized by Grand Rapids City Commissioners, the cross-sector workgroups spent the summer discussing housing dilemmas and developing potential solutions.
Among the findings, the workgroup noted that more than half of renters in the city, including the West Grand neighborhood, are paying in excess of 30 percent of their household income in rent, classifying them as “cost burdened.”
Additionally, the trend tends to affect certain races disproportionately, according to the report. The median household income for black residents in Grand Rapids was $22,380 in 2013, compared to $44,501 for white households. With that income, black households would need a rent of $553 per month for their homes to be considered affordable. The fair market rent for a two-bedroom unit in Grand Rapids stands at $737 per month, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
While the workgroups offered myriad courses of action, such as advocating for new state regulations and policies, the current focus for community leaders remains on engaging developers and providing immediate affordable housing. The WestSide Collaborative currently is working to show developers that retaining a mixed-income community benefits residents and businesses alike.
“There’s actually been some studies done that show that mixed-income neighborhoods help maintain the property values over time of even the most expensive properties in that neighborhood. They grow at a healthier rate,” said Kristin Rahn-Tiemeyer, manager of grants and strategy at Habitat Kent. “Contributing to a balanced neighborhood, where everyone has the opportunity for a high quality of life, ultimately protects their investments and assets in that neighborhood.”
As the nonprofits and developers move forward, there have been signs of increasing collaboration and intentionality. Craft said private developers have begun to employ neighborhood representatives and to consider community feedback, something she considers as key to combating displacement.
“Those neighborhoods where that mixed-income nature has been preserved, I think the resident voice has been a really powerful tool,” she said.
In her time at the Community Foundation, Craft said she’s already seen some areas of the city undergo displacement beyond the point of return, such as Eastown, and others, such as the Heartside neighborhood, prevent it with the help of intentional developers like Dwelling Place and Habitat for Humanity.
Development continues to outpace the community’s current ability to provide affordable housing, according to Rahn-Tiemeyer of Habitat Kent, but they remain optimistic as the city works to react with new solutions.
Kurt Reppart, executive director of The Other Way Ministries, cited a “renewed hope with some recent developments,” referencing several larger-scale affordable housing projects that remain undisclosed at this time. He sees the detached single-family rental as the next market to address, saying that it could require “some real creativity and partnership.”
Habitat for Humanity also has begun preliminary work on the southwest side of Grand Rapids in an effort to shore up against the kinds of changes that have already occurred in other areas.
“The Roosevelt Park neighborhood has a lot of cool stuff going on, but overall the market has really been slower to pick up than other areas,” Rahn-Tiemeyer said. “What we’re trying to do here is work with the residents and stakeholders to help lay some of the groundwork to preserve affordable housing. We’re trying to prevent some of the displacement that has occurred on the northwest side.”
Regardless of where the work is being done, equitable development relies on the collaboration of residents, developers, nonprofits and government agencies at every level, according to McKee of Habitat for Humanity.
“The beautiful opportunity that’s in front of us right now, as a city that’s growing in ways we didn’t imagine a few years ago, is that there’s such a collaborative voice and spirit,” she said. “This work requires all of us.”