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Renovations completed last year at the former Grand Rapids Christian High School building include 40 affordable apartments and administrative offices for ICCF Community Homes. Renovations completed last year at the former Grand Rapids Christian High School building include 40 affordable apartments and administrative offices for ICCF Community Homes. COURTESY PHOTO

Affordable housing key theme at first Kent County ARPA spending town hall

BY Friday, June 03, 2022 04:13pm

Affordable housing should be a primary focus as Kent County develops a plan for spending $127.6 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding, participants said during a Thursday town hall event in Grand Rapids.

County officials on Thursday hosted the first of three town halls scheduled this month to gather feedback from residents on how American Rescue Plan Act dollars should be spent.

Affordable housing was a common priority among the participants.

“Our perspective is that this community is in the middle of, and certainly not anywhere near the end of, an affordable housing crisis,” Jan van der Woerd, the vice president of real estate development and management at ICCF Community Homes, said during the event. “We have an inventory issue, we have a supply issue and we have a demand we’ve never seen before.”

Others at the forum echoed calls for funds to help solve the county’s affordable housing issue, as well as helping local businesses and mental health programs. Kent County has identified five main categories for prioritizing funds: community health, quality of life, infrastructure, economic innovations, and workforce development and government operations. 

“Some of the instructions we have had from the federal government is we really want to fund transformational projects, which isn’t just a one-off (project), it’s investing the money and it has impacts on future growth and improvement of services into the future,” said Kent County Administrator Al Vanderberg. 

The funds are meant to be spent differently than the CARES Act money, which went toward more immediate projects, Vanderberg added. 

Van der Woerd hopes government leaders make housing a focus and direct funding toward existing housing programs that have already proven their effectiveness in the community. 

“There will be sharks that circle when these funds become available that don’t have business providing (these services),” van der Woerd said. “It would be a huge loss if affordable housing wasn’t a driving priority here and we have a ton of precedent on how to roll these dollars out in existing programs. It’s not cutting a new path, it’s not blazing a new trail, it’s underscoring and amplifying the programs that already exist.”

The county plans two more community forums to gather ideas for the ARPA funds that are both taking place at 6 p.m. The next is on June 6 at Rockford High School, followed by an event on June 8 in Gaines Charter Township at 8555 Kalamazoo Ave. SE. 

Kent County also has an online survey that will close June 24 to gather ideas, as well as a proposal that residents can fill out to submit specific project ideas that closes July 15. The county plans to review all ideas internally and submit ideas to the Kent County Board of Commissioners for review and consideration throughout June, July and August.

The county and city of Grand Rapids are both in the process of gathering public feedback for how to allocate ARPA funds, which include $350 billion total to eligible state, local and territorial and tribal governments across the country. Communities have until 2024 to fully plan for and commit to projects, and until 2026 to spend the funding. 

Of the 151 governmental units that submitted preliminary spending plans for ARPA dollars as of April 13, most of the funding is planned for improving government operations, according to the Local Government ARPA Investment Tracker, a joint project of Brookings Metro, the National Association of Counties and the National League of Cities. 

GR participatory budgeting 

The city of Grand Rapids has created a similar list of eight spending priorities for $2 million set aside from its roughly $92 million pot of ARPA funds. The city is seeking input on the spending that will be distributed among the city’s three wards: $600,000 for the first ward, $400,000 for the second ward, and $1 million to the third ward.

Funding priorities for the city are: infrastructure investments to water, wastewater and broadband; evidence-based violence reduction strategies, remediation of lead in homes, assistance to households, small businesses and nonprofits affected by COVID-19; incentive pay to frontline workers, investments in housing and re-housing, addressing educational disparities and investing in healthy childhood environments. 

As of June 1, 318 ideas had been submitted to the city through its online Participatory Budget Grand Rapids (PBGR) survey. The PBGR steering committee, made up of city residents from each ward, is now working to recruit budget delegates to choose different project ideas to assist in proposal development. 

Budget delegates are eligible to receive a stipend, must be at least 13 years old, and live in the ward in which they represent in the the PBGR process. 

The idea submission portal will remain open throughout the budget delegate selection phase to allow more people to share their ideas, said Kenny Medrano, PBGR communications committee member. 

“PBGR is dedicated to an equitable process, and while the 318 ideas submitted to date are representative of the population of the city and each ward, we want to provide ample opportunity for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) to participate,” Medrano said in a statement. The steering committee intends to continue outreach to traditionally marginalized communities during this phase and will participate in special events such as Festival of the Arts, Rock the Block and other neighborhood events over the next month. 

The PBGR team is also planning more in-person and digital presentations to get more feedback from the community, Medrano added.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated with the correct title of ICCF Community Homes.

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