GRAND RAPIDS — Nonprofit housing developer Dwelling Place is planning to construct nearly 50 single-family condominium units in Grand Rapids that would be permanently affordable under a community land trust model.
Dwelling Place is pursuing the project at 2080 Union Ave. SE because it has the potential to provide stepping stone housing for multiple families over time on the city’s southeast side, said Dwelling Place CEO Jeremy DeRoo.
Under the community land trust model, households would be expected to get a mortgage for about 75 percent of their home’s value. The standard home size in the project would be about 1,100 square feet “with a sufficient rear yard,” according to planning documents.
The project aims to increase homeownership accessibility for lower- and middle-income households in Grand Rapids. Through a community land trust, the homeowner still owns the home, but the land it sits on is owned by the community land trust, in this case Dwelling Place Regional Community Land Trust.
Housing advocates have long discussed the need for not only helping the lowest earners find housing, but also to create additional housing stock for the “missing middle,” or mid-range earners who are also priced out of the market. Families moving out of rentals and into homes also frees up the extremely tight rental market in the area, DeRoo said.
“It used to be hard to find a quality house at lower price points,” DeRoo said. “Over the last few years, that price point has continually increased and the typical home is no longer affordable for low and moderate-earning families. More people are staying in rental housing for longer, making everything less affordable.”
Dwelling Place’s project is proposed in a neighborhood roughly 3 miles south of downtown.
“This is a 6-acre parcel in a residential neighborhood in Grand Rapids,” DeRoo said. “There are not many parcels available like that left. The size of the parcel creates a unique opportunity.”
The final number of condos in the project could change slightly as the site plan has not yet been solidified, but the development is sizable for a community land trust model, DeRoo said.
‘Very strong’ market interest
Another nonprofit housing developer in the area, Inner City Christian Federation, also recently founded a community land trust program. ICCF acquired about 200 homes at the end of 2018 from an out-of-state investment group and has been working to renovate the homes to serve the community. About 10 of these units have been fully renovated and sold in Grand Rapids through the community land trust model, said Jan van der Woerd, vice president of real estate development and management at ICCF.
“The market interest is very strong because we’re making the homes available that we’ve deeply rehabbed,” he said. “They are homes that have been in the community for many years, but we’ve updated them so a first-time buyer who is income-limited is starting with a good platform for first-time homeownership. They are not going to be surprised by any early expenses, which sometimes happen on the open market.”
ICCF also considers its community land trust as a way to provide stepping stone housing for residents who can’t afford to buy a home on the open market.
“It seems like the right time in the market for us to be doing this, based on the very surprising appreciation (in home values) that we’ve seen, and the very unfortunate supply issue we have in the market that is so limited for families that want to own and don’t have the opportunity to buy a starter home,” van der Woerd said.
In many ways, the community land trust model works similarly to traditional homeownership. Residents are building equity and paying down a mortgage as opposed to paying rent and building equity for their landlord, van der Woerd said. They can also transfer ownership to family members or sell their home as well, just not through the typical realtor process. Van der Woerd noted that the community land trust model has existed for the past 60 years.
“The reason we’re here now is because of the obvious market shift we’re all stunned by,” he said. “This way, these properties will stay affordable for all future generations.”
According to Democracy Collaborative, a nonprofit think tank founded at the University of Maryland, the U.S. had an estimated 277 community land trusts in 2020. Of these, 82 percent were owned by residents with an income of less than 50 percent of the area median income.
However, the Dwelling Place project has garnered criticism from residents who live near the 6-acre property slated for development. Concerns involve construction in a currently wooded green space, increased traffic, a lack of transparency in the planning process, and the potential for future residents to avoid upkeep on their property.
“We’ve made significant efforts with the community and neighbors and let people know what’s going on, but when you have a large green space across the street from you, it is concerning seeing that being developed into something else,” DeRoo said.
However, a group of residents living in the surrounding Garfield Park neighborhood told the Grand Rapids Planning Commission a different story during an Oct. 14 meeting. Some noted that there was short notice before developers held community meetings about the project, which negatively affected attendance.
“To get the community involved and community trust, the lack of notice makes it hard to get the community on board,” nearby resident Sam Granger said at the Oct. 14 meeting.
The developers originally requested for the Planning Commission to consider the project — along with an office expansion at the adjacent property from Bethany Christian Services — at its Oct. 14 meeting. Before the development team requested to table the proposal to a later date, city officials had already notified the public. Grand Rapids Planning Director Kristin Turkelson said the original Oct. 14 public hearing was required to occur.
The project is expected to come back to the Planning Commission on Dec. 9, giving city staff time to provide more details and analysis of the project and for the public to hear another presentation.
DeRoo said the additional time will allow for results of a traffic study as well as to make improvements to the site plan to address community feedback. Progressive AE Inc. serves as the architecture and engineering firm on the project.