Affordable housing and protecting greenspace are among Kent County residents’ most popular ideas for spending $127.6 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding.
The county as of June 10 received about 1,000 responses to a survey sent to 90,000 people to gather feedback on how the county should spend the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars. County officials also hosted three in-person forums this month in Grand Rapids, Rockford and Gaines Township.
“As you look at areas off the Grand River, you could do affordable housing and put public access to the river. I think it could be a win-win,” said Kent County Administrator Al Vanderberg. “Hopefully the main view is that we can create the kind of spaces that all people can enjoy, live in and be around.”
During a June 2 ARPA feedback forum, most county residents who spoke discussed the need for affordable housing, including Jan van der Woerd, the vice president of real estate and development and management at ICCF Community Homes.
“Our perspective is that this community is in the middle of, and certainly not anywhere near the end of, an affordable housing crisis,” van der Woerd said during the forum. “We have an inventory issue, we have a supply issue and we have a demand we’ve never seen before.”
Van der Woerd also hopes government leaders make housing a focus and steer funding toward existing housing programs that have already proven effective in the community.
“We’re looking to be part of the fabric of foundations, nonprofits and others who have a real stake in making sure these dollars will be spent wisely,” Vanderberg said. “Pretty much everyone has a stake in making sure people can afford housing in Kent County. We’re looking to work with tri-sector partners to get the biggest bang for our buck.”
The federal ARPA funding must be allocated by Dec. 31, 2024, and spent by 2026, Vanderberg noted.
“It’s going to take some organization, thought and preparation,” he said. “Organizations are going to have to have the chops to pull it off.”
Kent County commissioners have already allocated about 10 percent of the funding for police overtime, broadband internet infrastructure planning, a drain upgrade and covering restaurants’ licensing fees for the 2022-’23 cycle. That leaves about $116.3 million left for public input.
The online feedback survey will close on June 24, while a proposal that residents can fill out and submit with specific project ideas is set to close on July 15. The county plans to review all ideas internally and submit them to the Kent County Board of Commissioners for review and consideration throughout June, July and August.
The ARPA funds are meant to be spent differently than CARES Act money, which went toward more immediate projects, Vanderberg said.
“With the CARES Act, the county made thousands of grants in very small amounts. Here, we’re looking to do maybe dozens of larger amounts that will continue to increase value in the community,” Vanderberg said. “With ARPA, we’re looking at projects that are the most sustainable and transformational in ways that aren’t a one-off project.”
Kent County has identified five main categories for prioritizing ARPA funds: community health, quality of life, infrastructure, economic innovations and workforce development and government operations.
GR participatory budgeting
The county and city of Grand Rapids are both in the process of gathering public feedback for allocating ARPA funds, which totaled $350 billion for eligible state, local and territorial and tribal governments across the country.
An ongoing participatory budgeting process in Grand Rapids is similarly gathering public feedback for its ARPA funds, but only for $2 million of its $92 million ARPA allocation. 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.
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The city’s funding priorities are: infrastructure investments in 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.
Investing in housing projects has gained the most traction among the 10 funding categories, according to the city’s survey data.
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.
“We’re really aiming to involve folks that haven’t been as involved for different reasons like distrust in government or being members of marginalized communities,” said Kenny Medrano, PBGR communications committee member. “I classify them as gems in the community. I was one of those people that wasn’t involved in any engagement. This became an opportunity for me.”
The idea submission portal will remain open throughout the budget delegate selection phase to allow more people to share their ideas, Medrano added. Some ideas will inevitably require more funding than the $2 million in the PBGR process, but city commissioners and the public will still be aware of ideas that “don’t make the cut,” and can pursue them outside of the PBGR budget, Medrano said.
“There is a hope that this is a continual process for Grand Rapids and that there are other cities that look at how to implement participatory budgeting,” Medrano said.