While West Michigan’s affordable housing crisis may pale in comparison to situations in other larger metro areas, disparate groups are taking a hands-on approach to the problem.
As many residents face fewer options because of rising occupancy and increasing rental costs, numerous organizations working around the region are offering their own unique solutions by addressing issues related to housing, broader workforce challenges and economic development.
Housing industry experts note there’s a single, fundamental reason why it has become so challenging in communities across West Michigan to build up a stock of quality affordable residential units.
“Almost by definition, the cost of making housing quality makes it unaffordable,” said Jeremy DeRoo, executive director of LINC UP, a Grand Rapids-based real estate developer. “The reality is, it’s just a capital numbers game. There is nothing affordable about housing. By definition, low-income people can’t afford to live without subsidies. There’s just no way around it. There’s a mismatch in those two worlds that has real consequences.”
LINC UP has focused its affordable housing efforts on the Southtown area of Grand Rapids, particularly around the intersection of Hall Street and Madison Avenue. The organization also has an affordable housing project proposed along Burton Street east of Division Avenue that it hopes to get off the ground soon.
While the organization continues to focus on affordable housing development, it’s also ramping up workforce development efforts for the city’s minority populations.
To that end, LINC UP was in the process of finalizing a nearly $2 million, three-year grant from the Battle Creek-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation aimed at minority workforce development in the construction trades, DeRoo said. The grant stems from the organization’s goal of bringing more diversity to the region’s construction industry, which he says is predominately caucasian.
“(Construction) is not as diverse as it ought to be,” DeRoo said, adding LINC UP is working with Grand Rapids Community College to break down the “cultural” barriers associated with the industry. “When you give them more in-depth training, by the time they show up on a job site, they know what it looks like, how it runs and they have the technical abilities more firmed up.”
NEW INITIATIVES EMERGE
As LINC UP focuses on workforce development on the city’s southeast side, a new organization has emerged working in much the same geographic area.
Mostly funded by foundations tied to the DeVos family, Amplify GR has set up shop in the city’s Boston Square neighborhood and aims to focus on neighborhood jobs, housing, education and health. Amplify has initiated the process of seeking tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, according to a spokesperson for the organization.
The new Amplify GR effort largely spawned from the “Complete Neighborhoods” initiative that leaked to the media in March, as MiBiz reported at the time. Rockford Construction Co. Inc., which drafted the Complete Neighborhoods plan, is a development partner in Amplify GR.
While the Amplify GR partners say they have no specific development plans, various entities controlled by the organization have acquired a total of 32 properties encompassing about 35 acres of land, according to Jon Ippel, Amplify GR’s executive director.
Ippel put the total acquisition cost so far at around $10 million.
The Amplify GR partners say they hope to address affordability largely by working with “patient capital” from the Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation, which has agreed to fund much of the work.
Doug DeVos, who serves as president of Ada-based Amway Corp., said that his foundation and other groups have been working in the neighborhood for years to address some of the systemic issues prevalent in the working class area populated by many African Americans and Latinos.
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“As we’ve continued to work and talk, one of the things that struck us was that this was a community that had great potential and we should go deeper,” DeVos said during a press conference formally announcing the Amplify GR initiative in late June. “There’s maybe more that can be done. The idea was that we could build on the good things already happening.”
Following the press conference, two Grand Rapids city commissioners supportive of the initiative, as well as the Amplify partners, hosted a community meeting to share details.
Reports from the event noted that area neighbors, fearing a wave of gentrification, voiced resistance to Amplify GR’s plans.
For their part, the group’s stakeholders contend that gentrifying the neighborhood is not their intention.
“I think we recognize the range of emotions that come with change,” Mike VanGessel, CEO of Rockford Construction, said during the press conference. “You have to start by listening. That engagement turns into a little bit of a plan and that plan gets reactions. We’re going to be patient and we’ll continue to hear what folks are concerned about.”
While Grand Rapids continues to get headlines for its housing challenges, communities on the lakeshore also have kicked off new housing initiatives.
That’s particularly true in the Holland area, given the community’s status as a tourist and resort town, according to Patrick Moran, president of the Greater Ottawa County United Way.
Every three years, the organization conducts a study to determine the most prevalent issues Ottawa County residents face. Lately, Moran says housing continues to pop up, leading the nonprofit to dive deeper into the issue.
The 2016 study found that nearly half of Ottawa County residents struggle daily to make ends meet because of a lack of affordable housing in the region.
“We realized it wasn’t a housing issue, it was a housing crisis,” Moran said, adding that much of the housing in the area is used for tourism during the summer months.
Increasingly, more people employed in the hospitality and tourism sectors can no longer afford to live in close proximity to their jobs, which creates issues around transportation and childcare, Moran said.
“Twenty years ago when I got into this industry, we were looking at housing as a social service issue,” Moran said. “But in the last three years when we’ve really been going out and talking to business leaders about housing, we’ve really started to recognize it as a economic development issue. If there’s no housing for the workforce, then it’s very difficult to retain and attract the talent that we need at different levels of income.”
Moran said that United Way and its various public and private partners hope to take a multi-faceted approach to the housing issue, including increasing housing stock, addressing wages and looking at how best to subsidize housing for low-income people.
A NATIONAL ISSUE
While housing continues to be an issue addressed on the local level, sources contacted for this report conceded that access remains very much a national issue.
Myriad studies have found that nearly every major metropolitan area around the country suffers from a severe undersupply of affordable housing.
As more people flock to urban areas, the issue continues to be exacerbated, sources said.
“I don’t know that it’s always fair to judge whether change is positive or negative,” said DeRoo of LINC UP. “Change is just an aspect of life and how you manage it determines whether it’s good or bad. The reality is that there has been a lack of capital in neighborhoods for a long time.”