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Affordable housing, development & more: Commissioner Joe Jones spells out his vision for 2nd Ward

From increasing affordable housing and addressing concerns about development to tackling racial disparities and strengthening LGBTQ protections, Grand Rapids’ newest city commissioner and the first black commissioner to represent the Second Ward, Joe Jones, has big plans to work for a more inclusive and equitable city that treats all of its residents with dignity.
From increasing affordable housing and addressing concerns about development to tackling racial disparities and strengthening LGBTQ protections, Grand Rapids’ newest city commissioner and the first black commissioner to represent the Second Ward, Joe Jones, has big plans to work for a more inclusive and equitable city that treats all of its residents with dignity.

“I’m excited; I’m elated,” Jones, the president and CEO of the Grand Rapids Urban League — an organization that works to empower African Americans and other minorities to achieve self-reliance, parity and civil rights by addressing employment, housing, education and health — says of the City Commission’s unanimous decision to appoint him as a Second Ward commissioner last week. “I’m ready for the grind, ready to get to work. I am no stranger to engaging the community and serving the community. I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and join my colleagues.”

The new commissioner’s appointment follows a seven-week public review process that attracted 11 candidates to fill the seat vacated by Rosalynn Bliss, who was sworn in as mayor on Jan. 1. For a decade, Bliss represented the Second Ward, which encompasses the northeast section of the city and includes such neighborhoods as Eastown, Fulton Heights, Midtown, and Creston. Jones is one of two Second Ward commissioners, with Ruth Kelly holding the ward’s other seat.

Bliss lauds Jones, saying the new commissioner, who has lived and worked in Grand Rapids for the past 20 years, “has a big-picture understanding of the city and an awareness of the needs of individual constituents.”

“I am eager to work with him and the other commissioners on continuing to move the city forward in a positive direction,” the mayor says. “Together, Commissioners Jones and Kelly will continue the long tradition in the Second Ward of engaging residents, listening to them, finding balanced solutions and making sure that the Second Ward is well represented.”

In addition to Jones, the other finalists for the seat were Terry McGee, a retired Grand Rapids police detective, and Tami VandenBerg, the executive director of the Well House and the owner of The Meanwhile and The Pyramid Scheme. VandenBerg last week announced that she plans to run for Second Ward Commissioner in 2017, when the term for the seat now represented by Jones ends.

“I was proud to be counted among three such strong candidates, and I know Joe Jones will serve the constituents of the 2nd Ward,” VandenBerg said. “I appreciate the strong support I received from the 2nd Ward, and I remain committed to building the 2nd Ward and the City of Grand Rapids through my businesses, my work at Well House, and my volunteer activities. Because of my dedication to the 2nd Ward, I am declaring my intentions to run for 2nd Ward Commissioner in 2017.”

Jones too has said he plans on running in 2017. Until then, the commissioner, who has served as president and CEO of the Urban League since 2011, says he has a multi-tiered plan for the ward and city, including addressing concerns about development and affordable housing, tackling racial disparities, increasing protections for the LGBTQ community, improving relations between the police and community members, and both attracting new talent to the city and providing job training for the existing workforce.

“Each neighborhood in the Second Ward has a very distinct character, and I want to make sure as I’m considering policy that it’s not policy that erodes the uniqueness of the neighborhoods,” he says. “One size does not fit all, whether it’s commercial development or housing development; I don’t want to develop policy that will destroy the very fabric of the ward.”

So, what, exactly does that entail? For starters, affordability and “being able to live in the neighborhood and not being priced out,” Jones says of an area that has been hit hard by rising rents.

“There’s ongoing growth in the area of housing development, as well as commercial spaces, and I can’t say enough how pleased I was with the process that took place with Belknap and GVSU,” he says in reference to the Grand Valley State University Board of Trustees recently approving a plan to retain affordability in the neighborhood while expanding its health campus in the Belknap neighborhood, situated just north of Grand Rapids’ downtown.

In mid-February, the board agreed to plan for affordable housing while building  its development in the community, as well as to use an urban planning consultant, Smithgroup JJR, to ensure that any future building on university property will fit within the character of the neighborhood.

“That should not be the exception; it should be the rule in how developments come together,” Jones says of the GVSU agreement.

As for the need for affordable housing? Well, it’s desperately needed, Jones says.

Residents have, increasingly, been unable to afford housing in the city, for a myriad reasons that the city’s “Great Housing Strategies,” a multi-layered plan to address housing needs in the Grand Rapids, points out: limited access to credit following the 2008 financial collapse and foreclosure crisis, spiking rents, a plummeting rental vacancy rate (which hovers around 1.6 percent and is the lowest in the country), an increasing number of college students and limited school housing, and a slow economy and stagnant wages, among other reasons. People not only are facing being unable to buy their own home; some are being entirely displaced in rapidly gentrifying areas.

While there are numerous, complex aspects that need to be addressed when it comes to affordable housing, one major issue is supporting developers who aim to build affordable units, Jones says.

“For-profit developers have been very wise and smart in accessing incentives at the state and local level to develop neighborhoods and commercial areas; I’d like to make sure the folks in the business of developing quality, affordable housing can be given the same incentives to develop housing in the city,” he says.

In a city where the typical African American household earns less than half of what the typical white household does, and 42 percent of African Americans live in poverty — almost four times the rate of the Caucasian population — it’s imperative to address systemic oppression in Grand Rapids, Jones says.

“The city may consist of three distinct wards, but we are one city: the opportunity to develop a culture or environment that speaks to seeing each other as having value, that comes with not devaluing someone based on their zip code, but recognizing we’re all in this together,” he says. “We want to get to a place that no matter where you live, you can experience a very abundant and significant quality of life."

Part of unifying the city must include dialogue around improving police relations with minority communities, as well as educating the general public on the history of inequality in the city, Jones notes.

“I know that’s very much a priority of Mayor Bliss’s, to really address that issue and be very intentional about improving police-community relations,” he says. “What I hope to do is inject into the conversation the importance of human dignity and the dangers that come with violating human dignity… How do we create opportunities for law enforcement to see all facets of the community as having value, and for residents to be able to see law enforcement as having value?

“I’m coming into this role with a firm understanding and grip on history — the history of our city, our country and our society as it pertains to the relationship that exists between people, whether it’s because of ethnic differences, religious differences,” Jones continues. “I think there’s a need for all people to understand how we’ve evolved as a city and why is the relationship between police and community strained? Why are there opportunities that are lacking in certain parts of the city compared to others? History provides us with a very solid foundation of how we got here, and it provides us with an opportunity to not make the same mistakes.”

Jones's focus on unity in the city also includes working to better protect Grand Rapids’ LGBTQ community.

“I think any opportunity for the City Commission to speak to the issue of strengthening or enhancing protection for the LGBT community is very important,” he says. “I believe in protection for all, regardless of one’s sexual orientation or ethnicity or religious background. That speaks to the whole notion of valuing one’s human dignity.”

While there are plenty of problems to tackle, Jones says he believes this is one of the best, if not the best, time to be working to improve life in Grand Rapids, highlighting that the city is facing high job turnover rates over the next several years, in part because of an aging workforce. This, Jones says, means there’s an opportunity to  both attract new talent, as well as focus on providing job training for the existing workforce.

“How can we recruit new talent and what are some of the processes or ideas we can conceptualize that make hiring a little easier?” Jones asks.

Additionally, the commissioner stresses the work being done by groups and institutions like the Urban League, Grand Rapids Community College, the Kellogg Foundation, and more to provide job training programs, particularly for individuals in marginalized, low-income communities.

“There are opportunities to match residents with jobs as we continue to fix our roads, enhance our parks, enhance the Grand River,” Jones says. “I think we have a window of opportunity in our city to strategically tie in the need for opportunities with the opportunities themselves.”

As Jones gets settled into his new position, the commissioner says he’s looking forward to opening up dialogue with all residents in the Second Ward and welcomes constituents to email him at JDjones@grcity.us or call him at 616-456-3883.
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