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Defining Division: The effects of density on affordable housing

Para leer este articulo en español dale click aqui. 

For our fourth feature in the Defining Division series, we are highlighting the voices of residents and city officials surrounding the Housing Now! Zoning recommendations and how these would affect the development of the area specific plan on South Division. The physical boundaries we have defined for this series are from Wealthy Street to 28th Street, from Cass Avenue to the east, and from Buchanan Avenue to the west. These are the boundaries the Planning Department of the City of Grand Rapids has allocated for the South Division Development Area Specific Plan.
Colorado Family, residents of Burton Heights

Scholten Family, residents of Garfield Park Neighborhood

Residents of the South division Corridor and surrounding areas unpack the Housing Now! recommendations, focusing on the role density plays in the availability of long term affordable housing and prioritizing property ownership from residents.

In October of 2016, Mayor Rosalynn Bliss appointed 20 individuals to a Housing Advisory Committee to develop a plan to address the lack of affordable housing in the city of Grand Rapids. The group included nonprofit and for-profit housing developers, lenders, neighbors, educational institutions, and local philanthropy and government officials and was chaired by First Ward Commissioner Jon O’Connor. The group met a total of seven times from October to 2016 to May 2017 and developed 11 recommendations to address the lack of affordable housing in the city of Grand Rapids. Of those recommendations, four have been approved by the city commission, but the proposed recommendations requesting changes in zoning have resulted in concerns being brought by residents, neighborhood associations, and community organizers.

Because area investors of South Division are already working towards developing an area specific plan that addresses displacement and increases opportunities for the area’s current residents, proposals like Housing Now! can have a greater impact on whether or not long time renting residents will be able to remain in their communities.

Aldo Colorado moved to the Burton Heights area from Illinois seven years ago to pastor the pentecostal church, Iglesia Pentecostal Unida Hispana. Though the family of four was initially renting a home in the area, five years ago they were able to invest in purchasing their own home. As they gained greater economic stability and security by becoming property owners, Colorado began planning how to do the same for his congregation.

“Nosotros estuvimos rentando por mucho tiempo y había muchas cosas que queríamos mejorar pero tenemos limitaciones porque la propiedad no era nuestra,” shares Colorado.
[We (the congregation) were renting for a long time and there were many things we wanted to be able to fix up but we were limited because we didn’t own the property].

Aldo Colorado and his son Aldo spend time working on remodeling the church building on South Division.

As the congregation grew, Colorado quit his job as a repair man at West Michigan Transmissions in November 2016 in order to help the church purchase the building on 2111 South Division. The church has not yet moved to the building because they are in the process of remodeling. Colorado is planning moving day for the middle of Spring.

"Me siento agradecido a Dios, a mi familia y a toda la iglesia por todo lo que hemos podido lograr," says Colorado. 
[I am grateful to God, my family and the church for what we have been able to accomplish]

Due to his investment in relationships with residents in the area—many who are also members of his congregation—Colorado saw property ownership as the most sensical next step for the community—way for them to have a place to call home and continue to enhance the area.

Colorado would like to see his neighbors and members of his congregation have an increase in access to property ownership.

Colorado and wife, Olivia, with children Aldo, Gerson, and Olivia and Aldo's wife, Diana.

“La mayor necesidad de los miembros de la congregación es la falta de igualdad. Una igualdad a cuanto a derechos y oportunidades. Oportunidades económicas y sociales. Muchas veces vemos la falta de personas que se le permiten involucrarse en cosas que tiene que ver con nuestra sociedad,” explains Colorado
[The greatest need of the members of our congregation is lack of access to equity. Equity in terms of rights and opportunities. Economic and social opportunities. Many times we see the lack of access people have to being allowed to get involved in issues related to our society]

In terms of the Housing Now! recommendations, Colorado expresses concern if the recommendations don’t help residents from the area grow economically.

Aldo Colorado“No quisiera que mis vecinos tengan que salirse del area,” says Colorado.
[I would not want to see my neighbors have to leave the area].

According to U.S. Census data obtained by the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University, 45 percent of the area is renter occupied. The proposed zoning recommendations would allow accessory units dwelling by right.

By permit or by right means that a nonprofit or for-profit developer could, for example, attempt to turn two single-family homes into four units and would be able to do so without being required to host a public hearing for the community.

According to Ryan Verwys, member of the Housing Advisory Committee, director of Inner City Christian Federation, and resident of the Garfield Park Neighborhood, this proposed zoning recommendation would help create innovative ways to diversify the types of housing available and by so doing potentially reduce some of the cost that prevents developers from providing affordable housing.

Ryan Verwys “The terms by right and by permit are words that have a great potential to be misunderstood,” shares Verwys. He explains that about 90 percent of Grand Rapids construction and development projects are conducted by permit or by right.

Verwys explains that by right or by permit does involve a process where the city still is required to review the proposed development. According to Verwys, there is potential that these zoning changes will entice developers to provide different types of housing including a focus on affordable housing.

“I recognize that there is no guarantee that adding more supply will reduce the cost of rent in our community,” says Verwys.

Verwys believes these proposed changes would help ICCF better use their funds effectively to create more affordable homes and still preserve the fabric of neighborhoods.

“Historically we have had a backtrack record in using zoning codes and land use regulations as a means of excluding people. I want to preserve the socioeconomic diversity in my community while recognizing the historical context of redlining,” shares Verwys.

Segregation in the city of Grand Rapids is nothing new to long-time residents who experienced years of redlining; as it was not until 1970 that Black residents were able to purchase homes outside of Hall Street on the south, Cherry Street on the north, Fuller on the east, and the river to the west.

Today the area on the southwest side of Grand Rapids—south of Division Avenue, Boston Square, and Burton Heights—is where the majority of residents of color in the city live.

Sergio Cira Reyes, Community Engagement Director for the Urban Core Collective and longtime community organizer has first hand working with many families on the west side who were experiencing displacement due to incoming new development. At the time, Cira Reyes worked as the Community School Coordinator for the families whose children attended Sibley Elementary School through Kent School Services Network.

Sergio Cira Reyes“It is a way to increase supply and eventually reduce the demands of housing and prices would come down. The reduced regulations would allow people to invest in houses that aren’t well kept and not on the market,” shares Cira Reyes.

According to Cira Reyes, the proposed zoning changes are controversial because developers would not need to bring up their plans for development to the residents as long as they are abiding by the zoning requirements.

“This bypasses resident feedback and has the potential of eliminating community engagement. We are assuming that the zoning changes are creating the conditions for potential developers and crossing our fingers that they will want to create affordable housing,” shares Cira Reyes.

Although the proposed changes do open up the opportunities for developers like ICCF and Habitat for Humanity to create more affordable housing opportunities, Cira Reyes is concerned on what these zoning ordinances could mean for those investors who are not interested in developing affordable housing.

“It also allows investors from the outside including those who already are positioned and have the right connections with the city and haven’t done affordable housing in the past to have access to do any kind of housing,” says Cira Reyes.

Cira Reyes would like to see more time for residents to provide feedback, or pilot the proposed changes in one neighborhood or community who want to try it there.

Suzanne Schulz, planning director for the city of Grand Rapids, explains that the recommendation provided by the Housing Advisory Committee were given to the planning staff to draft language and help implement the proposed changes.

“I think it depends how much demand is there and how much supply is provided. We could judge demand right now based on the housing that is available so it could open up additional housing units. It could increase availability but I can’t guarantee what the price point would be,” says Schulz.

According to Schulz, public and community support happens when the policy has been developed with a strong community engagement component and the public has been clear with what they want and the policy has met their vision.

Suzanne Schulz“Planning and zoning is fluid. We are constantly evolving and changing. The neighborhood will have a plan. People’s involvement does make a different shaping not only the plan for the area but for the future of how we do this work,” says Schulz.

Schulz believes equity, displacement. and economic growth are framed in the discussion of planning and development.

“Since the beginning, we have worked on ensuring the process of the South Division area specific plan is focused on the framework of equity without displacement and this is how we want to continue to move forward in all of our development plans,”

Along South Division area, through the area, specific plan development residents have the opportunity to see their voice and vision in new development explains Schulz.

Like Colorado, Michael Scholten, a resident of Garfield Park Neighborhood and board director at Garfield Park Neighborhood Association would like to see the zoning changes increase home ownership in the area.

“I am aware of how zoning has been used to enforce economic segregation throughout the history of Grand Rapids. We need to reckon how zoning has been used in the past and how the imprints of redlining and long-term poverty still exist in the same way they did a long time ago,” shares Scholten.Scholten explains that by increasing density there is a potential to increase the supply of affordable housing.

“Research in density and supply and demand has demonstrated that two market-rate houses reduce displacement as much as one affordable house,” says Scholten.

The research Scholten is referring to the 2016 report titled, Perspectives on Helping Low-Income Californians Afford Housing, indicating that increase in market rate homes over a decade has a significant impact in reducing displacement. However, per the report, subsidized housing has a greater impact in reducing displacement but it comes at a higher cost.

“I would like to see the city encourage home ownership through increase in density rather than just using density to increase rental,” shares Scholten.

As the plans for future development along his neighborhood take place, Scholten would like to see his community preserve the racial diversity as long as the proposed changes don’t displace those in his community experiencing poverty.

The Scholten family - residents of Garfield Park Neighborhood
“I am all in favor of the proposed changes and increase in density if it means that people in my community have an increase access in purchasing a home and gaining wealth and stability,” shares the longtime Garfield Park Neighborhood resident.

To get involved as an advisor in the Steering Committee for the South Division Area Specific Plan process or to find out more about the Community Ambassadors positions please contact Courtney Magaluk at cmagakaluk@grcity.us / 616-456-3585.

Defining Division

This article is part of our Defining South Division Series, a monthly series over the next two years focusing on the community engagement and development process for the South Division Development Plan. We welcome your comments and feedback below.

To connect with Michelle Jokisch Polo (read more about Michelle here), editor of this series, follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Defining South Division is made possible by the City of Grand Rapids, a local government organization working to foster a city where everyone is welcomed.

Photography by Dreams By Bella.

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