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Kym Spring is Paying Her Rent

Kym Spring of the Kent County Renter's Alliance

Kym Spring understands rent.

Kym Spring understands rent.

Kym Spring has worked as a teacher, activist, political campaigner, Olympic volunteer organizer, and for environmental organizations. A City High and GVSU graduate who has lived in Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., these days, she's back in Grand Rapids, spending her time and energy heading up the Kent County Renters' Alliance. Spring believes it's critical for our region to offer more housing choices in order to support robust neighborhoods and a healthy economy.
The Kent County Renters' Alliance, in existence since 2011 and funded by several local foundations and nonprofits, is an umbrella group with a broad mission of improving the status and resources of renters in Kent County. The organization provides free legal assistance to tenants, advocates for housing inspections, and educates tenants and landlords about their rights and responsibilities. But no matter your housing situation, Spring cautions that fair housing is an important issue that should be on the radar of all local residents.
"As we're trying to attract new people and businesses here, we need to provide more housing choices at all price levels for the environment to be robust," she says. "We talk about walkability, new restaurants, the opera, parks, arts, and entertainment options -- and those are all great things -- but housing is basic. That's where you go every day to eat, sleep, and play with your kids. We need to focus on good public schools, diversity, and culture, too, but we're missing the boat if we ignore this issue."
One roadblock to raising both funds and awareness for her cause, says Spring, is a stigma associated with renters. "There's still a sense here that homeowners are contributing to their community, while renters aren't," she laments, adding that there are plenty of reasons people choose to rent, especially in downtown Grand Rapids. "People want to be mobile for a job, they're getting an education, they're doing an internship or residency, they love to travel, or they want to live in a location where they don't need to own a car."
And while Spring hopes more viable housing choices become available for graduate students, young professionals, and young families, she's even more passionate about ensuring a safe, healthy, fair environment for Kent County residents with the fewest resources.
"The economic downturn and foreclosure crisis hit West Michigan and Kent County pretty hard," she says, "and Grand Rapids also has a large inventory of older housing stock with more lead issues and higher maintenance costs."
Spring references the endemic poverty that affects tenants most likely to live in this type of housing, and she emphasizes that a sustainable community that desires economic growth must commit to systemic change for the entire population. She sketches a web on a piece of plain white paper, with "affordable quality housing choice" in the middle, and desirable outcomes like strong neighborhoods, increased property values, family stability, less crime, diverse community, young professional and creative class, and quality education clustered around the center. None of those things are possible, says Spring, without addressing the state of low-income housing in our area.
The KCRA's goal is to ensure fair, affordable housing choice for this population, with "fair" meaning multiple things.
"The basic definition of fair housing is that you'll rent to anyone, and you'll charge everyone who rents that space the same amount of rent," she says. "But from a social justice perspective, I find it unfair that, in neighborhoods with a high concentration of poverty, people aren't getting the attention that they need."
Spring cites unscrupulous landlords who withhold security deposits at the end of lease term, homes with unsecured doors and windows, bedbugs, and bathtubs falling through to the floor below as just a few examples of untenable living conditions. Through tenant education and advocacy, the KCRA is trying to change rental culture.
"When a house forecloses in a neighborhood, what you want is a responsible landlord. Otherwise, the renters won't put effort into it, the house further deteriorates, and the cycle continues," she says. "The best case scenario is that the landlord does a great job, looks for responsible tenants, and both the landlord and renter know what they're supposed to do."
The KCRA provides access to free legal advice, helps tenants understand their leases, and holds training sessions to educate renters on how to find decent housing and uphold their end of the bargain as tenants. The organization was also instrumental in encouraging the city of Grand Rapids to begin methodically inspecting all rental units over a few-year period.
"This way, the renter isn't put in the position of getting their landlord to make necessary repairs. The city now has that responsibility," says Spring.
Spring alludes to the research and writing of American urban studies theorist Richard Florida when asked why fair housing is an issue that matters to us all. "He finds that people want diversity and community in the places that they live. When you can keep neighborhoods diverse and economically healthy, it contributes to the good of the whole city and everyone who lives there."
She then pushes her planner across the table, pointing to the Alice Walker quote she's written boldly across the cover. "'Activism is the rent I pay for living on this planet'," she reads. "That's what drives me."

Stephanie Doublestein writes and blogs about food, business, and parenting, among other things. She lives in East Grand Rapids with her husband and their two young daughters.

Photography by Adam Bird
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