Housing NOW! recommendations draw community concern

The Affordable Housing recommendations put forth by Mayor Bliss’ Housing Advisory Committee (branded as “Housing NOW!”) are receiving pushback from community members who are concerned that proposed zoning changes could exclude community input from development projects. The eleven recommendations aim, according to Housing NOW!’s website, “to create housing choices and opportunities for all.”

Yet Eastown Community Association (ECA) warned its newsletter readers on January 24th that the Committee’s “proposal eliminates community input into neighborhood development in residential areas adjacent to business districts,” citing the recommendations’ allowance for developers to develop properties “by right” in “Low Density Residential” (LDR) zones. These zones are located on corner lots and within 100 feet of “Traditional Business Areas” (TDA)—or neighborhood business districts.

This comes from Recommendation 3: “Incentives for Small Scale Development,” which states that small scale development “is referred to as ‘missing middle’ housing,” listing “duplexes, fourplexes, bungalow courts and mansion apartments smaller than a large house” as property types that “are crucial to expand affordable housing options,” presumably due to their higher occupant density. Points two and four of this recommendation provision to allow developers to build multi-family residential units up to four units by-right in LDR zone districts.

By allowing property owners to develop by-right, the recommendations remove barriers—such as gathering the approval of community and/or business associations—to redeveloping higher density units. However, ECA views the community input these barriers provide as necessary to maintaining the integrity of neighborhood communities.

“We expect that proposals for development will be subject to input from the homeowners and business interests in the immediate area through existing channels,” ECA’s newsletter stated.

The Committee attempts to address neighborhood concerns within Recommendation 3 itself, which focuses mainly on design:

“We've discussed [small scale development] with neighborhoods and heard that current standards don't protect neighborhood character. This includes lack-luster front stoops, flat facades and incompatible design. The Design Guidelines Manual will help address these concerns.”

However, the bent of resident and neighborhood association concerns were of a more concrete nature. Eastown resident Cynthia Teemstra, who spoke at the city’s Planning Commission’s meeting on January 25th, observed that between Wilcox Park users, Aquinas students renting, and residents, “we have a big parking problem now. I can’t even imagine adding that kind of density to our street. It’s not safe for the children who are in Wilcox Park...I’m concerned about the stability of the neighborhood...It’s too much.”

Other neighborhood association leaders and neighborhood residents, many of whom had already written letters to the planning committee, echoed similar concerns at the more than four-hour public input meeting.

Meanwhile, the Housing Advisory Committee itself has drawn scrutiny for its apparent bias towards development and housing organizations. Housing NOW!’s website asserts that the “Great Housing Strategies” planning initiative, which kickstarted these recommendations in 2015, involved “over 200 residents,” and represented neighbors as well as housing developers, lenders, and government officials.

However, according to local independent journalist Jeff Smith, publisher of Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID.org), a list of Committee members obtained in spring of 2017 from one of the members reveals a list comprised of “either elected city officials, city staff members, representatives of development companies and non-profit organizations.”

Smith comments that the Mayor’s Committee “is made up of housing developers and non-profit housing folks, but not one person from the affected community, which is why the proposals are weak and does nothing to address long term realities.”

This interest is evident in the Committee’s Recommendation 6: Density Bonus, which proposes extending density bonuses to affordable housing projects, combining Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) with an Affordable Housing Bonus—essentially a double subsidy system for developers of affordable housing in specific areas.

Last week, the Grand Rapids City Commission voted to adopt the low-income tax housing policy (#1), changes to the Neighborhood Enterprise Zones (#4), the Voluntary Equitable Development Agreement (#5), and the property partnership policy (#7). The remaining seven recommendations, including the density bonus, are currently up for debate.

“I believe we definitely need to slow that down. Zoning is very complicated," says Second Ward Commissioner Ruth E. Kelly, regarding the proposed zoning changes in recommendation 3. "The biggest consequence I’m worried about is further demolition of houses.” Concerned that these zoning measures are "not clear to the public," Kelly adds that “It’s best looked at in a master planning process,” instead of in the committee's current iteration.

In its letter to the Planning Commission, ECA has requested the Planning Commission “table putting forth any recommendations from the Housing Advisory Committee until there can be further analyses and more substantive community engagement.”

The committee plans to host an additional public hearing on February 20, and hopes to approve more recommendations in March. 
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