A growing Grand Rapids pushes some out as housing costs rise

Posted at 11:14 PM, May 04, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-05 10:22:24-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Grand Rapids is a growing city, and it's growing fast. New breweries, luxury apartments, and additions to the Medical Mile, all after the 2008 housing market crash. The amount of building construction is evidence that the city isn't slowing down, but with that changing landscape come growing pains.

Some neighbors are saying they're getting pushed out of the city they call home and have no where to go. The city's growth has brought a higher market value for housing, which is affecting families of various socio-economic backgrounds.

"I had to tell my daughter, 'Don’t ask me where we are going, just trust and believe you are going to be safe," said Alicia Reece, a homeless single mother of four whoj works two jobs. Despite the constant search for somewhere to live, one constant in her life is a pamphlet of current listings of rental properties in Grand Rapids.

"I saw a really horrible house just the other day; it didn’t even have a bath tub," Reece said. "I had to go out of the back door into the porch and open up what I thought was a closet. It was just a shower, a metal shower."

Reece says finding a place to live in Grand Rapids wasn't always like this. She was once able to find places to rent for reasonable prices, and the houses weren't routinely bug-infested or dirty. She says if she sees a home for a reasonable rate like $700-$1000 a month, she doesn't expect that the landlord takes care of it. Several times, she says, she had to break a lease or leave because the house was unlivable.

And at her last place, she was forced to move out of her because the homeowner decided to sell the house to a property company. "The new owner decided he didn’t want to be a landlord anymore. He wanted to sell the house."

A lot of the properties in the city have been bought up by investors from landlords who want to make profit while the market is hot.

During this struggle, Reece met LaDonna Norman, an outspoken woman who attends several city commission meetings to be the voice of those struggling after being displaced by the booming market.

"It's all about the Benjamins, baby," said Norman. "That's what they say. If it don't make dollars, it don't make sense. If the city of Grand Rapids represented its residents, you wouldn't be in my living room having this conversation with me."

while there are no instant solutions, city commissioners like Jon O'Connor are listening.

"Unfortunately, the wages have not kept up with the cost of housing, so that’s a two-part problem," said Norman. "We in the city have a limited amount of resources to impact that. It’s a regional problem."

O'Connor says the city's success is based on Grand Rapids being an affordable place to live, but more people from other parts of Michigan and from other states, which inevitably raises rents.

"We have a 1% vacancy rate in the city of Grand Rapids," said O'Connor. "We need more supply of housing, and when we say we need more supply of housing, we need more housing at every level."

In 2015, the city approved the GR Forward Plan, which set a goal to have 30% of downtown housing be affordable by 2025. The Meijer "Super Block" development on the West side includes 50 rent-restricted units - places intentionally set below market value - with the goal of making them obtainable for people like Reece. In the "Super Block" specifically, one-bedroom apartments are going for as low as $375 a month, and 3-bedroom units start around $520. Another 70 units are being developed along the west side of the Grand River, both projects receiving government incentives before ground is broken.

Norman, however, doesn't think that's enough.

"In the dead of winter, the mayor said she had $100,000 for trees. But you had the shelters turning away families? What? How do you tell somebody they ain't have a place for you to live, but they got some money set aside for the springtime trees?"

O'Connor and Norman are on completely different ends of the spectrum on this argument, but they agree on one thing: everyone deserves a safe and affordable place to live.

"Will we solve the problem? No, we won’t solve the problem," said O'Connor. "But what we are trying to do is have as much impact in a short period of time as we can."

"We can’t help everybody. But we can help. And the help as to start somewhere," said Norman.

The city is going to invest more than $1 million this year into its affordable housing trust fund in the hope of having some impact in creating affordable housing units.

If you struggle with finding housing, O'Connor said to call the city's Community Development Department at (616) 632-7400.