Battling Barriers To Affordable Housing

“We’ve seen this uniquely affect our neighbors of color. As neighborhoods gentrify, our older neighbors are being pushed out.”

Like other areas in the state and nation, experts blame a crisis in affordable housing. 

Citywide, rents climbed by nearly 40 percent over the last decade, the 13th largest such increase among U.S. metropolitan areas, according to the group Self Financial.

In Eastown, two-bedroom apartments are now fetching $1,400 a month or more, while homes in the area sell for $400,000 and up.

Nearly 25,000 Grand Rapids renters and homeowners paid more than 30 percent of their income in 2019 for housing ─ a threshold for what’s considered affordable and able to meet other basic expenses including food, child care and transportation, according to Housing Next, an affordable housing advocacy group in west Michigan.

Housing Next estimates the city is more than 5,000 rental units short of demand, and Kent and nearby Ottawa counties will need 37,000 more housing units at all price points in the next five years to meet demand ─ about a tenth of that in lower-priced affordable housing.

“In order to achieve that level of supply, that’s more than $2.5 billion of investment over the next five years,” Ryan Kilpatrick, Housing Next’s executive director told Bridge.

Kilpatrick called that “an outlandish” sum that is unlikely to be met.

Across Michigan, according to calculations by the Michigan Association of United Ways, 1.5 million ─ or 38 percent ─ of households in 2019 struggled to afford basic needs including housing, child care, food, health care and transportation.  While those numbers are the most recent available, they don’t reflect the added stress low-income households face in paying for housing because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And those economic woes hit Michigan Black households harder, as 63 percent struggled to afford the essentials to live in their community.

 “I see affordable housing as one of our greatest challenges in the city of Grand Rapids,” Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss told Bridge. “There is clearly a disproportionate impact on communities of color.”

Bliss noted the city has taken steps to address the disparity, including low-income housing projects funded through federal tax credits and a newly formed affordable housing fund with a target goal of $25 million in funds by 2025. Bliss said the city has also amended its zoning code to allow multi-family units on residential corner lots, and ground-floor residential units in commercial districts.

Bliss added the city is considering establishing its own land bank agency to boost affordable housing, following the dissolution in 2019 of the Kent County Land Bank Authority.

“We continue to look at what else we can do,” Bliss said.

The exodus of Black families comes as the city overall is experiencing a resurgence in both reputation and population, regularly landing on lists of the best places to live for young people and anchoring one of the few regions in Michigan that is growing.

Now a destination, Kent County has reversed its exodus of young college graduates to cities like Chicago. From 2000 to 2009, the county lost more than 600 recent college graduates to Cook County, Illinois — but added more than two times that number over the past decade.

And while that may fuel upper-income growth, would-be Black entrepreneurs continue to face similar barriers to  Black households, experts say, in part because of the residual effects of decades-old real estate redlining that denied Black residents the chance to buy or rent homes in white neighborhoods.

“It’s all related to the marginalization of African Americans, largely due to redlining,” said Jamiel Robinson founder and CEO of Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses nonprofit.

“Other cultures generate wealth by leveraging their homes. Home ownership was one of those tracks into attaining wealth that African Americans were denied, leveraging that to enter college or start a business.”

Nationwide, 44 percent of Black families are homeowners, compared to 74 percent of white families.

That gap helps explain why the average net worth of white families was nearly 10 times that as Black families — $171,000 in 2016 compared to $17,150, according to the Brookings Institution, a progressive think tank.

And while the federal government banned discrimination in the home mortgage industry more than 50 years ago, there’s evidence many Michigan Black loan applicants still grapple with financial barriers to home ownership.

A 2018 analysis of mortgage data found that Black loan applicants in the Detroit metro area were 1.9 times more likely to be denied a loan than their white counterparts. In the Lansing metro area, Black applicants were 3.1 times more likely to be denied.

In 2020, researchers including an official at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research published findings that a $950 billion federal program aimed at shoring up business during the pandemic largely failed Black business owners.

According to the study, non-Black business owners were 30 times more likely to receive funding under the Paycheck Protection Program than their Black counterparts. Just 0.3 percent of Black business owners reported receiving funding, compared with about 9 percent of non-Black business owners.

Grand Rapids business owner Robinson recounted a series of departed Black-owned businesses that once stood along Wealthy Street as it bisects Grand Rapids’ east side: a beauty supply store, an African-American bookstore, a restaurant, a rib catering business.

“It’s different for African-American business owners,” Robinson said. “They face different battles, both in keeping their business and starting a business.”

As investment in Grand Rapids neighborhoods rise, Kareem Scales of the Greater Grand Rapids NAACP also said he sees the lack of access to capital by Black entrepreneurs as an ongoing barrier.

“We want to have a rising business community,” he told Bridge. “But it’s a two-edged sword. We understand the importance of redevelopment. But at whose cost and whose gains?”

Kilpatrick of Housing Next called for a series of measures to close the gap in affordable housing, including more affordable loan rates. His group is also seeking changes like less restrictive zoning that would allow multi-family units in single-family neighborhoods. But such measures often face stiff opposition from residents opposed to changes in the character of their neighborhood.

“It is difficult politically,” he said.

To Grand Rapids resident and Black business owner Synia Jordan, her extended family history paints a painful story of inequity that she says is still unfolding.

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