Government and Real Estate

City eyes housing strategy

October 16, 2015
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After six months of investigation, Grand Rapids has a strategic plan ready to target housing issues in the city.

City officials last week discussed what Mayor George Heartwell called “the eagerly awaited” report, Great Housing Strategies: Addressing Current and Future Housing Needs, which includes the collaborative process, goals and action items.

The initiative launched in April with city commissioners Ruth Kelly, Senita Lenear and Elias Lumpkins Jr. engaging more than 200 individuals in a conversation about how to address current and future housing needs in Grand Rapids.

Connie Bohatch, managing director of community services for the city, said the participants represented a broad cross-section of the community.

“We looked at changing demographics and populations; we received information about a residential target market analysis; we looked at potential future housing, as well as the presentation and conversation about what it takes to have great housing development in public-private partnerships,” said Bohatch, during a presentation to commissioners.

Based on the level of interest from participants, workgroups made up of nearly 90 people were established to examine specific topics related to housing issues in the Grand Rapids area. The four workgroups each were led by co-chairs; each group focused on one the following topics: land use and zoning; housing finance; economic and workforce development; and low-income and vulnerable populations.

“The purpose of each of the workgroups was to identify desired goals and outcomes, to examine existing and potential housing policies, programs and tools, and to also develop a plan of action to achieve those goals and outcomes,” said Bohatch.

“We met bi-weekly during the months of July and August, so that resulted in four meetings per workgroup. It was a very intense process.”

During the two-month process, the workgroups identified eight goals to address the current and future housing needs in the community and recommended 32 action items to support the achievement of the desired outcomes. The eight goals are:

  • Provide a variety of housing choices.
  • Encourage mixed-income neighborhoods.
  • Create and preserve affordable housing.
  • Support low-income and vulnerable populations.
  • Support employers and workforce development.
  • Encourage alternate transportation and parking options.
  • Change public perception of affordable housing.
  • Advocate for change to state and federal policies.

Workgroups also considered: current conditions, such as 45 percent of Grand Rapids households earn less than $35,000 a year; 30 percent of homeowners and 58 percent of renters spend 30 percent or more of their household income on housing; the high volume of single-family structures for existing housing stock; and forecast data on potential future demand prepared by Zimmerman/Volk Associates Inc.

“What they looked at is migration patterns … and what are their lifestyle choices,” said Bohatch. “The forecast is over five years; the potential market is about 6,000 units, and the majority of those are rental units.”

The presentation on the draft plan also highlighted specific strategies recommended for the four areas of focus, including: defining and regulating micro-units in the zoning ordinance; exploring property tax exemptions or income tax credits to support low-income and vulnerable populations in their housing; educating the community about the benefits of balanced, mixed-income neighborhoods with a variety of housing choices; and establishing a housing trust fund.

“One of the most highly desired actions was to form a housing trust fund that is initially supported with a $10,000 investment,” said Bohatch. “The workgroup was really explicit in wanting to have a dollar amount because we know it is going to take a lot of work to try to find partners and raise money. They felt a target dollar amount was really necessary.”

Other recommendations focused on a court eviction diversion pilot program, employer-assisted housing programs, creating live-work spaces in neighborhood business districts, and alternate transportation and parking options for employees who have difficulty accessing their work based on their shift.

Kelly, who participated during the development process, said the report is a first step and provides a “great distillation of data,” but more information is needed and there is more work to be done.

“There is tremendous momentum in this community. I think we have some good guidelines here. They need to be fleshed out, but I would encourage the commission to endorse the work that has been done so far,” said Kelly. “I think we need to include Grand Rapids Public (Schools), GRCC, GVSU, our senior advocates, and those who are not yet on board. We will go after them and seek their support. I think we can do this with those partners.”

Lumpkins said the number of people who volunteered to serve with the workgroups “says something about the importance of this,” and it is important to benchmark where the city and county are today to “measure the gains that have been made.”

Five of the eight co-chairs leading the workgroups were present during the Committee of the Whole meeting last week. Monica Steimle, co-chair of the housing finance workgroup and director of development for 616 Development, said she appreciated the work commissioners Kelly, Lumpkins and Lenear put into the effort and was excited with the level of participation in the workgroups.

“This was an answer to a lot of conversations going on about housing in a city where we are growing at such a fast pace, and it was definitely necessary to have it,” said Steimle. “I think these recommendations are a great starting point for us as a city. This is not just something we are seeing in our city alone but on a regional and national level, and we have an opportunity as a city to grow and grow healthy.”

Betty Zylstra, co-chair of the low-income and vulnerable population workgroup and director of Salvation Army Booth Family Services, said the work to address housing issues needed to happen.

“I think it normalizes the conversation around housing when we bring everybody together, and while we need to address specific populations that are more vulnerable, I think we recognized that this is an issue we all care about.”

Bohatch indicated there is work currently being done regarding proposed zoning changes; a public hearing is scheduled for Nov. 17, and the public has an opportunity to provide written comment regarding the draft plan through Nov. 20. The City Commission approval of the plan will be requested Dec. 8, according to the committee agenda.

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