Public panel scrutinizes gentrification
Community leaders and experts see 'almost historic' levels of displacement.
Discussion about gentrification in Grand Rapids is gaining steam.
The Grand Rapids Public Library last week hosted a panel involving experts and community leaders.
The panel, Speak up GR: Gentrification and Our City, addressed the concern of how the Grand Rapids community could prevent the city from falling into the gentrification trap that has caused problems in other cities across the U.S.
Panelists included Benjamin Ofori-Amoah, professor and chair of the Western Michigan University Department of Geography; Darel Ross II, co-executive director of LINC UP and co-director of Start Garden; David Allen, Third Ward commissioner and founder of several community-based development organizations, including City Vision and Lighthouse Communities (now LINC UP); and Nancy L. Haynes, executive director of the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan (FHCWM) and a member of the state and local bar associations.
“Gentrification is when opportunity moves into a neighborhood and that opportunity is not directly for or in line with the indigenous population of that neighborhood,” Ross said by way of definition.
Panelists also explained the differences between gentrification and the revitalization of a community. Ross claimed gentrification is revitalization without the benefits of revitalization returning to the community.
“So, you’re not a revitalized commercial corridor if, two blocks behind you, the social outcomes are the same … revitalization is nothing but sticks and bricks,” Ross said. “Once revitalization happens without the residents of that community, once businesses are popping up, and they’re not owned by, or for the benefit of, people in that community, once the sum results of the profits made aren’t poured back into that community, once the jobs created aren’t for the people of that community, that net total is called gentrification,” Ross said.
Allen provided a governmental perspective on the differences between gentrification and revitalization, referencing the results of several community meetings he had attended when he worked for City Vision in 2000. He said at every meeting, neighborhood groups said they wanted a new nonprofit housing organization because the existing ones seemed only concerned with building new houses and not engaging in the community or providing opportunities.
“We heard, ‘We’re sick and tired of these nonprofit housing corporations coming in, building houses using all-white suburban contractors, and there’s no local impact,’” he recalled. “If somebody built a house, and they left, it’s done nothing to the neighborhood. … Truly, revitalization isn’t just the visual appeal of the neighborhood, but it’s the overall health of that neighborhood that is revitalization.”
Haynes added revitalization is creating neighborhoods of opportunity, whereby investing in the neighborhood, residents and the future residents have better access to opportunities, such as jobs, transportation and education.
“It’s really about increasing quality of life,” she said.
Ofori-Amoah explained revitalization as a multistep process involving the interests of the community, whereas gentrification comes when only redevelopment is taken into account.
“Revitalization is the product of energizing a community, and there are different processes. Gentrification is one of these processes … just redevelopment doesn’t mean anything,” he said.
The panelists were asked if they thought part of the reason that gentrification has become such a hot topic was because of the consolidation of businesses and the disappearance of small businesses in neighborhoods, and how communities should challenge that consolidation.
“Once investment arrives in the area, other housing or businesses, the pricing goes up; people who live there will get priced out of the market. In economic terms, yes gentrification will bring economic prosperity, but when you look at the social impact, there’s always that issue,” Ofori-Amoah said.
Ross said gentrification has more to do with years of discriminatory policies that have prevented economic prosperity in poor black and Latino communities.
“What’s going on in inner-city areas isn’t Walmart came in and everything closed down. It is years and years of policy process and practices that have never allowed anything to be built in the first place,” he said.
Ross also cited the 2008-09 housing crash and the subsequent fallout involving outside investors buying properties as commodities and pricing out local families.
“This has absolutely nothing to do with the business cycle of neighborhoods,” he said. “This is the result of a 2008 real estate bubble which took over 60 percent of the cumulative black and brown wealth out of the community with no construct to ever put it back, and now, we have an investor-led type of revitalization.”
Allen said the reason gentrification has become such a concern is because there has been an “almost historic” movement of individuals and families for the city, and they’re scared because they can’t find anywhere they can afford to live. He also cited some statistics regarding the public schools’ lunch program, arguing, “The city of Grand Rapids Public Schools system has seen a slight decrease in families receiving free and reduced lunch. The city of Kentwood has seen an exponential increase in free and reduced lunch students. So, you can almost do a direct correlation between the loss of Grand Rapids Public Schools’ free and reduced lunch families and the increase in Kentwood.”
Panelists were then asked if Grand Rapids has seen displacement in the past, what makes the level of displacement now any different?
“I don’t think we have seen displacement like this before actually,” Haynes said. “When you list a house at $270,000 or $200,000 — a few years ago, there were so many vacant houses and you could buy a house for $25,000 and have a really great house that was still affordable. I think we haven’t seen rates like this before.”
Haynes added that there’s also an “unspoken problem” with houses lying vacant because the investment groups that own them find it cheaper to sit on them rather than maintain them and keep them on the market.
Allen confirmed Haynes’ point, saying the city has identified about 800 single-family homes that are vacant.
“With the mortgage loan crisis, there was no oversight, which was one of the great causes of the crash,” he said. “The biggest problem coming out of the mortgage loan crisis is so many investment companies have bought up these properties, and they’re just sitting on these properties and jacking up the rent.”
Ross highlighted two contributions to gentrification, one being the competition coming from students and young professionals moving into the city where it’s “cool,” another being the notion that it’s no longer a problem of finding housing for low-income families but also for middle-income families.
“I’m a part of this. My daughter goes to Michigan State,” Ross said. “I pay something crazy in the dorms. So she’s like, ‘Hey, Dad, can I get an apartment this semester?’ I’m like how much is it? ‘Four hundred dollars cheaper than the dorm.’ I’m not thinking pricing. I’m looking at it compared to dorm room prices. That’s a deal!
“The only reason we’re talking about affordable housing in Grand Rapids is it has turned into a housing affordability issue for people who aren’t low income. So, for the first time, if you’re at 80-90 percent of AMI (area median income), if you’re a working family, and you’re making 70 or 80 thousand; those people can’t find houses.”
Haynes also said many people live in Muskegon and commute to Holland or to Grand Rapids because that’s the nearest affordable housing that they can find.
In light of understanding gentrification, panelists were asked what they thought the goal of the city’s housing policies should be.
Ross said he was more concerned with identifying opportunities in a given community and formulating policies specifically designed for each community.
“An affordable housing policy in Grand Rapids has to have definitions,” he said. “The biggest thing that the leadership in Grand Rapids can do is start defining things: What is a healthy community? Is that 30 percent renters? Is that 30 percent affordable housing? You can’t get to a goal you can’t define. The city of Grand Rapids doesn’t even have a formula for that. Then you have to choose neighborhoods. You can’t retrofit affordability.”
Allen argued the city could find money to fund what it feels is important.
“So, we found out there was a tree crisis. Miraculously, we came up with $2.5 million to take care of all these trees,” Allen said. “I think that we might see some things coming down the pipe. But for as long as I have lived in Grand Rapids, which is since ’93, we have incentivized the development of downtown. It’s done. I don’t know why we keep incentivizing the development of downtown. We need to find ways to incentivize the development at the neighborhood level.”
The panelists were then asked how developers could take into account the members of communities in which they plan to develop.
Ross said both parties, the residents and the developers, have to be “brutally honest” with each other and understand they don’t have each other’s interests in mind. He said it’s then the job of the local municipality to be the neutral party in that transaction.
“Communities should be unapologetically pro-community. Developers, it’s OK to be pro-development, just be authentic and honest. And we have to get to the point where the municipality is the honest broker in that mutual party,” he said.
Panelists were asked how concerned citizens should engage with city officials. Allen said it’s important for communities to voice what they want, rather than simply oppose new development. He encouraged citizens to have a vision for their community and act on it.
“Get involved in the development process,” Ross added. “It’s important for communities to understand that you either have each other or you have money. So, you have to relentlessly engage and push back about what you want.”