Affordable housing plan moves forward


The Grand Rapids City Commission unveiled its plan to address the city’s affordable housing crunch by spurring private development.

At the city commission’s Nov. 14 meeting, City Manager Greg Sundstrom presented 11 ordinance and policy-change recommendations to the seven-member Committee of the Whole, which includes Mayor Rosalynn Bliss and commissioners David Allen, Joe Jones, Ruth Kelly, Senita Lenear, Jon O’Connor and Dave Shaffer.

The recommendations were developed by the city’s Housing Advisory Committee, chaired by O’Connor, First Ward commissioner.

More than 100 community members and business leaders attended the meeting, which was the prelude to a committee work session to review the recommendations Nov. 28.

“This has been one of the largest bodies of work I have seen city staff implement in a long, long time,” Sundstrom said at the meeting.

Bliss said the 107-page Housing NOW! proposal would take some time for the commission and community to review.

“Today is about presenting the recommendations city staff have worked on, then we can talk about them more in our work session we have scheduled,” she said.

The Housing NOW! package of proposals includes:

  • Ordinance amendment to reduce Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) fees

  • Policy amendment to provide homeownership incentives

  • Ordinance to provide incentives for small-scale development

  • Policy amendment to provide incentives for affordable housing in the Neighborhood Enterprise Zone (NEZ) tool

  • Policy to encourage voluntary development agreements for affordable housing

  • Ordinance to provide incentives for increased density

  • Policy to provide requirements for affordable housing whenever the city is a partner in an affordable housing project

  • Ordinance to permit accessory dwelling units by right

  • Ordinance to permit non-condo, zero-lot-line housing

  • Ordinance to regulate rental applications

  • Policy to establish the Affordable Housing and Preservation Fund

The recommendations have been in the works for about two years. O’Connor said the plan is only a starting point.

“We’re establishing a framework for development and looking at (the recommendations) holistically to say, ‘This is a bigger framework we can agree on to move lots of things in one direction,’” he said.

In August, the Business Journal reported Bliss gave an unofficial State of the City address to the Rotary Club of Grand Rapids and promised the city would work hand-in-hand with the private sector.

“The need around affordable housing, there’s no one silver bullet,” she said at the Nov. 14 meeting. “This is a partnership with members of the private sector and city officials. We are part of the solution, even though it’s not the entire solution.”

Kelly said housing issues have continued to worsen post-recession even as other segments of the economy bounced back.

“A huge piece of the reason housing is expensive for people is wages have not kept up,” she said. “The (city’s) economic development department needs to be applauded for the work they are doing to bring jobs to this region.”

Shaffer said one of the things he hopes gets hashed out in committee is what effect mandates will have on the market.

“When we mandate things, how does the market react to that?” he said. “Are we building something that lasts? We haven’t made those decisions, but we need to think of that.”

He also mentioned funding concerns.

“What’s the long-term funding source? It’s a balance in our city of increased supply of housing,” he said.

According to Bliss in her State of the City address, the city’s Affordable Housing Community Fund, initially seeded by about $1.2 million and supplemented by revenues captured from development project incentives, is one of the main funding mechanisms.

O’Connor said the city’s Neighborhood Investment Plan allocates more than $1 million per year using federal funding, such as Community Development Block Grants and HOME Investment Partnerships.

The Housing NOW! package would increase funding via incentives and creation of an Affordable Housing and Preservation Fund, but specific dollar amounts have not yet been determined.

Allen and Kelly stressed the importance of public comment as the plan moves forward.

“It’s important for residents to engage,” Allen said. “What I would like as a city commissioner is not some canned response from a million people that’s the exact same thing. I want to meet with anyone, anytime and hear real comments from real people. It’s up to us as a city commission to continue the heavy lifting and engage the community in a meaningful way.”

Kelly said there will be opportunities for neighborhood associations, businesses and residents to weigh in publicly.

“No doubt neighborhood organizers are going to have questions,” she said. “If there can be an opportunity to do a Q&A, that would go a long way to making sure we have a smooth pathway to decision-making.”

Jones added he would like to see the commission include neighboring suburbs in a conversation about how they can join in solving the problem, which affects more than just the urban core.

“(We need to look at) the potential of sharing these findings with our neighbors, those in our first-ring suburbs,” he said. “This issue is far greater than the city. It is affecting citizens in the immediate neighboring cities. We need to have them take a hard look at what they are doing.”

Bliss said she has been in talks countywide in light of other counties’ approaches to problem-solving.

“I’ve had conversations with the Essential Needs Taskforce at Kent County,” she said. “Other communities have taken a countywide approach. Our county hasn’t done that, but I do think there’s an opportunity to do that, to take a look at our sister cities.

“Cities across the country are struggling with this because it is complex.”

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