Housing changes rankle residents


Members of several Grand Rapids neighborhood associations are pressing the city for a more thorough community engagement process before possible zoning changes are made in the interest of affordable housing.

West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology’s Public Agency hosted a series of community engagement meetings in mid-August to gather feedback from residents and neighborhood associations on a handful of contentious Housing NOW! proposals.

The Business Journal previously reported the city commission held a public hearing on changes to the Housing NOW! strategy. Among the 11 proposals included in the package, proposals three, six, eight and nine were considered for modification.

The resolutions are as follows:

3. Proposed ordinance to provide incentives for small-scale development

6. Proposed ordinance to provide incentives for increased density

8. Proposed ordinance to permit accessory dwelling units by right

9. Proposed ordinance to permit non-condo, zero-lot-line housing

Based on a series of neighborhood input sessions and a meeting with housing developers and architects in late 2017, several modifications to the four proposals were recommended, including:

  • Modify minimum lot area of 5,000 square feet to lots meeting the minimum lot area for the applicable zone district

  • Regulate maximum building height for detached ADUs

  • Permit two-story detached ADUs

  • Increase floor area ratio between ADU and primary structure

  • Eliminate maximum occupancy and number of bedrooms

The Business Journal also noted these changes were met with contention from residents.

Cynthia Ayers, executive director for East Hills Council of Neighbors, said community members’ frustrations were with the city’s failures to fully engage residents. She said the city scheduled a “weird time” to roll the recommendations out late in 2017. The meetings were poorly attended, and information did not get out on a large scale.

The city commission agreed to contract WMCAT to host a series of meetings and gather public feedback for the city’s consideration during a committee of the whole meeting in April.

Prior to this, several neighborhood associations, including those representing Eastown, East Hills, Midtown, Baxter and Heritage Hills, came together to form the Neighborhood Association Collaborative to help educate residents and themselves on the proposals.

“It’s pretty dense material,” Ayers said. “In order to post meetings on it, we needed to understand it better.”

The NAC hosted its own meetings in spring 2018 with nonprofit housing developers to hash out the details and improve understanding of the Housing NOW! and the ordinance changes.

Ayers added residents’ dissatisfaction with the process went back even further to 2015 when Housing NOW! was first rolled out, and it came to residents’ knowledge that the primary voices at the discussion table were city staff, developers and lenders.

“There wasn’t a lot of residential engagement,” she said. “To the city’s credit, they came to acknowledge that now.”

Ayers said the city originally presented the proposals as an affordable housing solution, but later, the language changed to frame the package as a housing inventory solution, which Ayers and other neighborhood association leaders found confusing. Even though she agreed increasing stock is necessary, she didn’t support the idea of it as a solution to high rental rates.

“(The city’s) narrative now is this is a housing stock issue,” Ayers said. “If we increase the housing stock, it should stabilize the rents. It’s like the trickle-down theory, but we see in other cities it isn’t actually happening.”

Don Lee, executive director of Eastown Community Association, shared Ayers’ dissent over increasing inventory as a solution to high rental rates.

“The neighborhood associations are very supportive of data-driven, evidence-based affordable housing solutions,” Lee said. “The idea that increasing inventory is going to increase affordable housing is dubious.”

Lee also said neighborhood associations are concerned the proposals will aid out-of-state developers who view Grand Rapids as an inexpensive market.

“We see out-of-state buyers buying properties all the time. That denies people in those neighborhoods the opportunity for affordable housing,” Lee said. “The neighborhoods that are the most vulnerable to this speculation are the poorest in the city because that’s where the property values are lowest.”

Ayers said, based on community feedback, WMCAT did the best job it could to explain the zoning changes in the short amount of time it had but explaining it to residents who didn’t attend previous meetings and don’t have enough context may require more time.

Most neighborhood associations expressed concern over the speed at which the city was trying to implement the zoning changes and felt the changes were large and complex enough to instead be incorporated into the city’s master plan.

Recently, the Eastown Community Association issued a letter to the city commission urging them to vote against proposals three, six, eight and nine, and instead begin a “meaningful and comprehensive” master planning process.

The ECA argued the implementation of these zoning changes would remove essential public input during the development review process, allow development that could be inconsistent with established neighborhood patterns, set arbitrary geographic boundaries for increased intensity of development and circumvent the master planning process.

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