Affordable housing, racial equity and improving police and community relations are at the top of the agenda for Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss.
Bliss delivered a de facto “state of the city” update to Rotary Club of Grand Rapids members last week in which she discussed the initiatives to improve in those areas, as well as touching on the progress of the River Restoration project and city’s sustainability efforts.
Bliss said the city’s affordable housing crunch has “gotten significantly worse” in the past two years before going on to outline several programs and initiatives Grand Rapids has championed to help alleviate the stress. She cited the establishment of the Affordable Housing Community Fund, initially seeded by about $1.2 million and supplemented by revenues captured from development project incentives as one of the ways the city is looking to increase the amount of affordable housing.
Bliss said the city currently is determining the governing structure of the fund and likely will partner with a local organization to oversee its distribution. However, she added the city commission is hoping to use at least some of those funds to bolster a down payment assistance program.
Another strategy the city is implementing is the creation of the Housing Advisory Committee, which prioritizes the recommendations presented to the city commission and recently submitted 11 core recommendations moving forward.
However, Bliss acknowledged this isn’t an issue the city can tackle by itself.
“There’s only so much we can do in the public sector — there’s only so much influence we have in the city to be a part of solving this problem,” she said. “This truly is a problem that the community needs to come together and solve.”
Bliss said the city having open discussions with private developers and local foundations has been indicative of the efforts to call in reinforcements, as well as its push to receive Low-Income Housing Tax Credits from the state. Also, a possibility of introducing zoning changes, such as allowing accessory dwelling units, could be on the table.
“There are a number of things we’ll be fleshing out and reviewing and making decisions about over the next couple months,” Bliss said.
After addressing affordable housing, Bliss went on to discuss the city’s “significant racial disparities” and Grand Rapids’ efforts to bridge that gap.
Bliss cited the 17 census tracks in the city with double-digit unemployment percentages, which exist in Grand Rapids’ neighborhoods that are more diverse. As a whole, Grand Rapids’ unemployment hovers around 3.2 percent.
Since partnering with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity 15 months ago, Bliss said the city has begun embedding racial equity into its policies, procedures and budgeting.
“We know that the result of what we’re seeing in our community is a result of structural and systemic racism, and we know that government was a part of creating that system — so the government has to be a part of changing that for the future,” she said.
In addition to her presentation, Bliss took several questions from Rotary members. She addressed a concern that developers may renege on their affordable housing obligations once they secured tax credits from the city, noting that the city’s economic development department monitors ongoing developments to ensure those responsibilities aren’t abandoned.
She also quickly shot down a question about whether Grand Rapids would consider eliminating its city income tax.
“Income tax is the largest percentage of our revenue and our general fund, and it’s become more important because the state has cut funding to local communities,” she said. “We’ve seen a significant cut from the state’s revenue sharing, which is why we’ve had to go back to voters and ask for additional millages from streets and parks. And quite frankly, other communities in the state are looking at passing an income tax because they can’t make their budgets work.”
Bliss brought up Kalamazoo’s recent discussions of instituting a city income tax, which were tabled when the city reached an agreement with private businesses to raise a $500-million endowment fund to help support the city government.
“I’m not sure anyone in our community has an appetite for that, and I think our endowment would have to be significantly more to cover what we generate in income tax,” Bliss said.