Residents and members of varied Grand Rapids neighborhood associations took the initiative to spend several early spring and August days in meetings and study Housing Now! proposals the city commission has been eager to adopt, proposals the elected city officials think would address affordable housing availability. The various association members, gathered as the Neighborhood Association Collaborative, offered their own informed suggestions, many of which the Business Journal supports.
The city’s use of downtown-centric, quasi-government groups to create plans reaching far beyond the downtown boundaries has been outright troubling since it has a nationally recognized planning department staff. The group of city staff had most recently pulled together a comprehensive and well-received plan for the Medical Mile area, extending to those neighborhoods impacted by more than $1 billion in development along Michigan Street.
The Neighborhood Association Collaborative, represented in interviews with the Business Journal by Cynthia Ayers, executive director for East Hills Council of Neighbors, issued a letter to the city commission urging them to vote against four specific Housing Now! proposals for ordinances and instead begin a “meaningful and comprehensive” master planning process.
The Business Journal story, “Housing changes rankle residents,” reports 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. Those issues have been cited previously in Business Journal comment.
The story also indicates an even more troubling development in the Housing Now! discussion: 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. “(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.”
To those concerns, the Business Journal adds its caution regarding free and fair market forces. In early 2017, the Business Journal published a series of reports on affordable and market rate tensions in evidence even before the federal interest rate began rising. Adding to that, concerns by bankers and developers showed supply could soon outpace demand, which has in fact been playing out. The Housing Now! plan was rolled out in 2015. Ayers added residents’ dissatisfaction with the process dates to that rollout.
The city commission is well advised to allow professionals already on staff to provide comprehensive oversight of planning and to heed the call for transparency among constituents rather than back-door quasi-government entities to roll over both.