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Signs of Life for Affordable Housing

Kent County group, west Michigan lawmakers push statewide charge

May 16, 2004 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


In Grand Rapids leaders and citizens are pushing for more state support of affordable housing. Currently the state ranks 48th and 49th in the nation in two key measures of spending for affordable housing.

GRAND RAPIDS — Nearly one year after Michigan lawmakers introduced a plan to provide more affordably priced housing throughout the state, an alliance of community activists here is renewing its drive to see that the proposed legislation is enacted. The campaign has already convinced one prominent west Michigan lawmaker to look past Lansing’s current budget crisis and urge his colleagues to enact the bill without first identifying a way to pay for it.

“I’m ready to recommend we move forward, with or without an identified funding source,” said State Representative Jerry Kooiman, a Republican from Grand Rapids who is sponsoring a bill to establish the Michigan Housing and Community Development Fund. “Let’s get the structure of the program setup and ready to go for better budget times. My intent is to move this idea down the field and get something done by June.”

Representative Kooiman made his comments last month during a meeting with United Growth for Kent County, a coalition of citizens, businesses, and local government officials that has made starting the fund a top priority this year. As proposed, the fund would target the state’s most critical housing needs and spend as much as $25 million each year to expand ownership and rental choices for people with limited incomes. Mr. Kooiman’s remarks seemed to reflect the urgency the Kent County group feels about solving the state’s housing problem.

Experts say that Michigan has an acute but little-acknowledged shortage of such housing. One study, by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, estimates that 18 percent of the state’s 3.8 million households are classified as “housing needy,” which means the dwellings are overcrowded, severely deteriorating, or too expensive for those living in them. And a federal study places Michigan near last place in two key measures of spending for affordable housing.

Local Support for a Statewide Issue
Last August, the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, the bi-partisan panel launched by Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm with the assistance of top state Republican lawmakers, identified financing and constructing more affordable housing as key to revitalizing Michigan’s many declining cities and to slowing the state’s high sprawl rate, among the nation’s most severe. The leadership council formally urged the Legislature to expand both market rate and affordable housing opportunities by establishing special funding incentives for them.

Representative Kooiman and several other west Michigan legislators were among those who cosponsored enabling legislation for the Michigan Housing and Community Development Fund last May. Other legislators supporting the bill, which is based on the council’s recommendations, include the Senate’s President Pro Tem Patty Birkholz, a Republican from Saugatuck, and Representatives Joanne Voorhees and Barb Vander Veen, Republicans from Wyoming and Allendale, respectively.

United Growth for Kent County’s local campaign for the state legislation is part of its longtime effort to revitalize Grand Rapids, particularly its central city, reign in sprawl, and strengthen the local economy. The group in recent years has worked to establish a countywide farmland preservation program and to educate local residents about important planning and zoning issues through its Citizen Planner Program.

Local developers in recent years have responded to the housing crunch in Grand Rapids by constructing thousands of new and refurbished residential units within the city. The city, which is Michigan’s second largest, continues to add scores of new economy businesses, bars, restaurants, retail shops, and cultural attractions to its downtown, making it is one of the state’s few urban areas with a rising population and genuine competition for urban housing.

Success Drives Demand
But this success is steadily driving up housing and property values and, with it, the demand for more affordably priced housing. Just three years ago, for example, officials at the Grand Rapids Housing Commission, a public agency established in 1966, had approximately 2,500 low-income families, disabled individuals, and senior citizens on a waiting list for an affordable place to live. Today, that number exceeds 8,000. The federal government defines “affordable housing” as housing that costs its occupants no more than 30 percent of their household income.

“A worker who works 40 hours per week at a minimum wage job can afford monthly rent of no more than $268,” said Sister Maureen Geary, coordinator of the Grand Rapids Area Housing Continuum of Care, a project to end homelessness and provide housing options for low-income earners. “But fair market rent for a two-bedroom unit in Kent County is $636.”

“Housing provides individuals and families with a foundation of safety, stability and security,” Ms. Geary continued. “But here in Kent County, and across the state, there is a critical shortage of affordable housing. [The proposed] trust fund will be one tool that can be used to help provide a sufficient supply of affordable housing.”

Despite such statistics, the program, which would make grants and loans encouraging developers to build as many as 1,000 low- and mixed-income rented and owned units each year, has languished in legislative committees for 12 months as state officials struggle with the budget deficit. But now support for it is regaining momentum. United Growth is partnering with groups such as the Creston Neighborhood Association and the Salvation Army to organize local support.

The local coalition will meet on May 28, 2004 with Tony Lentych, the executive director of the Community Economic Development Association of Michigan, to refine a local strategy and connect their efforts to the broader statewide campaign.

“We hope the legislature will hold a couple hearings before summer break,” Mr. Lentych said in a phone interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. “So the goal right now is to make sure we get our facts in order and prepare the right people to testify.”

Part of a Larger Strategy
The campaign for affordable housing legislation comes as state government is poised to enter a remarkable period of reform in land use, economic, transportation, and urban policies. The overarching goals are to reduce traffic congestion, pollution, and urban disinvestment while preserving farmland, restoring community, and improving public health, all as part of a strategy to encourage sustainable economic growth in the state.

And while Governor Granholm has strongly endorsed her leadership council’s recommendations, she also launched her own Cool Cities Pilot Program, which is meant to complement the council’s preferred steps for community revitalization. The first round of 12 “Cool Cities” grants, which attracted more than 100 applicants, strives to make Michigan’s towns more attractive to “new economy” employers and employees by providing funding for urban areas to make their public spaces more walkable, attractive, and vibrant. Representative Kooiman sees an emerging unity among all of these different activities.

“The momentum is here now,” Mr. Kooiman told the Kent County group last month. “Between the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council and the governor's Cool Cities initiative, there is a growing understanding that quality affordable housing is a key component of building healthy and attractive communities.”

The state’s ongoing research about land use and urban revitalization issues indicates that free market forces will not provide significant amounts of affordable housing on their own. Instead, the market requires community investments designed as part of a town’s infrastructure, in the same way that roads, schools, or parks are. Michigan, however, has a large amount of catching up to do. Respectively, the state ranks 48th and 49th nationally on per capita spending and spending as a percentage of personal income on affordable housing, according to a May 2001 report prepared by Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based research group.

Until that funding gap is addressed, urban revitalization experts say, the state’s ability to fully reap the harvest of even modest urban investments, such as the governor’s three-year, $3 million outlay for Cool Cities, will be limited.

“This is the right time,” Representative Kooiman told the Kent County group. “The home builders and realtors are onboard. The housing providers and community development experts are with us. And conversations with the governor’s office indicate that she’s supportive of the concept. I fear we’ll lose critical momentum if we wait two years.”

Andy Guy, who is chronicling the rise of Grand Rapids as a center of Smart Growth innovation in the Midwest, directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Grand Rapids field office. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org, or 616-308-6250.

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