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In booming Grand Rapids, many Black residents left out of city’s comeback

James Price
Long-time Grand Rapids barber James Price says that he doesn’t see many African-American residents buying homes because “they can’t afford it.” (Bridge photo by Ted Roelofs)

GRAND RAPIDS — When he steps out of the barbershop he’s owned since 1976, James Price sees a neighborhood where change cuts two ways.

“Throughout the years I’ve been here, it was up and down, up and down, and now it’s going up. It’s building up,” Price says.

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And while he applauds the flourishing shops and trendy eateries in the east side Grand Rapids neighborhood called Eastown, Price also sees a widening gap in who shares this prosperity.

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“You have whites coming in. That’s what’s coming back in the area, buying property. You don’t have many Blacks buying homes there. They can’t afford it,” said Price, who is African American.

Indeed, census data released in August show the Black population in the neighborhood adjacent to Price’s shop plunged 43 percent from 2010 to 2020, to 725 residents from 1,281. 

In a neighborhood directly south, the departure of 300 Black residents in the past 10 years caused the census tract to flip from 56 percent African-American to 47 percent.

Overall, the Black population of Grand Rapids fell 3.7 percent over the past 10 years, nearly 1,700 people, even as the city’s overall population grew nearly 6 percent to 199,000.

Census data indicates that Black residents from Grand Rapids likely moved to the suburbs in search of affordable housing, as the percentage of African-Americans grew nearly 4 percentage points in nearby Kentwood and 2 percentage points in Wyoming and Grandville.

“It’s an issue we’ve been aware of before any census data came out,” said Dakota Riehl-Davis, president of the Eastown Community Association board.

 Dakota Riehl-Davis
Grand Rapids resident Dakota Riehl-Davis leads a neighborhood group and says that gentrification “uniquely affect(s) our neighbors of color.” (Photo by Ted Roelofs)

“We’ve seen this uniquely affect our neighbors of color. As neighborhoods gentrify, our older neighbors are being pushed out.”

Like other areas in the state and nation, experts blame a crisis in affordable housing. 

Citywide, rents climbed by nearly 40 percent over the last decade, the 13th largest such increase among U.S. metropolitan areas, according to the group Self Financial.

In Eastown, two-bedroom apartments are now fetching $1,400 a month or more, while homes in the area sell for $400,000 and up.

Nearly 25,000 Grand Rapids renters and homeowners paid more than 30 percent of their income in 2019 for housing ─ a threshold for what’s considered affordable and able to meet other basic expenses including food, child care and transportation, according to Housing Next, an affordable housing advocacy group in west Michigan.

Housing Next estimates the city is more than 5,000 rental units short of demand, and Kent and nearby Ottawa counties will need 37,000 more housing units at all price points in the next five years to meet demand ─ about a tenth of that in lower-priced affordable housing.

“In order to achieve that level of supply, that’s more than $2.5 billion of investment over the next five years,” Ryan Kilpatrick, Housing Next’s executive director told Bridge.

Kilpatrick called that “an outlandish” sum that is unlikely to be met.

Across Michigan, according to calculations by the Michigan Association of United Ways, 1.5 million ─ or 38 percent ─ of households in 2019 struggled to afford basic needs including housing, child care, food, health care and transportation.  While those numbers are the most recent available, they don’t reflect the added stress low-income households face in paying for housing because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And those economic woes hit Michigan Black households harder, as 63 percent struggled to afford the essentials to live in their community.

 “I see affordable housing as one of our greatest challenges in the city of Grand Rapids,” Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss told Bridge. “There is clearly a disproportionate impact on communities of color.”

Bliss noted the city has taken steps to address the disparity, including low-income housing projects funded through federal tax credits and a newly formed affordable housing fund with a target goal of $25 million in funds by 2025. Bliss said the city has also amended its zoning code to allow multi-family units on residential corner lots, and ground-floor residential units in commercial districts.

Bliss added the city is considering establishing its own land bank agency to boost affordable housing, following the dissolution in 2019 of the Kent County Land Bank Authority.

“We continue to look at what else we can do,” Bliss said.

The exodus of Black families comes as the city overall is experiencing a resurgence in both reputation and population, regularly landing on lists of the best places to live for young people and anchoring one of the few regions in Michigan that is growing.

Now a destination, Kent County has reversed its exodus of young college graduates to cities like Chicago. From 2000 to 2009, the county lost more than 600 recent college graduates to Cook County, Illinois — but added more than two times that number over the past decade.

And while that may fuel upper-income growth, would-be Black entrepreneurs continue to face similar barriers to  Black households, experts say, in part because of the residual effects of decades-old real estate redlining that denied Black residents the chance to buy or rent homes in white neighborhoods.

“It’s all related to the marginalization of African Americans, largely due to redlining,” said Jamiel Robinson founder and CEO of Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses nonprofit.

“Other cultures generate wealth by leveraging their homes. Home ownership was one of those tracks into attaining wealth that African Americans were denied, leveraging that to enter college or start a business.”

Nationwide, 44 percent of Black families are homeowners, compared to 74 percent of white families.

That gap helps explain why the average net worth of white families was nearly 10 times that as Black families — $171,000 in 2016 compared to $17,150, according to the Brookings Institution, a progressive think tank.

And while the federal government banned discrimination in the home mortgage industry more than 50 years ago, there’s evidence many Michigan Black loan applicants still grapple with financial barriers to home ownership.

A 2018 analysis of mortgage data found that Black loan applicants in the Detroit metro area were 1.9 times more likely to be denied a loan than their white counterparts. In the Lansing metro area, Black applicants were 3.1 times more likely to be denied.

In 2020, researchers including an official at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research published findings that a $950 billion federal program aimed at shoring up business during the pandemic largely failed Black business owners.

According to the study, non-Black business owners were 30 times more likely to receive funding under the Paycheck Protection Program than their Black counterparts. Just 0.3 percent of Black business owners reported receiving funding, compared with about 9 percent of non-Black business owners.

Grand Rapids business owner Robinson recounted a series of departed Black-owned businesses that once stood along Wealthy Street as it bisects Grand Rapids’ east side: a beauty supply store, an African-American bookstore, a restaurant, a rib catering business.

“It’s different for African-American business owners,” Robinson said. “They face different battles, both in keeping their business and starting a business.”

As investment in Grand Rapids neighborhoods rise, Kareem Scales of the Greater Grand Rapids NAACP also said he sees the lack of access to capital by Black entrepreneurs as an ongoing barrier.

“We want to have a rising business community,” he told Bridge. “But it’s a two-edged sword. We understand the importance of redevelopment. But at whose cost and whose gains?”

Kilpatrick of Housing Next called for a series of measures to close the gap in affordable housing, including more affordable loan rates. His group is also seeking changes like less restrictive zoning that would allow multi-family units in single-family neighborhoods. But such measures often face stiff opposition from residents opposed to changes in the character of their neighborhood.

“It is difficult politically,” he said.

To Grand Rapids resident and Black business owner Synia Jordan, her extended family history paints a painful story of inequity that she says is still unfolding.

Synia Jordan
Grand Rapids resident and business owner Synia Jordan worries that gentrification will push out low-income residents in her neighborhood. (Bridge photo by Ted Roelofs)

Jordan grew up with memories of her grandmother’s battle to hold onto a popular Grand Rapids restaurant called the Chicken Shack that Synia McBride had owned and run for decades.

According to local press accounts, officials in 1984 wielded the power of eminent domain ─ which enables cities to seize properties for a public purpose ─ to force McBride to sell the restaurant building, where she also lived, for an urban renewal project. That building south of downtown, along others along several blocks, were demolished and replaced by an industrial food supplier.

“That was an important piece that was taken from my family. That was to be passed on, for our future.”

Days before she was to move out, McBride died in her sleep.

“She died of a broken heart,” Jordan said.

A few blocks away from that site on the city’s southwest side, a Detroit-based developer laid out plans earlier this year for a $100 million housing, commercial and retail project. 

The project site stands at the fringe of a low-income neighborhood dotted with small businesses — many with signs in Spanish — and streets lined with modest single-family homes. The neighborhood is about three-fourths Latino,14 percent Black and 11 percent white. Nearly half the residents live below the federal poverty line.

The proposed renovation of the old Sligh Furniture Co. building would create more than 750 apartments, including 440 “micro” units of 475 square feet. 

While a spokesperson for project developer Sturgeon Bay Holdings told Bridge its goal is to reserve 10 percent of its apartments as below-market affordable housing, planning documents submitted to the city do not include any commitment to affordable units.

Jordan is skeptical about promises for affordable housing, as she stood outside her hair salon a few blocks from the proposed development.

“Affordable for who? It’s happening all over. It’s not just our Black community, it’s people in general who can’t afford the housing. Where are they going to go?”

— Mike Wilkinson contributed

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