Housing + Financial
The housing crisis is one of our community’s most pressing issues. Despite significant growth for some, large disparities still exist within Kent County. Grand Rapids Community Foundation is asking which conditions will allow all members of our community an opportunity not just to meet their basic needs, but to prosper and thrive. We are committed to finding equitable solutions to create greater access to housing and financial prosperity. Listening to and learning from our community and partners is the only way to find answers.
While a housing crisis may sound dramatic, the availability of housing, particularly for lower income levels, has declined significantly. During the economic downturn, little new housing was built. When the economy resurged, speculators and those who could afford market rate grabbed up property. However, many people’s incomes remained flat, and, as a community, we have a lot of catching up to do. Those individuals and families with the lowest incomes are paying the price.
KConnect, a longtime Community Foundation partner, works to ensure all children in Kent County have a clear path to economic prosperity through family, education and community opportunities. They found that in 2018, more than 10,000 people in Kent County touched the homeless system, and youth are significantly impacted. One in every 43 children in Kent County was either homeless or at serious risk of becoming homeless and racial disparities exacerbate the problem.
Lynne Ferrell, KConnect board member and co-chair of its Housing Accountability Partners Council, clarifies further: “The racial disparities revealed by this data are alarming. One in seven black or African American children in Kent County was either without housing or at imminent risk of losing it in 2018, compared to one in 54 Latinx children and one in 160 white children.”
The housing crisis is not new, nor is the Community Foundation’s role to create greater access to affordable housing. Over the years, we have made grants to increase housing supply and improve existing housing, convened community conversations, and engaged in public policy. However, it hasn’t been enough. There needs to be community-level recognition that, even while working multiple jobs, many families are just one crisis away from losing their home.
Bringing Community Together
The Community Foundation partners with nonprofit organizations through grants and investments, such as Habitat for Humanity’s campaign to increase home ownership and establish a sustainable land acquisition fund. We helped Opportunity Resource Fund start its Fresh Opportunity Mortgage Program, so those denied traditional credit can receive home mortgage loans. We helped fund and participate in KConnect’s Housing Accountability Partners Council. These stakeholders work to develop a meaningful, sustainable community plan that leads to equitable housing outcomes for communities that have been marginalized.
To attract and retain our community’s most valuable asset, its people, we need to identify new ways for all to thrive.If incomes increased, and more people were making living wages, there would be less need for housing support. Public policy needs to address housing barriers such as racial and ethnic discrimination. And additional financial resources could be directed to increasing housing supply.
One of our newest partners, Project GREEN (Grass Roots Economic Empowerment Network), is teaching us new ways to increase access to generational wealth and prosperity. They provide advocacy training for grassroots leaders to navigate local government systems and advocate for policies. “Project GREEN is paving this two-way street of advocacy and change as it relates to economic empowerment. One way is to help consumers learn how to handle their finances and make the best decisions for themselves and for their household. The other way is to change systems, so that the street is smooth and there are no barriers to meet their financial goals,” says Dallas Lenear, Project GREEN director.
Shanelle White, a trained grassroots financial advocate, is advocating for policies that would allow people who rent to increase their credit score with consistent rent payments. She says, “Because Project GREEN partnered with the Community Foundation, there was funding for someone such as myself. I wanted to step into the world of advocacy work but did not know how. Through the funding, they were able to equip me to go out in the community, start doing advocacy work and make justice happen.”
Putting People First
Our community partners encourage us to put people first and empower them to be part of the process. Dallas reminds us that empowerment is “helping people understand that they already have power. We’re not giving power. They already have it and we just need to bring it out.”
His lived experience makes Teri Jourdan, a Community Foundation donor partner and committee volunteer, passionate about Our LGBTQ Fund’s work to alleviate LGBTQ youth homelessness. He would like to see a change in narrative around those experiencing housing instability. “The language needs to improve,” he says. “Being homeless is not a condition. It is a situation. Use people first language. The last thing I wanted when I was struggling was pity. I wanted resources. I wanted outreach. I wanted visibility and communication.”
KConnect echoes this message about bringing people into the center of the conversation. Lynne says even those working on housing issues sometimes “insulate ourselves from honest feedback. We have to make sure that whatever we’re doing matters to the people we’re trying to serve. Mental models are really hard to shift,” she explains.
The shift begins with putting people who have experienced homelessness at the center of KConnect’s process. “Our data says that more than 6,000 families are homeless or facing homelessness. We plan to link that data with the stories of lived experience to change the narrative in Kent County,” she says.
Dallas Lenear, Teri Jourdan and Shanelle White
Funneling Passions into Progress
Complicated problems require systems-level change, but each community member can be part of dismantling barriers. The Community Foundation is privileged to partner with many people and organizations who fuel their passion into progress. These partners are leveraging professional resources, pursuing advocacy initiatives or pooling their finances with those of our nearly 100 years of endowed investments.
Hear our partners speak on housing + financial prosperity.
Dallas says, “It’s been very clear that they want it to be a partnership. They believe we have something to bring to the table, and the Community Foundation wants to learn from us as well. It’s not just about the grant. We will add to the story, strategy and tactics that they will share with their other partners in greater Grand Rapids.”
For Teri, partnering with the Community Foundation gives him an opportunity to give back. “I struggled for 13 years with housing instability and homelessness, and I’m very thankful for where I’m at now. I have the ability and opportunity to give back—in a way that I can guarantee my money or my time is going back to my community. And seeing the fruits of that, it’s encouraging,” he says.