Thursday, December 03, 2015

Equity, inclusion and hope on the West Side of Grand Rapids

By Zinta Aistars
Published in Rapid Growth Media
December 3, 2015

From left, Sergio Cira Reyes, Andrew Sisson, Karl Williams and Katie Booms.
Photo by Adam Bird

It’s been called the gold rush of Grand Rapids’ West Side. Recent projects in the area include an expansion of Harmony Brewing Company, a mixed-use development called Fulton Place, and Lofts on Alabama from the 616 Development, LLC. It’s a gold rush, however, that makes residents feel on edge.

“That’s why we are here,” says Sergio Cira-Reyes, project director at Westown Collaborative. “We want the residents of the West Side to feel that all this development isn’t something that is happening to them, but that they are a part of it.”

Westown Collaborative, Cira-Reyes explains, is a collaborative of organizations that support the residents and causes of the Westown community. The collaborative was founded in 2011 to bring equity, inclusion and hope to the West Side.

Facilitated with the help of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) consultant Wayne Squires, funding for the collaborative was sought from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Grand Rapids Community Foundation, and several other organizations. Partners now include Other Way Ministries, Westown Jubilee Housing, Habitat for Humanity Kent County, Servants Community Church, the Grand Rapids Public Library, Gold Avenue Church, John Ball Area Neighbors, Esperanza Covenant Church, Downtown YMCA, Bridge Street House of Prayer, Keystone Community Church, West Grand Neighborhood Organization, and other groups.

“We want to redefine what it means to be a good neighbor,” Cira-Reyes says. “We welcome new businesses coming in, and we want to connect with them. A part of that is raising their awareness about how their projects affect the community.”

Here’s the challenge, he says. Where there used to be “mom ‘n pop” shops and businesses, large developments have been replacing them. Houses that were once owned by individuals and families—and sometimes rented out by them—are now often owned by people living in other areas, and rental properties are run by property management companies. Their goal is to earn top dollar for the property owner.

Andrew Sisson, Westown Collaborative community connector, joins the conversation.

“Currently the market rate for a studio apartment is about $1,000 a month,” he says. “That’s bringing in wealthier residents, and that means people living here are being forced out. About 40 percent of those living in these neighborhoods have incomes below the poverty level. People with children are having a hard time renting, because kids are hard on a house and the new owners don’t want to rent to them. And those who lost their houses in 2008 to foreclosure — the majority of those were sold to investors with cash, buying up single family housing and turning them into rental homes.”

Minorities and immigrant populations are particularly hard-hit, Cira-Reyes and Sisson state, while those with felonies in their histories are unable to find a place to live, let alone a living.

“Someone with a felony may have to show an income three times that of anyone else renting the same apartment,” Sisson says.

But that’s why Westown Collaborative ...


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