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‘We didn’t notice they’re gone’

Activist parent works for affordable housing on booming West Side

Five years ago, Jim Davis and his wife, Kymberlie, were looking to buy a house on Grand Rapids’ West Side. They couldn’t find one listed that hadn’t already been snapped up.

So they sent out 140 postcards to neighborhood residents and bought one from a couple before it was on the market. With two kids attending Grand Rapids Public Schools’ Southwest Community Campus, they’re happy to have found a home in a part of the city booming with new businesses and housing developments.  

But the experience showed Davis how hard an affordable home is to come by on the West Side, and that personal connections are usually the only way someone can find a place to rent or own.

“I have friends that want to live in this community,” Davis said. “They love it … and they can’t.” 

He’s working to change that situation as a city planning commissioner and executive director of Westside Collaborative, an alliance of nonprofits and faith-based agencies that works to support equity and quality of life for all. Kymberlie is a teacher in Cedar Springs Public Schools and GRPS Board of Education member.

Davis has seen West Side rents double or even triple in recent years, driving out families with children and hurting enrollment in GRPS schools. The increases are driven by new high-rise apartments and condos, the bustling bars and restaurants along Bridge Street NW and a major influx of college student renters, he says. 

While Davis welcomes the positive side of the developments, he laments all the families that have been forced out into the suburbs – or into sharing homes with friends, coworkers or relatives.       

“They’re so invisible that we didn’t notice that they’re gone,” he said.

Related Story: Living in cars, campers, motels and ‘doubled-up,’ homeless students struggle to succeedSchools — urban, suburban and rural — are seeing increased numbers of homeless students and fewer options for housing because of high rents and scarce vacancies…

Negative Impact on Schools and Students

While for some homelessness means a shelter or being on the street, Davis said, “Far more often it is hidden behind the comfort of someone else’s front door.” 

In either case, schools lose students and students lose ground, he said. All six West Side traditional schools saw enrollment declines between 2014-15 and 2019-20, according to the Michigan Department of Education. The exception was strong growth at C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy, a theme school that expanded into a second campus with a high school in 2016-17.

Enrollement in West Side GRPS schools has dropped compared to previous years

Despite an overall increase in GRPS enrollment of 20 students this fall – the second-best in two decades and 214 more than budgeted projections – the decreases in West Side schools and loss of families sadden Davis, as well as the instability of students who remain but lack permanent housing.  

“If you look at truancy and transience as it impacts education, that’s terrible for every kid,” said Davis, who taught music in Kent City Public Schools. “Not only the vulnerability of ‘Where am I going to lay my head tonight?,’ but just the consistency of friends, teacher, school.”

It’s an issue of great concern to GRPS officials, said spokesman John Helmholdt. 

“We are deeply concerned about housing affordability throughout the city,” Helmholdt said. “As a district, we are committed to working with our friends at City Hall, local non-profit housing developers, and other community partners to address this issue. Far too many families are being forced out of their homes and apartments due to affordability.”

New Developments, but Not Enough

Davis acknowledges some progress on affordable housing, such as the $18 million Stockbridge Apartments being built just north of Bridge Street Market. Developed by the Inner City Christian Federation and Rockford Construction, it is planned to include 64 units, 51 of them for low-income residents, plus retail space. Dwelling Place also is developing two properties to provide 68 affordable apartments and town-homes, a project aimed to help families whose children are in the Challenge Scholars program offering college tuition. 

However, he criticized as “a step in the wrong direction” the Kent County Board of Commissioners’ decision to disband the county land bank at the end of this year, saying it hurts options for turning available plots into affordable housing.  

Davis expects hearings will be held on the city’s new master plan sometime next year, offering an opportunity for public input on how to protect marginalized people, provide affordable housing and stable schooling in the midst of rapid development. 

“At the end of the day, we need to have a conversation at the community level about this economic class of people that have been here, that want to be here, but are being priced out,” he said. 

“My hope is more and more people will see the value in holding space for these working-class households.”

The Stockbridge Apartments under construction at 636 First St. NW will provide 51 units for low-income residents

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers Rockford and Grand Rapids. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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