Thank you, pastors, for making time during the very busy Advent and Christmas season so we could shift our November meeting to December.
On the 7th, we met at Oakdale Park Christian Reformed Church and heard from ICCF (Inner City Christian Federation) Director Ryan Ver Wys. Ver Wys is a graduate of the DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative and has been director of ICCF for two years. He said he was glad to speak with G-RAP about housing issues in Grand Rapids because, "I am passionate about housing justice, but also passionate about seeing the church and the city work as one."
Housing for him, starts with the idea of home:
"I've been thinking about 'home' lately, with Thanksgiving recently.... Home is such a foundational part of who we are. Home is where we go to rest, to recharge from the day; it's a place to welcome family and friends to, and a place of civic engagement--our representatives are elected based on where we live."
But housing is not just a cozy concept. Ver Wys first brought us back 50 years ago to 1967, when "the oppression and injustices tied to banking and government blew up," before taking us farther back to the 1920s:
"The federal government got involved in housing in the 20s and 30s, messing things up, tying financial risk to the racial makeup of neighborhoods. It was a federal policy for banks not to lend to those buying houses in majority-African-American neighborhoods. As of the late 60s those policies were no longer legal, but the echoes are still there."
Those high-risk neighborhoods literally had red lines drawn around them, so the policy came to be known as red-lining.
"ICCF's roots are in that uprising. Several churches on the southeast side got together and bought a house in a red-lined neighborhood, and sold it to a low-income family."
This remained ICCF's strategy for over forty years: pour investment into low-investment areas. But, Ver Wys said, "that changed in the recession. People with capital came in--kids and grandkids of people who moved out to the suburbs in the 60s--and bought up tons of foreclosed homes." That made the housing situation for low-income individuals and families even worse. The average home price in 2017 is 60% higher than it was in 2011, even though wages only went up 8% in that same time period. Now, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Grand Rapids is over $1,000. In the Baxter neighborhood, a single-family house that would've sold for $40,000 two years ago would now be over $80,000, if not over $100,000. Ver Wys explained,
"We're lacking a collective memory. There are generational patterns here of being denied wealth when you have to rent because you couldn't buy because of a federal policy. Now, because their rent is going up $200-$300, hundreds of families in our community are moving out with no place to go, winding up in a hotel, paying more than they would've in rent."
Now, ICCF's focus is on building as much housing as possible--which is pushing them past their comfort zone as an organization, but also deepening their partnerships with other local organizations working on housing issues. In May they won the bidding on a group of 700+ houses with an offer of $14.5 million. Very Wys said,
"First reaction, 'Oh no!' But over the summer God has opened doors miraculously. God has been hearing the cries of the oppressed. We've raised over $6 million, including outright grants of millions, as well as people choosing to invest even knowing there will be lower-than-average market return, and an anonymous angel investor donating funds for 35 years. Our hope is that over the next ten years we can push back on the idea of disinvestment. We want these to be safe, beautiful, energy-efficient homes. We want to sell half of them to people who are renting now, and take that revenue to buy more houses and to keep changing the housing narrative in Grand Rapids."
Their goals in all their work are to:
During the question and answer period, Ver Wys described a number of ongoing projects. They have three multi-family, mixed-use housing builds currently in the works.
When asked what pastors and churches can do with ICCF and with the issue of housing in general, Ver Wys had several suggestions.
Our host for the meeting, Pastor Emmett Harrison, encouraged churches to be bold and to build partnerships: Oakdale Park is about to close on their first house with a refugee family, and he's found that opportunities for partnerships abound in Grand Rapids.
We ended the meeting talking about the stark realities of the current federal government's attitudes and actions towards housing and towards people who have low incomes. Ver Wys pointed out that funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development has been cut drastically, and will be cut more. Since the meeting, the tax reform bill passed, so what Ver Wys said as an "if" statement must now be re-framed: because tax reform went through, "that's all the more pressure on us to be loving our neighbors as God's people."
We will be back to our regularly-scheduled 3rd Thursday of the month in January. Join us on
January 18, 11:30am - 1:00pm at the restaurant, The Old Goat, 2434 Eastern Ave. SE, 49507. Owner Corey DeMint will host us--thank you Westminster Presbyterian for putting this together!