Pushed Out: A documentary on housing in Grand Rapids
Don Norman settles into his chair, and pulls his blanket up to his chest. On the TV, Dick Van Dyke is about to solve a murder.
The room is warm, shades drawn. It’s a good old house. A bit of plaster is coming off the ceiling in the corner, but the house is neat. Every shelf is filled with pictures of family.
Don’s been here 40 years, he says. Ever since he and his wife got pushed out of their last home, when the hospital near them started an expansion and bulldozed their old block.
“At the time I was kind of desperate,” he says.
“How’d you end up here?” I ask.
“Because they kept bringing me over here,” he says. “They even had a write-up in the paper about that. They said that they steered the black people in this area. Because they always want to keep certain areas, you know....”
While we talk, and Dick Van Dyke wraps up another case, in buzzes Don’s granddaughter, LaDonna Norman, here to take care of her pops for the morning.
“I got cherry pie, Don!” she announces.
Norman charges through the house, in a green Ninja Turtles t-shirt with sunglasses perched on her head. She offers me coffee, and starts telling me what’s happening today. Black folks aren’t getting steered into this neighborhood anymore. Instead, Norman says, they’re getting chased out.
She tells me about the postcards that keep showing up from real estate agents, or investors, or whoever it is that’s trying to buy up houses on this block now.
“Yeah, there’s something definitely shady going around here, she says. “Let’s see if I can find one of those postcards, ‘cause I cussed them people out. I like cussing them people out because I told them this f---in' house ain’t for sale, and they ain’t getting it.”
Most people just throw away these kinds of postcards. Not LaDonna Norman. She keeps telling me she has no filter. She warns people about how much she cusses nearly as much as she actually cusses.
She’s lived her whole life in Grand Rapids. She grew up in this home, spent her whole adult life in different apartments around the city. Up until about a year and a half ago.
It was the summer of 2015. She had to leave the apartment she was in, and she started looking for a new one.
She went around, suddenly finding the requirements for getting a place were a lot tougher than they’d ever been before.
"It wasn't the money. It was the availability of the property," LaDonna Norman says. "And I'm not the only one that has experienced that in Grand Rapids."
Around that time, data from the U.S. Census showed the rental vacancy rate in Grand Rapids was below one percent – lowest in the nation.
“I simply couldn’t find a place to live,” Norman says. “And when I did I remember the guy asking me, ‘Well, who’s going to help you with [the] deposit?’ I said, ‘How much is [the] deposit?’ He said ‘$1,200.’ ‘How much is rent?’ ‘$1,200.’ I said, ‘Nobody. I’ll be back in 15 minutes.’ So it wasn’t the money. It was the availability of the property, and I’m not the only one that has experienced that in Grand Rapids.”
And the place she finally did find, it’s nice enough. But it’s not in the city. It’s farther out than she’s ever lived, out in a suburb called Byron Center. And she doesn’t like it.
“White people are really weird out there,” Norman says. “Not like white people in Grand Rapids. White people in Grand Rapids are the sh--. White people out there are weird. Because we got a certain kind of way that we do things in Grand Rapids … they don’t do that out there, they kinda just exist.”
“Is there anything about Byron Center you’ve liked?” I ask.
“No,” she deadpans. “They’re still chasing Pokémon out there.”
An amazing turnaround
What’s happening in the city of Grand Rapids right now is, in some ways, a success beyond the wildest dreams of lots of people who lived in the city during the dark days of the foreclosure crisis.
Grand Rapids has bounced back, and it’s bounced back big.
Within the last year, the realty company Zillow reports home prices within the city limits rose 12%. In some neighborhoods,rents rose nearly 20%. Grand Rapids is one of the hottest real estate markets in the country.
Investors around the country have noticed. A Michigan Radio analysis of property records shows of all the occupied homes in the city of Grand Rapids that went through some sort of foreclosure, 45% are now owned by investors. This is the foreclosure fallout happening today.
The investor interest is helping drive up prices. The rising prices are pushing people out.
And there’s a racial component you can’t really ignore.
Grand Rapids was already a city with deep racial disparities – one of the worst in the country, according to an analysis published on Forbes.com.
So the push, whether intended or not, has a racial outcome.
We will get to all of that.
But we start with the crash.
"It was scary."
Aaron Metaj is in a sharp suit, in a conference room at an office park just off the highway. He’s the owner of Sterling Realty in Grand Rapids. He’s been in real estate for 15 years, he says. In 2008, when everything collapsed in the housing market, Metaj had an up-close look at the unfolding disaster.
“It was scary,” he says. “We didn’t get hit as hard as some of the other big cities in Michigan, but yeah, it hit Grand Rapids pretty good.”
Metaj says he stayed afloat by selling a lot of mortgage foreclosures. Back then there weren’t many investors interested in Grand Rapids housing. It wasn’t like what you heard about in Detroit, or parts of Florida. No one was swooping in to buy up cheap homes around here.
But, that would change.
Daren Blomquist is with ATTOM Data Solutions, previously known as Realtytrac.
During the foreclosure crisis, Blomquist and his company put out regular reports on foreclosures, including the hardest hit cities and states. Michigan was in those reports a lot.
Now, Blomquist says that crisis – the foreclosure crisis – is thankfully, finally subsiding.
But, something else now seems weird in the U.S. housing market, Blomquist says. And he sums it up with this question:
“Why is the housing market doing so well, when home ownership rates are so low?”
Blomquist says homeownership rates in the U.S. are near 50 year lows. He estimates there are between 7 and 9 million fewer homeowners in the U.S. than there were before the crash. And yet, home prices are going up. Home sales are strong.
So who’s buying all the homes, driving up sales numbers and prices?
Blomquist’s firm put out a report in March looking at the trend. It found about a third of all home sales nationwide in 2016 went to investors.
“It was actually slightly over a third, 35 percent of homes,” Blomquist says. “And this is just single-family homes and condos. We’re not talking about apartments or that sort of property that would inherently be an investor property.”
An analysis of local property records by Michigan Radio shows similar results. Thirty-two percent of single family homes sold in the city of Grand Rapids in 2016 went to investors. Of those investor owned homes, 15 percent went to investors from out of state.
“2015 is when we started receiving a lot of calls from out-of-state investors,”
That’s Tim VandenToorn with United Properties in Grand Rapids. He says starting in 2015, this little property management firm his father started to help serve mostly local landlords, suddenly had a lot more interest.
“A lot of the new money that’s coming to Grand Rapids is from down south,” VandenToorn says. “Lot of investors from the California, Texas area that can’t even get close to the returns they’re getting here in Grand Rapids.”
Aaron Metaj of Sterling Realty is getting the calls too.
“I’ve seen New York, California,” he says. “I work with some that are from out of state, from Chicago. People are coming in.”
Metaj says the reasons for all this new investor interest in humble little Grand Rapids are simple economics. Local job growth is strong. Apartment vacancy rates are low. And property – compared to many major cities around the country – is still relatively cheap.
"Investors are chasing the returns," says Daren Blomquist of ATTOM Data Solutions, "and willing to go more further afield to find the returns in overlooked and smaller markets."
Markets like Grand Rapids.
“These investors have pushed up prices so high that it doesn’t make sense to really purchase there any more at the price points that are available now,” Blomquist says. “And so these investors are chasing the returns and willing to go more further afield to find the returns in overlooked and smaller markets.”
Markets like Grand Rapids.
Metaj says all these things add up to a crazy housing market in Grand Rapids right now.
“What was your last listing like?” I ask him.
“My last probably five I sold in a day,” he says. “They go on day one. Day one or day two. You’ll have ten showings,” he says, “and, you know, multiple offers.”
Multiple offers that are either at or above the listed price, he says.
Tim VandenToorn of United Properties says the rental market is just as crazy. Maybe more crazy.
“We send our reports, our statistics, to our owners,” he says. “We had an owner that we sent him a report. There was 500 views on that house.”
For landlords and property owners, this is great.
But imagine being one of the people just looking for a place to live. Imagine you’re already just barely scraping by. Maybe your credit isn’t the best.
VandenToorn says landlords can be choosy right now. That’s just the reality.
And many people are getting left out.
Tracking the homeless
“I’m not sure if we go back five years or seven years, but I can take a look at that,” Casey Gordon says. Gordon works for the Kent County Intermediate School District, where she oversees services for students in the district who are considered homeless.
It can be very hard to get a handle on how many people in an area are having trouble finding a place to stay. There are ways of keeping track – calling around to all the shelters, for example. But not everyone without a home ends up at a shelter. The first move, for most people, is to move in with a friend or family member. Others stay in cars, or rent a motel room for a few weeks.
A lot of homeless service organizations may not track people in those situations.
But Gordon says schools do. In fact, it’s a requirement.
“By law we need to send out a residency questionnaire to students as they enroll, and to families,” Gordon says, “that asks them if they’re in a temporary living situation due to economic hardship, such as doubled up with another family due to housing loss, motels, shelters.”
So, if you want to know how many people are being affected by housing issues in an area – particularly how many families are affected – school districts are one of the best places to find the answer.
Right now in Grand Rapids, anywhere you go, you can find anecdotal stories about how the soaring housing market is pushing people out of their homes. I asked Gordon what her data show.
For the county as a whole, there were about 800 students listed as homeless for the 2009-2010 school year. In the 2015-2016 school year, that number was more than 2,000.
From about 800 homeless students to 2,000 homeless students in six years.
The biggest jump came early on in that time period. But it’s been high ever since.
Gordon says some of the increase is because schools are doing a better job of identifying students in a precarious housing situation. But it’s also because of the housing market – a booming housing market in Grand Rapids.
“We see this again and again where people become displaced because either the owner of the property that they were renting from has sold,” she says, “or they [landords] will redo and not renew leases because they know they can get higher prices from other people. We also have many families that were able to receive housing vouchers through Section 8, but can’t find landlords willing to accept them because they can get a higher market rate price right now in Grand Rapids. So what’s a great housing trend for a lot of people is really taking a toll on families."
"I went from ... paying $525 a month 'til now we're 13 years later and I pay $1,000 a month. So it's like a big jump, especially when you're a single mom."
A lot of families. But the problem can be invisible to anyone not looking for it.
“I didn’t tell anyone,” says 13-year-old Na’Ryah Snell. She lives in Grand Rapids with her mom. After the landlord raised the rent at the place they were staying, she and her mom ended up living in a motel room for three months in 2015.
Na’Ryah kept it a secret from her teachers, and from other kids at school.
“They already make fun of me because of my weight and my size and everything,” she says. “So that would make it ten times worse because they would be like, ‘Oh, she homeless, this and that,’ and they nitpick with everything so that would just make it even harder.”
“So you didn’t tell nobody?” I ask.
“Nope,” she says. “Not at all. I didn’t tell not a soul.”
“My daughter is 13 years old,” says her mom, Jessica Snell. “And I’ve literally moved 14 times in 13 years … because of houses being sold, houses being bought, the cost of housing going up. I went from being pregnant with her paying $525 a month ‘til now we’re 13 years later and I pay $1,000 a month. So it’s like a big jump, especially when you’re a single mom.”
The place where she stays now, Snell says she originally moved into with her aunt and uncle. The idea was they’d all share the rent, which, again, went up quite a bit in recent years. But as of March, Jessica told me her aunt and uncle had moved out.
“Now, everything’s on me again,” she says. “And my biggest fear is I’m going to be right back in this situation.”
“This is the first month that you’ve got to cover the whole thing yourself?” I ask.
“When’s the rent due?”
“Three days ago.”
“Is it in yet?”
“Yes. The rent is paid.”
“How’s next month looking?"
“Um,” she says, “if I keep working 50-plus hours a week, we’ll be okay, hopefully. I don’t know how long."
Soaring rents, stagnant wages
Work hard. Hope your wages can keep up with the rising cost of housing.
"According to the U.S. Census, median household income in Grand Rapids rose five percent from 2010 to 2015. In that same time, median gross rent in the city went up 33%."
It’s worth pointing out that for a lot of people facing housing troubles in Grand Rapids right now, work isn’t really the problem. Unemployment in the area is under four percent. And there are a whole lot of people out there working hard, like Jessica Snell.
But wages aren’t keeping up with the cost of housing. According to the U.S. Census, median household incomein Grand Rapids rose five percent from 2010 to 2015. In that same time, median gross rentin the city went up 33%.
People with jobs can still be homeless.
That’s what Snell was afraid of in March.
About two weeks ago, I met up with them again, at the bus terminal downtown. Snell has a car. This was just a central place where we could talk.
“How you been?” I ask.
“I been good. I been good. Just working hard trying to maintain.”
“Last time we talked it was your first month holding down the rent yourself. How’s that been going?
“It’s going,” she says. “It’s penny pinching … anything that comes in goes right back out. But we’re making it happen.”
In March, when Snell and I talked, she said she was looking into getting a second job to cover the cost of rent. Since then, she says she got a different job offer in Alabama. Her current boss fought to keep her, which ended up helping her in the money department.
“And are you able to keep it to 40 hours [per week],” I ask, “or do you still have to work, like, 50?
“It’s still 50,” she says. “But that’s just me normally anyway. So I don’t usually take lunch breaks and stuff like that. So I just work.”
February. A meeting of the Grand Rapids City Commission.
For the past year or so, housing has become a major issue for the commission.
There are apartment buildings going up all over the city. Each week it seems, there’s a new project to look at, in some stage of either development or construction. There are tax breaks to consider. There’s rent to consider, parking to consider.
But there are also the people, coming in to say that these new buildings just aren’t helping.
Many of them include just one- or two-bedroom units – too small for a family. And the price of the apartments is out of reach for a lot of city residents.
People want the commission to do more. There are people who show up regularly now, people like LaDonna Norman, who we heard from earlier.
But more people keep showing up. In February, a new group focused on housing issues called Grand Rapids Homes for All, organized a group of people to give comments to the commission.
Not everyone came through Homes for All. But many shared their stories.
"We want the city of Grand Rapids to value all Grand Rapids residents," says Dain Gates of Grand Rapids Homes for All.
Like Martha Cooper.
“I came here specifically because the housing situation is personal to me,” she told the commission. "I've been through homelessness twice.”
And there was Theo Bates, a veteran.
“Just this afternoon,” he said, “I had to get a family of veterans from under a bridge, Sixth Street bridge here today. And they had nowhere to go, they had finances to help them. But they have no affordable money to help them get into apartments, houses, because of the prices that’s been jacked up as far as they are.”
And LaDonna Norman, who comes regularly to city meetings to talk about housing.
“There’s no plausible conclusion I can come to,” she said, “other than the city has failed us and they just don’t care about the black residents of the inner city because they just can’t profit from us. And once the milleniums come in with their breweries and their medical, where does that leave us? It leaves us out in the cold.”
And Dain Gates, with Grand Rapids Homes for All.
“We want the city of Grand Rapids to value all Grand Rapids residents,” she said, “regardless of how much they can pay for rent or contribute to the city in terms of income tax.”
The city is being asked to do more. To respond to this housing crisis, this housing emergency, this housing war, as different people have called it in the last few months.
Grand Rapids Homes for All has a list of policy demands, including new rules about tax breaks for developers, to require more affordable apartments. And changes to the definition of what counts as affordable, so it truly helps people who are low income. And many other recommendations.
"I lose sleep about this at night," says Dave Allen, who is a city commissioner and director of the Kent County Land Bank Authority.
But the forces driving up real estate costs, some of them seem bigger than the city. Outside the government’s control.
Maybe no one knows that better than Dave Allen.
“I lose sleep about this at night,” he says. “because I’ve got access to all the numbers and all the data and the facts.”
Allen is commissioner for the third ward, on the south side of town where much of the displacement in the city is happening. He’s also director of the Kent County Land Bank Authority, which has redeveloped hundreds of foreclosed properties in the city.
And he says when he looks at real estate trends in Grand Rapids – the low number of available apartments, the historically low number of homes for sale in the region, all driving up prices – it makes him very worried.
“The numbers I’m seeing, the trends I’m seeing – we need an all-hands-on-deck approach,” he says.
To Allen, that approach has to go beyond housing. In a growing city, he says, it’s not even feasible to build enough housing to keep prices from going up. But if wages go up too, and if wages go up for everyone in the city, not just a few, more people will be able to afford a place to live.
“[The] city can’t control the market very much,” Allen says. “What we can control is finding ways to close this equity gap when it comes to earning potential. We approve a lot of tax breaks for large businesses that create jobs. Those jobs should be targeted to the demographics of the unemployed, since we’re funding a big chunk of tax breaks for them.”
Allen says the city could also gear its own contracting toward firms that hire more equitably. And the commission is looking into that.
Allen is working on these issues, he says, because he sees what’s happening. He sees it because of his background in development, and his role at the Kent County Land Bank.
But Allen also has his share of critics. Which is also because of the Land Bank.
Land banks were initially created to help dispose of unwanted public properties. Handling foreclosures is a big part of what land banks across the state do. But the Kent County Land Bank works a little differently. In most places, counties try to auction off tax foreclosed properties before turning what’s left over to a land bank. But the Kent County Land Bank has an agreement with the city of Grand Rapids to get all the city's tax foreclosures, before auction, which means it sometimes ends up with properties it can sell for a profit. The idea is to use those profits to pay for the redevelopment of the other not-so-profitable properties.
There was a whole lawsuit about this agreement that went to the state Supreme Court, where the Land Bank prevailed.
But to many, the land bank itself just looks like another developer, flipping homes to drive up prices. And some say Allen’s dual role – as both a city commissioner and head of the land bank – is a conflict of interest.
"I get asked about conflict of interest. I wish there were more city commissioners with conflict of interest," says Dave Allen. "Because that means you're involved in something heavily at the city that eventually crosses the city's desk."
“Okay, so let’s go there, and I hope this makes the actual interview,” he says. “Couple things: First of all, I get asked about conflict of interest. I wish there were more city commissioners with conflict of interest. Because that means you’re involved in something heavily at the city that eventually crosses the city’s desk.
"I would contend that I have less conflict of interest, because if you truly understand conflict of interest, conflict of interest is something where you personally gain. I don’t personally gain from the land bank. I’m not getting rich off the work of the land bank. In fact, I would say I’m probably the most transparent city commissioner, because once our website gets back up, you’ll see our monthly budget, our monthly balance sheet. You’ll know what I make. So if people want to know what I make, it’s on our website. So, how many city commissioners can say that?”
Those financial documents are up on the land bank’s website now.
But Allen is right. He’s not the only elected official with ties to the development happening in Grand Rapids. One current commissioner is a banker. Another owns a distillery. Two previous commissioners own valuable properties in the city.
Allen says he decided to run for the commission for a few reasons. One of them is because of his experience at the land bank. He believes the commission needs someone who understands what’s actually happening in development around Grand Rapids. Someone who can see things others might not.
Breaking down the numbers
Michigan Radio pored through thousands of property records to assess what’s happening with real estate in Grand Rapids.
One thing that pops is how many single family homes are now owned by investors.
We looked at whether the land bank has contributed to that trend.
And here’s what we found.
Between 2008 and 2016, 57% of homes that bypassed the tax auction and went straight to the Land Bank are now owned by investors – some of which are non-profit developers. For the homes that did go to auction, the number is 68%.
So, if you see the rise of investor-owned homes in the city as a bad thing, it seems the land bank has – at least a little – slowed that trend.
But the land bank and the tax auction are just a small part of the picture, really only a few hundred homes.
When you zoom out to the bigger picture, you see more than 10,000 single family homes in the city are now owned by investors. That’s 24% of all homes in Grand Rapids.
It seems a growing number of those homes are owned by out-of-state investors.
And there is one company out of all those out-of-state investors that bought up way more than the others . Hardly anyone around town has even heard of the firm. But it is having an effect on people.
A Chicago firm making a big play in Grand Rapids
Van Lee is on his back under a white GMC Suburban, on an icy day, trying to bang the drive shaft back into place. He’s been at it now for two days. Lee doesn’t mind fixing cars. He does it as a business on the side.
But this is a repair he needs to get done quick. This truck is how he gets to work. And, for the past few weeks, it’s where he’d been sleeping, with his dog, Roscoe. Lee tells me his wife and their four kids have been staying at a family member’s house. But he says Roscoe’s not allowed there, and he works third shift anyway. So he and Roscoe stay in the truck, catching sleep when they can.
Lee says this whole situation started back in October. October 2 to be exact. That was the day Lee says he got an email from the guy who owned his house. It said the house was going into foreclosure. They had to move. Go get help.
“Just out of the blue, he tells you this place is being foreclosed on, go talk to a social worker?” I ask. “That’s it?”
“That’s it,” he says. “Just like that.”
Lee says he and his wife weren’t renters. They had a land contract, which means maybe they had a shot at keeping the house. But Lee says after talking to a lawyer and considering their options, they decided the cost of fighting wasn’t worth it.
"You got to move forward man," Van Lee says. "Of course you're going to be upset, but you got to move forward."
“Instead of dragging along with how a person done did you, you got to move forward man,” he says. “Of course you’re going to be upset, but you got to move forward.”
When the house did go into foreclosure, Lee says he tried to buy it at auction. But the price was too high. And it turned out, the property didn’t go to another person, or family. It was bought by an investment firm from Chicago.
And this firm, hardly anyone around Grand Rapids has heard of it. But over the past couple of years, it’s quietly bought up well over 100 homes in and around the city. It now owns more single-family homes in Grand Rapids than any other person or company.
In public records, the company name shows up as RDG FUND. The full name is Residential Dynamics Group. The company’s websiteclaims it’s invested $300 million in more than 1,200 properties across the Midwest.
Lee’s was just one.
At first, he says he hoped to work with RDG, figure something out. But he says they wanted him to rent. And the rent they wanted was well above what he and his wife had been paying in land contract installments.
So they decided to move. But they had trouble finding a new place. So Lee says he asked if they could stick it out and pay rent to stay just one more month.
“I told him, ‘Look man, how much I owe you?’ He said 18-hundred bucks,” Lee recalls. “This was on the first of February. I said ‘I’m on my way with the 18-hundred bucks to your office.’ He said, ‘Hold up, can’t take any money at this time. Got to talk to a lawyer. Then he sent me a text back and told me it’d be a waste of time to rent the place back to you.”
To Lee, the message was clear.
"Business is business," he says. "They want their property. Like he said, he losing money with us staying there. I ain’t really too mad at ‘em, 'cause they running a business and we holding them up.”
So who is this Residential Dynamics Group, and why are they buying so many homes in Grand Rapids?
I called their office. Had a friendly, brief conversation with a partner at the company, named Brett Moore. But Moore didn’t want to speak on the record. He told me it’s just a policy for them not to comment for stories.
So I talked to someone who’s done business with them in Grand Rapids.
“The first notice that I knew that there was out of state investors and, in some cases, out of country investors coming into the Grand Rapids area and investing was this RDG Fund.”
This is Dave Allen again, the city commissioner and director of the Kent County Land Bank. A few years back, RDG bought some of its first Grand Rapids properties from the land bank.
"The first project they did just went to ... hell in a handbag," says Land Bank director Dave Allen, of Residential Dynamics Group.
“They had come to us, and actually did it the way you should do it. They had a meeting with us, gave a very compelling argument that the history of the organization was supposedly from a group of investors that were doing this in another area, but didn’t like the unethical ways, so they wanted to do it ethically. They were trying to buy up some critical mass to help property values. So they touched on all the things that they should touch on. But the problem was the first project they did just went to – excuse my French, but went to hell in a handbag.”
Allen says RDG didn’t hold up its end of the deal on rehabilitating the property. Records show RDG bought a total of five properties from the Kent County Land Bank all in the same year. But as the agreement on the first property went sour, Allen says he decided not to sell any more properties to the group.
“It just was not a good situation,” he says. “So what that proved to me was that when you have an investment company whose sole interest is the bottom line, that even when they had a situation like the first project that went south that they bought from us … I think there’s really evidence that there’s just not that local buy-in. The verbiage was there, but the action didn’t match that verbiage. And I see that all too often with other out-of-area investors.”
A Michigan Radio analysis of property records shows out-of-state investors bought up more than 250 homes in the city of Grand Rapids in 2016. RDG is, by far, the biggest player. But people who work in Grand Rapids real estate say they’re taking calls from all over right now. Out-of-state investors are swooping in to buy neighborhood homes and rent them back out to whoever will pay the most.
That investment interest has an impact on people, on families.
Last week I met up with Van Lee again, on his break from work. I spotted the white suburban parked outside the factory on the south side of Grand Rapids. Roscoe, his burly, sweet pit bull sat in the front seat with the window down.
Lee came out, popped a can of Mountain Dew and told me he’s hopeful he and his wife might have finally found a place to rent. It’s been almost two months of searching.
“You ready to stop sleeping in this truck?” I ask.
“Oh yeah,” he says, smiling. “Me and my boy. Me and my boy Roscoe.”
“How’s Roscoe doing?”
“Roscoe!” he calls.
Roscoe comes to life in the Suburban, barks.
“That’s my boy,” Lee says. “My best friend, man.”
Lee and Roscoe and the whole family had been going to the Best Western on weekends, so Lee could stretch out and get a decent night’s rest. But they were ready to get their own place.
"Me and my wife, we make good money," Van Lee says. "Money ain't an issue. So if money ain't an issue and the background ain't an issue, what's the issue?"
Every place they’d applied so far had turned them down. And Lee suspects race was part of the equation.
“Me and my wife, we make good money,” Lee says. “Here, I’m a CNC operator and a programmer. Money ain’t an issue. So if money ain’t an issue and the background ain’t an issue, what’s the issue?”
He starts telling me about the latest place they found. Lee says it wasn’t even officially on the market. As soon as he heard about it, he went down and put a deposit on it. He was still waiting to hear back. This was Wednesday.
The next day, Lee called me.
They got the place. No more sleeping in the truck.
So what about race?
You can’t go too far talking about housing in America – or talking about almost any economic issue in America – without looking at race.
That’s definitely true in Grand Rapids.
According to the Census, 40% of African Americans in Grand Rapids are living in poverty. That is a statistical dead-heat with Detroit. In 2015, a demographer published a list on Forbes.com of the best and worst cities in America for African Americans. Grand Rapids ranked second-worst.
What’s jarring about race in Grand Rapids isn’t just that black folks are struggling. That’s true in a lot of places. It’s that white folks are doing just fine in the middle of it, barely noticing. The poverty rate for white people in Grand Rapids is half what it is for blacks, according to the Census.
According to the Census, 40% of African Americans in Grand Rapids are living in poverty. That is a statistical dead heat with Detroit.
That’s why to so many people in Grand Rapids, right now feels like the boom times. For them, jobs are plentiful. New buildings are going up downtown. A new brewery opens it seems like every month.
Things are great in Grand Rapids. But mostly, only if you’re white.
“That’s probably not going to happen.”
“I know you see me,” shouts LaDonna Norman to her friend down the street.
Norman has one of the loudest voices in the city right now, calling out the problems in the Grand Rapids housing market, and the displacement of mostly minority residents.
There are others working to address the issue, but no one quite like Ladonna Norman.
On a sunny afternoon, she took me on a tour of the neighborhood where she grew up. It’s not the neighborhood where she lives now. After losing her apartment in the city, the only place she could find in a tight rental market was far from here, a 20 minute drive into the suburbs.
But this place, Watkins Street, is where she feels at home. Right away, she spots her friend Mark Mayhue waxing his black SUV.
We start talking, and Mayhue isn’t really into making this about race. He’s half-white he says. Norman also has a mixed background. And there are white families who’ve lived on this street for years, both of them have known these families all their lives.
But Mayhue says yeah, he does see things changing today in the neighborhood.
“I’ll say this much,” he begins. “This whole side of town was white at one point in time. Now all I see is, from the way I look at it, it’s all converting back over. It’s cheaper living on this side of town, so they come in, they buy the houses, they fix ‘em up, they live in ‘em a little while, then they jet back out and they put high a-- rent on them. And then nobody can afford them. And it sucks, you know? I was fortunate enough to be able to pay for everything that I own, but there’s a lot of people out here that can’t do that."
"If you don't see it, there's something wrong with you," says Mark Mayhue, about the displacement happening in the Grand Rapids housing market.
“You see that happening to your neighbors, all around here?” I ask.
“Oh yeah, you see it every day,” he says. “Wherever you go you see it. If you don’t see it, there’s something wrong with you. So that’s pretty much it, but that’s America: The land of the free, home of the brave.”
We let Mayhue get back to his truck, and Norman leads me down the block and around the corner. She has more people she wants me to meet.
We get to one house, right across the street from the park. She knows they’re long-time residents. She knocks on the side door, says who she is.
Oh you’re Daddy-O’s daughter? You’re a Norman? Sure, come on in.
We hang out there for a while, talk about crime in the neighborhood, talk about the liquor stores, talk about how nobody from around here owns the businesses around here anymore. And the new folks trying to move in. But they won’t get this house.
We say goodbye, walk to the end of the block, and cross a corner, and knock on another door.
Once again, Norman explains who she is, where she lives and what she’s doing here, being followed around by a guy with a microphone.
“So, what do you think about the neighborhood right now as it changes, do you know what’s going on right now?” she asks.
“Probably not,” says the woman at the door. “I know I’m not leaving the neighborhood.”
“Well that’s good,” Norman says. “Have you gotten a lot of postcards to sell your house too?”
“Oh, a lot of those.”
The postcards – enticements from real estate agents or investors looking to get homeowners to sell – they go straight in the shredder, the woman says.
Her name is Mary Curtis. She tells us she’s lived in this house more than 20 years.
She invites us into an immaculate, well-lit living room, with a beige carpet and wide fireplace mantle.
Curtis says she has noticed more people checking out property around here lately.
“Sometimes it’d be two or three families together looking at houses around the neighborhood,” she says. “But they were looking for income property.”
One couple bought a house around the corner from her, she says. She talked to them as they fixed the house up. She thought they would be her new neighbors. Instead, they turned around and rented the house.
This type of investor interest is reshaping neighborhoods all around Grand Rapids. But when a lot of other people talk about what’s changing in Grand Rapids, the focus is on different kinds of investment.
I ask Curtis what she thinks about all the development near downtown, all the medical buildings and apartment towers.
“Not a whole lot,” she answers. “And I say that ‘cause I’m right here. Me and my babies and I don’t go anyplace but the church, the bowling alley and home.”
As we’re talking, another family member walks into the room.
“Ah, that’s my grandson,” Curtis says.
His name is Darryle West. He’s sporting a Star Wars shirt and beard. Ladonna Norman brings him right into the conversation.
“So you can add your two cents if you want,” Norman says.
“Um, my thoughts about why the neighborhood is the way it is?” he says. “The neighborhood is the way it is because there’s no jobs in inner city Grand Rapids.”
This may sound a little crazy to some in Grand Rapids. If there’s one thing the city has right now, it’s jobs. The jobless rate for the Grand Rapids area in February was at 3.7 percent. Within Michigan, only Ann Arbor had a better rate.
In 2015, the Census put the jobless rate for African Americans in the Grand Rapids area at three times what it was for whites.
But the state numbers don’t break it down by race. The Census does. In 2015, the Census put the jobless rate for African Americans in the Grand Rapids area at three times what it was for whites. It was twice as high for Native American and Hispanic residents.
The numbers really do show two different economies for Grand Rapids. The one for white people, and the one for everybody else.
And West says, yeah, he thinks racism is a part of that. Not the kind of racism his grandma Mary Curtis faced. A new kind.
“There’s a big difference in how people do things now,” he says. “It’s more of, ‘I’m not going to say I don’t like you. I’m not even going to act like I don’t like you. But if you want something, that’s probably not going to happen.”
And when you’re on the outside, part of a group that has never had an equal shot in the city, it tends to stay that way. Because it’s all about who you know.
“For a lot of other, let’s say races, when kids grow up, they say, ‘Hey, my son needs a job,’" West says. “And they go to so-and-so and say, ‘Hey you own this place,’ or ‘You’re big in this place, my son needs a job.’ And they go in, they get experience, they make a little bit of money. They can’t put that on their resume. We don’t really have that.
Without the connections, without the mentorship, there aren’t jobs. Without the jobs, the black community doesn’t rise with the rest of the city.
And the rent goes up. And the house prices go up. And people have to move out, pushed out of the city.
And maybe no one intends for it to be a racial thing. But that’s the way it’s turning out. That’s the way, it seems, it has always turned out.