Housing for Families with Children


Earlier this month, Healthy Homes Coalition Executive Director Paul Haan delivered the following comments to the Grand Rapids City Commission in regards to the draft Great Housing Strategies plan being considered for adoption by the City.

The chief concern shared by the Healthy Homes Coalition is that this plan work equally hard to create opportunities for families with children. Providing affordable, safe, and healthy housing for families pays a multitude of dividends and keeps our communities and our children strong.


November 17, 2015

Grand Rapids City Commission
City Hall
300 Monroe Avenue NW
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49505

Dear Mayor Heartwell and Commissioners:

This letter is being written in regard to the Great Housing Strategies document. The Healthy Homes Coalition has reviewed the draft document and is pleased at the extent to which the draft includes numerous strategies to provide affordable housing to the low and moderate-income households that make up the majority of Grand Rapids residents. We are concerned, however, that the plan is largely silent on the broader issues of concern to families with children.

Our Request. We respectfully request that this plan not be finalized until there is a specific commitment to including families with children in the list of “Vulnerable Populations” (page 34) and core strategies and targets are incorporated to specifically advance housing for families with children.

Our Rationale. While households with children make up 28% of city households (nearly one in every three households), the draft plan is largely silent on housing choices that would support the unique needs of families with children. While 27% of city residents live in poverty, an astounding 39% of all children live in poverty. This fact alone points out that families with children are a particularly vulnerable portion of the population. Families with children are facing unique and heightened challenges when it comes to meeting their housing needs in Grand Rapids.

Preserving the Supply of Family Housing. Historically, the largest housing opportunity for families has been single-family detached housing.  In Grand Rapids, that housing is aging. Families will increasingly find themselves in housing of lesser quality without specific plans for maintaining, modernizing, or replacing that housing. Strategies that promote the building of new units must include strategies for a proportionate number of units sizable enough for families. The chart of page 17 of the draft plan clearly demonstrates the aging housing stock in Grand Rapids.  If family housing is not proportionately represented in new housing being developed, families with children will be ghettoized into older housing, or forced to relocate to other communities that provide housing choice.

Good Urbanism includes Housing for Families with Children. The drafted strategies for increasing density, promoting mixed-use and mixed-income neighborhoods, and providing housing choices are exciting, but do not include strategies for providing units that meet the unique needs of families. Density and family housing are not inherently exclusive, although they appear to be so in a plan that seeks to achieve density chiefly by reducing unit or lot size requirements.

Housing is a Triple-Bottom Line Lever. Done mindfully, the maintenance and development of housing has enormous potential to contribute to the triple-bottom line of both developers and the City. Housing development certainly has economic potential.  Done rightly, it can also have positive environmental and social impacts. Along with daycare, housing is a top expense for families, especially for those living in poverty.  Housing is a social determinant of health, education, and success in life. When children and families do not have dignified, affordable housing, we all pay in terms of health care, social costs, and in spirit.

Our Recommendations. To advance the supply and quality of housing for families with children in Grand Rapids, the Healthy Homes Coalition is recommending the following steps to incorporate housing for families with children into the Great Housing Strategies plan.

Two short-term steps are recommended.  First, we recommend that the City convene a workgroup to specifically explore strategies to provide affordable housing with dignity for families with children.  Work group participants should include non-profit and for-profit developers who provide housing for families with children, housing agencies that serve families with children, and should seek to engage the early childhood system as represented by First Steps and K Connect. Second, additional outreach to neighborhood groups and other places where the authentic voices of families will be heard should be conducted. 

The Healthy Homes Coalition has a number of specific ideas around which strategies to provide quality housing for families with children can be built. While the plan must include processes for building local capacity, those processes should not come without targets that can be measured using clear and objective data.  This is the only way to allow the public to clearly see relative impact of the effort.  Recommended process and targets include the following.

  • Common Definition. Start by developing a consensus definition of “housing for families with children” that has broad support and communicates clearly.
  • Broad Market Analysis. Conduct a market analysis for the city or region as whole that focuses on unmet community need, specifically as it relates to families with children.
  • Overall Targets. Based upon that market analysis, set defined targets for the provision of family housing.
  • New Housing Targets. Define targets for a proportionate number of new housing units that will accommodate families with children and develop or realign incentives.
  • Rental Housing Targets. Define targets for the number of available rental units for families with children.  Explore opportunities for addressing the currently low rental market vacancy rate (reported at 1.6% on page 27) to protect and develop options for families with children. Explore strategies for increasing access to capital for landlords who provide quality, affordable housing for families with children.
  • Preservation Targets. Define targets and design strategies that assure existing housing stock is well maintained and affordable for families with children.
  • Equity Targets. Further analyze the strategy that proposes to “Explore a policy or tool that encourages housing diversity (mix) based on income and housing types” to ensure that market forces to not result in a narrow strategy of maximizing density (and thus value) in low-income neighborhoods at the expense of more equitable strategies. All neighborhoods should be subject to the goal of creating mixed income neighborhoods.

As we do this work, we need to be careful in our analysis of what is going on and what is truly needed in Grand Rapids. Yes, housing development can drive economic development.  Yes, there is an exciting new interest in urbanism.  Yes, millennials and relocating talent are seeking a different kind of housing.

But we must look both ways before we cross the street. There is a lot of exciting, boisterous conversation about mixed income neighborhoods, increasing density, urbanism, and investment in Grand Rapids.  We must ask ourselves if that conversation meets the needs of the whole community, such as:

  • The 27% of City residents and 39% of all children who live in poverty.  Is this plan working for them?
  • The 28% of city households that are families with children.  Is this plan working for them?
  • Are we planning for the amount of affordable family housing that is needed in the next 10, 20, 30+ years?

In September, Bloomburg Business reported Grand Rapids as the sixth hottest market for first-time homebuyers where millenials made up the highest share of people to use a mortgage to buy a home.  Not rent a studio apartment or a loft, but buy a home. While more millenials are choosing to rent, in Grand Rapids they still make up the majority of people choosing to buy a home.  These are people of childbearing age.  These are the people who will be heading tomorrow’s families. A truly Great Housing Strategy will recognize that families and children are still an integral part of who we are as a city.  A Great Housing Strategy will plan for housing that meets the needs of Grand Rapids’ current and future families.


Paul Haan
Executive Director