Points of View

How West Michigan’s Affordable Housing Crisis Impacts Returning Citizens

Sam Stebbins

West Michigan is facing an affordable housing crisis, particularly in Grand Rapids where the rental vacancy rates have dropped among the lowest in the country. This marks a change over recent years. In 2010, 10.1% of rental units in Barry, Kent, Montcalm, and Ottawa Counties were available. By 2016, 5.0% of units were available according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

 

While a tight housing market is in many ways indicative of positive growth in the region, it creates problems for residents as well. Gentrification is taking place in Grand Rapids neighborhoods, as investor interest (among other factors) causes rent to rise by as much as 20%, pushing many long-term residents out.

 

High demand for housing in the region has also allowed landlords to be more selective about who they rent to. This makes it even more difficult to find affordable housing for many people, particularly the most disadvantaged.

      

How returning citizens are impacted by the affordable housing crisis

Often, applications will ask those interested in renting a house or apartment whether they have a criminal record. This makes it difficult for returning citizens to find housing, and even more so in a market like Grand Rapids.

 

While this can be discriminatory, as African American and Hispanic people are arrested and incarcerated at a higher rate than Whites, it is legal for landlords to reject an applicant based on their criminal history due to safety concerns. Many landlords may be concerned about a returning citizen putting their other tenants or property at risk or failing to pay their rent.

 

This presents a significant problem for the over 1,700 people who return to West Michigan from jail or prison in a year. While some stay with family or have the means to become homeowners, nationally 50,000 people a year enter shelters immediately after their release from the criminal justice system.

 

In addition, being pushed out of familiar neighborhoods can mean that returning citizens are further away from the resources they need, such as job training, legal assistance, or simply the support of their family or community.

        

Strategies to help returning citizens find housing

There are a variety of steps that landlords, employers, and returning citizens can take to help address this issue.

 

First, landlords can revise their policies regarding renting to returning citizens. Not all people with criminal histories make dangerous or unreliable tenants. Remember that having a criminal history is more common than you may think. In fact, many well-known public figures including George W. Bush and Bill Gates have criminal records.

 

It is important to understand the nature of a crime, the time that has passed since the crime was committed, and whether an individual has re-offended. For example, a tenant’s previous conviction of keeping a drug house would be a greater, more relevant concern than a conviction of operating a vehicle without a license.

 

Employers can also help simply by being willing to hire those with criminal histories. Hiring a returning citizen provides them with the means to pay for housing in addition to decreasing the likelihood of recidivism.

 

Finally, returning citizens can locate a variety of services to aid them in finding housing. The Returning Citizen Services App lists housing services in Grand Rapids for this purpose.


 What do you think about the current housing crisis in West Michigan? Do you know of other resources returning citizens could utilize? Let us know on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.