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Community advocate faces Grand Rapids' housing crisis, gentrification

After having to leave her lifelong neighborhood, LaDonna Norman is fighting for families losing their homes to gentrification.
LaDonna Norman, community advocate

LaDonna Norman, community advocate /LaDonna Norman

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Protest led by Norman and others in 2015

Protest led by Norman and others in 2015 /Jared Siang'ani

Wealthy Street has seen rapid gentrification over the past decade, driving families out

Wealthy Street has seen rapid gentrification over the past decade, driving families out /Wikimedia Commons

It’s a Tuesday night at City Hall, and LaDonna Norman approaches the microphone to address the meeting of the Grand Rapids City Commission. For the past year or more, Norman has spoken during the public comment period at the end of nearly every meeting, after the motions have been passed. This Tuesday night, like every other, she asks the commission to do something to reduce the gentrification that is causing families she knows to become homeless.

The developers involved in planned revitalization projects leave the meeting by the time Norman speaks. And yet those revitalization projects - and their impact on her community - have relevance to the housing crisis that Norman is trying to address.

Norman, who owns a cleaning business, has also been affected by the crisis. With rising prices and a high demand for housing, landlords now require strict criteria that many struggling families can't meet, including Norman and her youngest son. With her car totaled in a winter accident, Norman is feeling the pressure of keeping up with her advocacy work and just trying to make ends meet.

Saving our community

Norman has long been a community advocate. She is a co-founder of the group called Saving Our Community in the Baxter neighborhood and surrounding areas. Saving Our Community led a boycott and protest of a neighborhood party store where a resident said she had been assaulted. Now Norman and her community are turning their attention to the drastic changes within the city limits.

“The first step to advocating is realizing you don’t have all the answers, but are willing to find them, even when it seems impossible,” said Norman. “I’m learning as time passes that most community leaders or people set in place to help Black communities don’t always have our best interests at heart. I see people with ulterior motives either for political gain, recognition, or future 501(c)3 opportunities, which have become the pimps of our community.” Norman said that those in the community need to have the power to address the problem themselves, with support from those who are concerned.

Getting to root causes

In her critique on nonprofits, Norman refers to a cycle common in Grand Rapids: nonprofit services ease the bite of poverty among poor neighborhoods, helping to provide emergency food, clothing, and sometimes payments for utilities and housing costs once crisis strikes. Yet, Norman points out, these services, often funded by wealthy donors, don’t address the actual systemic inequity. They don’t address the low wages. They don’t address the divestment in poor neighborhoods, to be followed by a flock of investors and developers when property prices are low. Norman points out that the nonprofit services tend to play into the system rather than fight it.

Norman continues, “This gentrification has become the perfect platform for opportunists to come in our neighborhoods and take advantage. Which makes it difficult for the ones who do have the best interests of our community to establish trust and effective strategies that could yield results.” Years of institutional racism have eroded trust in organizations that might offer solutions.

Norman continues, “Most of the residents in the inner-city of Grand Rapids do not understand the politics and the revenue/business aspect that puts our community in this vulnerable situation. The bottom line is Blacks do not own anything, therefore their opinion or anger towards revitalization means nothing.”

“Yes, the inner-city needs improvement -- ‘there’s always room for improvement’ as they say -- but it shouldn’t be at the expense of the neighborhood that has wanted these same things, but were denied loans or city clearance or resources to do so. So now that a different class of people -- ‘white folk’ -- share the same visions as we once did, we are being forced out of our community at an alarming rate.”

Fear and displacement

“People are afraid, families are being displaced and separated, and some are even forced to relocate out of state. I notice that those of us on the southeast side aren’t as vocal as the neighbors near the Medical Mile, who I have seen at City Commission public hearings, protesting the development in the planning stages.” That development is what drives prices up and creates an adversarial relationship between families trying to avoid homelessness and landlords who want to profit off of the changes.

Systemic barriers for families trying to rent

Norman explains how the rental criteria are part of the systemic barriers for families trying to rent.

1. Must earn three times the rent: “The average person making minimum wage might take home $400 a week if they work seven days a week,” said Norman. “If they’re able to make $1600 a month, they can only rent a place for about $500 to $600 a month. That has become nearly impossible to find. One-bedroom apartments are sometimes going for $800 or more now.”

2. No felonies: “During the 1990s there was a crack epidemic in the inner-city. Due to that, many people were charged with felonies. Now that heroin is a problem for white people, there are methadone clinics, and they don’t do “three strikes you’re out.” But there are Black people still serving time or with felonies on their record from those years. Not only does it stop them from being able to rent, it started the separation of the two-parent household in the Black community.”

3. Credit score: “Credit is not taught in the poor Black community. As my uncle says, we go ‘cash and carry.’ We were in survival mode in the 1990s, and people were trying to feed their children. We’re not taught about 401Ks or mutual funds, we were just taught how to pay for what we want. We did not spend time building up our credit scores. We can’t get loans for owning property or businesses. But strangely, we can get a car loan.”

4. Evictions on record: “In poor parts of the city, when one has a crisis and seeks out help from local organizations, they are told that for it to be considered an emergency, you have to be in the worst situation -- shut-off, eviction. If you’re struggling to pay utilities, you have to show the shut-off notice, and you also have to show that you’ve been paying them something. If you can’t make your rent, you have to have a judgment against you and have filed papers with the court. They want to know your court date. Only then do you have paperwork to show. After all that, agencies don’t always come through like they say they’re going to. Once the court date comes, the situation may be resolved, or you still might not have the help you need. But you have a paperwork trail that may be an eviction notice or a judgment against you, and that stays on your record.”

5. Application fees: Norman said that current fees are $20-$40 per adult, non-refundable, for every place a family applies to live. “What I am doing is trying to establish relationships with landlords and let them know how big the problem is. I explain why these criteria aren’t working for people who are in crisis.”

“When I talk to landlords they’ll try to be lenient. For an old felony charge from years ago, they’ll consider that renter, as long as it doesn’t seem to be a cycle. They’ll waive the application fee when I ask them to.”

“We also have to look for landlords that only do shoddy fixes on the property to get people moved in. They want to just hold on until they can sell the property for more money as gentrification moves into their neighborhood and values go up.” Norman has been working with the community to share information about which landlords will work with them and to speak up when landlords take advantage.

Isolation and lack of support

Norman pointed out that people don’t always see the effect of having to move outside of the city. In her own case, she now lives in Wyoming, away from her lifelong community and her family. After her car was totaled in an accident during the sudden first snowstorm of the winter (money is being raised to help with expenses), she has been using the bus to get back and forth to her family responsibilities, including taking care of her grandfather. When she fell ill recently, there was no one close to take her to the ER or help pick up her medicine. Her youngest son misses having his siblings, cousins and other familiar people around.

Norman worries that by moving to outlying cities, the community will be too spread out to function as the support system it has always been. She also notes the lack of infrastructure to support such a move, including gaps in the bus service. She herself has occasionally taken a homeless family into her own home for a short period of time. She admits it’s not something she can do often, but she has a heart for these families and their children.

“Grand Rapids is changing, and it’s not meant for people like us anymore,” concluded Norman. “We have to just keep fighting.”

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