“Can we just get back to normal?”
Grand Rapids mayor Rosalynn Bliss posed the question Tuesday afternoon during a very abnormal state of the city address. In years past, Bliss delivered her address in the evening, in front of a packed crowd, while audience members sipped on craft beer. Tuesday afternoon she spoke in a nearly empty room, at a venue that opened in October 2019, just in time to spend most of 2020 closed to the public.
“Walking around downtown the other night as restaurants opened up with limited service, it was obvious that people are eager for a normal night out, spending time in person together and safely being with friends,” Bliss said.
Parents want to see their kids get up and head out the door for a normal day at school, the mayor said. Everyone wants to be able to have normal family gatherings again.
“But in many ways, we don’t want to revert back to normal,” Bliss said.
For too many in the city, she said, normal means housing they can’t afford. It means jobs they can’t get. It means being exposed to lead paint.
“Normal for too many people feels like they have a target on their back, or a door slammed in their face because of their skin color, ethnicity or sexual orientation,” Bliss said. “Normal is not good enough.”
Changing police policies
One area the city can’t return to normal, she said, is in policing. Bliss highlighted a new strategic plan from the Grand Rapids Police Department to emphasize neighborhood policing, and build better relationships between police officers and members of the community.
She said the department has already begun a shift in its approach.
“GRPD is already testing new innovative ways to respond to certain calls for service, as not every incident is an emergency that requires an immediate police response,” Bliss said. “In some cases another department may be best positioned to meet the need and a police response may not be needed at all.”
Bliss said the city has already implemented a new Homeless Outreach Team, which had more than 2,000 interactions with unhoused residents since it launched in 2020. She says the city will also look into creating a behavioral health team to respond to police calls for mental health issues, and non-violent drug issues.
But the mayor stopped short of calling for a cut to the police department’s budget. Thousands of people marched in Grand Rapids multiple times in 2020, calling for changes in policing after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of the police. Taylor grew up in Grand Rapids. Police in Louisville, KY killed her in March of 2020 during a botched raid.
Commissioners in Grand Rapids were flooded with emails and calls to defund the GRPD following the protests. Three commissioners said they supported budget cuts for the department, but so far GRPD has dodged any major changes to its budget.
But cuts of some kind may be unavoidable in the coming year. The city’s budget office gave a financial update to commissioners last week predicting millions of dollars in lost tax revenue. Some of that could be made up if the state follows through on a proposal from Governor Gretchen Whitmer to make up the lost revenue to cities, but that remains speculation for now.
Housing demand outstrips supply
And policing was not the only item on the mayor’s agenda during the state of the city address Tuesday. She said the city also needs to continue to push to clean up lead paint contamination in older homes and confront a crisis in housing affordability.
“We know we don’t have enough housing to go around in Grand Rapids or Kent County. Demand exceeds supply,” Bliss said. “As a result, the cost of housing is rising too fast, particularly for people who are renting and people looking to buy their first homes.”
She said the city spent millions trying to prevent eviction in 2020, and plans to spend millions more in the coming year to ensure more affordable housing in the city.
Bliss cited a recent housing assessment that said the city would need 9,000 new units of housing by 2025, and said the need for housing will be a “key focus” as the city develops its new 20-year master plan.
Moving forward, Bliss said the city also needs to focus on historical inequities as it rebuilds. The issue of racial justice lies beneath the issues of economic opportunity, housing stability and policing in the city.
“Creating a thriving city requires us to look at the ways our policies and practices have historically created barriers and caused harm, regardless of intention,” she said.
“I believe our community has a tremendous opportunity to build back better – to build a stronger, more livable and inclusive community," Bliss added. "A normal that includes and cares for everyone. And that means doing things differently.”