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Published in Nonprofits

Affordable housing remains in focus as nonprofit exec takes new role

BY Sunday, June 06, 2021 12:00pm

For nearly 13 years, Jeremy DeRoo has played an integral role in seeking equity within disadvantaged Grand Rapids neighborhoods, particularly when it comes to housing and development opportunities. Last month, officials announced that DeRoo would depart neighborhood development organization LINC UP to lead Dwelling Place, another Grand Rapids nonprofit that focuses on housing affordability in the region. DeRoo is set to take over Dwelling Place next month from Dennis Sturtevant, who led the organization for 33 of its 41-year existence. The leadership change also comes at a crucial time as Grand Rapids and the surrounding area experiences a crisis in affordable housing availability. DeRoo spoke with MiBiz about the challenges ahead and the policies that could help move the needle on housing access.

As you prepare to leave LINC UP, what do you see as the biggest ongoing challenges for the organization and the community it serves?

Jeremy DeRoo, incoming CEO of Dwelling Place COURTESY PHOTO

There continues to be a major challenge in Grand Rapids around affordable housing. It’s one of the driving forces since LINC UP started and continues to be. It has significantly impacted the neighborhoods that LINC serves. The demographics are shifting as gentrification comes in, property values are significantly increasing and home ownership levels are very low. It continues to be a concern and a problem LINC is trying to address.

With that are also racial equity implications. With ownership rates so low and property prices going up, there’s a widening of the racial wealth gap.

How did you see the COVID-19 pandemic affect the communities you serve at LINC UP?

I think most people are familiar with the disparities that COVID-19 brought to the surface that have been facing communities that LINC serves for a long time. It just really exacerbated them: Unemployment rates skyrocketed and the lowest earners could not or did not have the option to stay at home. It increased sickness rates because of that, or people lost their jobs and there was a huge economic loss to the community, as well as all of the additional stress and dynamics that go along with job loss.

How can Grand Rapids effectively tackle its shortage of affordable housing?

I think the housing crisis is predominantly caused by housing policies. There are a lot of things that contribute to it, but we need to build more and different types of homes in the city of Grand Rapids and the greater Grand Rapids area, which means we need to have things other than single-family homes available for purchase. There’s an under-built townhome market. Even co-housing or land trusts — we just don’t have a lot of options on the spectrum of owning opportunities. The same is true on the rental side: We just don’t have enough rentals in the city.

What roles do you see for the city, state and federal governments?

I think the city plays a significant role in ensuring that it updates its master plan in a way that produces more equitable outcomes for housing.

I think the state of Michigan can do more to promote home ownership for low-income families. There are some specific programs they could bring back to encourage more home ownership development. There just needs to be subsidies in creating affordable housing options. The state can direct more particularly to the home ownership side of the equation. 

There’s a significant amount of federal spending going on right now across the board. Directing that toward addressing some of these housing challenges is really critical to a full recovery from what we’re experiencing here.

What led to your decision to join Dwelling Place, and how might the new position overlap with your previous work?

Dwelling Place provides me an opportunity to continue to work around equity and housing and maybe take a broader, more regional perspective. LINC focuses heavily on neighborhoods and neighborhood solutions. Dwelling Place is an opportunity to take a more housing focus. Given the housing crisis that Grand Rapids and West Michigan is facing, we have a unique opportunity. There’s increased awareness on the importance of housing and how it’s a significant factor to shift systemic outcomes. We can use this time to craft a new housing strategy in the region.

As a nonprofit leader, how has fundraising changed over the years and, in particular, over the past year?

I think it’s a little early to know the full implications of the pandemic on philanthropy. At LINC, we have seen increased interest in our community organizing and advocacy work in promoting racial equity. That’s a strong trend that will probably stick around long term for philanthropy — a willingness to take on systemic issues and root causes. And that’s key to resolving the affordable housing crisis.

What kind of legacy does Denny Sturtevant leave behind at Dwelling Place?

Denny has contributed to an amazing organization that has a great reputation of doing really good work. They’re known across the state and really nationally as taking on complicated housing projects and doing them very well. It’s definitely some big shoes to try to fill on my part, but he’s left behind a group of extremely talented individuals and staff who are really good at what they do.

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