The first two members of the neighborhood team in the SE End of Grand Rapids, Michigan, have been serving there for nearly three years. About 150 individuals in the neighborhood have established friendships with the Baha’is; all of these individuals are refugees of Congolese descent. Many of these neighbors have been introduced to the courses of the Ruhi Institute, devotional gatherings and classes for children and junior youth. As the activities have progressed, families have included the neighborhood team in conversations about their hopes for addressing challenges they face with unsafe and unaffordable housing in the neighborhood.
Challenges with Housing
The neighborhood lies within the boundaries of the 49507 zip code, which is an area known for its unsafe housing. From 2014 – 2015, the time of the Flint Water Crisis, a higher number and percent of children in the 49507 zip code were poisoned by lead paint than the number and percent of children in Flint were from the water. In addition to having chipping lead paint, many of the homes are unsafe due to their crumbling structures, mold, and rodent infestations. Landlords often ignore the unsafe conditions of the homes they are renting out, and charge families increasingly exorbitant amounts for rent, making the neighborhood less and less affordable for many of its residents.
Although many of the homes in the neighborhood are crumbling, investors are beginning to remodel homes and bring them up to code with safety. In addition, there are large development projects underway to turn abandoned commercial spaces into new businesses. Many neighbors are concerned that these developments will lead to higher rent and gentrification.
Many of the African refugee families face additional challenges with housing when the parents do not speak English and have trouble gaining familiarity with the financial systems and institutions here. In addition, many of the refugee families came to the U.S. on travel loans that they were not told how to pay, which has caused their credit scores to plummet. Unfortunately, many of them do not realize this until they apply for housing loans from the bank in the hopes of becoming homeowners, and are rejected.
Stirrings of Social Action
The Institute activities in the neighborhood have fostered a spirit of trust and collaboration among the families and the neighborhood team. Moreover, as families become more involved in Institute activities, they feel a deeper commitment to stay in the neighborhood — despite its challenges with crime and safety — because they see promise in working together to improve it. These conditions of trust, collaboration, and commitment have made it natural for the two members of the neighborhood team to work together with the families to pursue safe and permanent housing.
The two members of the neighborhood team — a married couple — began advising families on how to remedy their credit scores, and also began referring them to a trusted realtor. Word spread, and more families who knew the couple through the Institute began reaching out in hopes of buying homes. The couple quickly realized that there were too many clients to refer, so the husband — who was looking for a job anyway — decided to get his real estate license.
Recently, after helping his first four families purchase a home, the husband realized that there were so many more families in need of support with getting a housing loan, that he needed additional help. He reached out to three college-aged youth involved in Ruhi Book 1 to see if they would like to be hired as his assistants. These youth were perfect candidates — not just because they share the same language with the families seeking to buy homes — but because their work with the Institute has shown them to be honest, trustworthy, and compassionate. Moreover, their Book 1 study started in honor of George Floyd, and many of their conversations have been centered on racial justice. Now they have a clear channel for promoting racial justice by counteracting forces of gentrification and racial displacement in the neighborhood. Their work will enable them to support many of the families whom they care deeply about, and will provide funding for their own expenses as they begin college.
Unfortunately, the credit scores of some families will take longer to remediate, and banks are unable to give them a loan. To overcome this obstacle, the team has started working with investors who purchase homes in cash and offer them to families on land contracts for low interest rates. This process has just started, but is proving to be a good option for families who are unable to become homeowners through traditional avenues.
Many neighborhoods in our region have seen Institute activities come to a halt due to families moving away. This housing project is already serving to overcome that challenge. Material factors that typically drive families from the neighborhood — rising rents, unjust landlords, lead or mold poisoning, gentrification, etc. — become less of a threat as families claim their permanent place in some of the neighborhood’s safest, renovated homes.
It is becoming clear how the spiritual and material progress of the neighborhood go hand and hand. Though the housing project has clear material outcomes, it emerged from a spiritual reality of friendships rooted in shared love for God and commitment to serving the neighborhood. As more families make the commitment to stay in the neighborhood long term, such friendships will become deeper, the community-building activities will continue to reach more and more souls, and social action projects will become vaster in scope.
Anisa Everett, MI-09