“I don’t like to see people struggling. It’s policies and politicians that keep people struggling because of inequity. All communities are impacted—black, white, everyone.”
Deondre “Dee” Jones is a familiar fixture to some around Grand Rapids. He can be found attending City Commission and County Commission meetings, typically with his headphones piping his tunes into his ears as he prepares for the public comment portion of the meetings. He comes ready to listen and engage with commissioners as decisions are being made that impact the community.
“I’ve always wanted to see change and wondered where the change was happening,” Jones said. “Where are those rooms [where policymakers gather]? “I don’t like to see people struggling. It’s policies and politicians that keep people struggling because of inequity. All communities are impacted—black, white, everyone.”
Jones wants to see the area become the best place to live, in part because of housing and the economy, particularly for people of color. Of counties similar in size, “Kent County is the fifth worst for equitable affordable housing.” He said, “I want my own house. I’m a grown man and want my own house. If circumstances and opportunities had been better, things [might have been] different for me.” To fully understand Jones’ passion for Grand Rapids and Kent County, you have to go back to his growing-up experience. Originally from Chicago’s northside, Jones moved to Michigan when he was six years old. “My mom didn’t want to raise her family in the violence that was happening in Chicago, so we came here. I grew up all around—Wyoming, Kentwood, Grand Rapids.”
The Cost of Housing
Despite mom’s desire for her children to escape the dangers of their Chicago neighborhood, there was no escaping it entering her home through her own child. “When I was 18 or 19, I was hustling, you know, to get my own money to be able to buy things,” Jones said. “I had cannabis stashed at our family’s apartment. The police found the stash and then landlord found out that there had been drugs in our place and told my mom that we couldn’t stay there.”
Dee becomes visibly emotional, tears falling down his cheeks. “My mom lost her apartment and had to go live with somebody, my brothers had to live with different people. Being the son who made your family lose it all…when you’re the one that cased your family to lose everything, that’s a burden, no matter who you are.”
Jones currently lives with his mother, assisting her with household bills. “My mom was caring for my grandfather until he passed away last year. I stay with her because the drug charge is still on my record and keeps me from being able to get my own place.” He’s not the only person impacted by a criminal record when it comes to accessing affordable housing in Kent County. In 2020, there were over 8,000 misdemeanor cases filed within the Kent County courts, and over 3,700 felony cases filed1. While the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provided guidance in 2016 to housing providers on the use of criminal history as a determining factor in renting a unit to someone, they noted that use of that history in their policies could also be a discriminatory practice that “would likely have a disproportionate impact on minority home seekers.”2 While African Americans make up only 12% of the population in the United States, they are incarcerated at three times the rate of their white counterparts.3 The policy of using criminal history during housing application may “create, increase, reinforce, or perpetuate segregated housing patterns.”4
While Jones’ criminal history has been a barrier to housing, low income has also been a factor. For many cost-burdened families who rent in Kent County, it only takes one unexpected circumstance or expense for housing to be jeopardized. A family’s inability to pay rent can mean that an eviction case can be filed. In the state of Michigan, a demand for possession gives a tenant seven days to pay any arrearages (which includes any late fees and back-rent owed), vacate the premises, or work out an arrangement with the landlord in that seven-day window5. If a tenant opts to do nothing, the case will proceed to a court case.
According to the University of Michigan’s 2020 report6 on statewide evictions, in 2018 nearly 200,000 eviction cases were filed. This equates to one eviction case for every six rental household units. Additionally, in cases filed between 2014 and 2018, 83.2% of landlords were represented by an attorney, while only 4.3% of tenants had legal representation. In Kent County, more than 45% of families who are renting are cost-burdened7, which means they are spending more than 30% of their monthly household income on rent before factoring in necessities like food, utilities, and transportation costs.
A New Legacy
Dee’s family never could afford to own a home. “We never had our own house. We were always renting. It was typically a duplex. My mom was young, struggling on social security, trying to work what jobs she could” Jones said. “If there wasn’t government assistance, I’m not sure how we would have made it.”
While Jones’ mother recently began a job, she’s spent much of her life on Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Because of what he and his family experienced with limited income, Jones is passionate about helping others on SSI or Social Security Disability benefits. “I’ve always had a passion for giving back to the community. I remember seeing a person with no bed sleeping outside of the B.O.B. (Big Old Building). So I started volunteering and delivering beds to people who needed them as part of the Grand Rapids Dream Center.”
“I never asked to grow up struggling, to live in poverty, to live in an underserved community. I advocate for others because I appreciate what it means to have a place to live, to have affordable housing. I do this so maybe others won’t have to experience the same things I went through. I want to see this area to be the best in economy and housing. That’s why I stay focused on affordable housing and raising the economy.” Part of doing that is showing up to the various community meetings.
“Some people haven’t been in the rooms I’ve been in. Good things always happen when I show up to government meetings. I don’t want people to fear interacting with the government. I want to be someone people care about when I die. I want to leave a legacy. I want to be the person that sets the example, to inspire others. You created change in a society that needed problem-solving.” What does that look like to Jones? “Having equity in Kent County looks like getting the same pay, regardless of ethnicity when we got the same degree and GPA. It looks like no discrimination of blacks, moms with children, people with disabilities, those with criminal records, or those using vouchers when it comes to housing. Having housing regardless of circumstances.” Jones will continue to be in the room, adding his voice to ensuring a better housing system for all.
1 (Michigan Supreme Court, 2021)
2 (Helen R. Kanovsky, 2016)
3 (Helen R. Kanovsky, 2016)
4 (Helen R. Kanovsky, 2016)
5 (Michigan Legal Help, n.d.)
6 (Robert Godspeed & Michigan, 2020)
7 (Housing Kent, 2020)