Dwelling Place CEO leaves mark on Heartside, affordable housing effort

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Perhaps the most visible changes to the Heartside District over the last 30 years are along South Division Avenue.

“All of this stuff here was all boarded up back then. Everything around here,” said Dwelling Place CEO Dennis Sturtevant as he walked by some of the various building his organization has purchased over the years.

“While this is not a retail haven — soft goods, retails kinds of stuff —  there is still a lot of live-work,” he said Sturtevant. “Vertigo Records is still operating here, even though the facade hasn’t changed much.”

Sturtevant has had a front row seat to changes in one of Grand Rapids most dynamic neighborhoods for over three decades.

On Friday, the longtime Dwelling Place CEO will retire.

The Ravenna native was first in his family to go to college. Sturtevant’s first job out of college was with the  Catholic Human Development Office, where he worked on a variety of issues facing people who are low-income.

He found his niche in low-income housing development.

That brought him to Dwelling Place, which at the time was struggling to stay afloat.

“I knew it was going to be a problem, but at that time in my life, I was in my 30’s, I would go in and say ‘ahh, we can solve this problem.’ I was pretty optimistic about it,” Sturtevant said. “I’m still an optimist. But I’m a little smarter optimist than I used to be.”

He credits a supportive board of directors over the last 30 years for the success of Dwelling Place.

“Trying to figure out a new way of doing something, and having people going ‘well, that sounds a little risky but, you’ve done this before, let’s try this out,'” Sturtevant said.

Dwelling Place had just over 300 housing units when Sturtevant took over in 1988. They have more than 1400 now. 

The agency has expanded outside of Heartside into other city neighborhoods and even rural communities.   

“It’s not a process that starts and stops — we’re done, we fixed it — it’s a process that changes and evolves as time goes on,” Sturtevant said. 

Protecting the population that has longed called the neighborhood home has been a balancing act.

A major test for Dwelling Place came with the opening of the Van Andel Arena in 1996.

The arena and entertainment district brought much needed jobs to Heartside, but it also increased property values in the neighborhood.

“You don’t want to say to someone ‘now that it’s better, we’re going to ask you to leave,'” Sturtevant said. “You really want to make sure you have opportunities for people so that gentrification — you get the good parts of gentrification, but you don’t get the bad parts.”

Yet the Grand Rapids homeless problem remains, from Heartside Park to Monroe Center and beyond.

Accessing capitol to create more affordable homes is a challenge.

But Sturtevant says providing the homeless with a place to live, a problem he says you don’t solve, but deal with, is only part of the equation.

Outside factors, like physical and mental health services, play a role in the effort.

So do changes to the economy.

“We’re making a big transition now in people who could have worked in a lot of factory jobs and other kinds of things,” Sturtevant said. “We’re moving to a service industry kind of base. And you have to have more education to even operate some of these machines.”

Still, Sturtevant is confident in the future efforts of Dwelling Place.

As for his future, only time will tell.

“It doesn’t turn off at 68 years of age,” Sturtevant said. “You know, that feeling that you want to make a difference continues on. And I don’t know how that will happen. Maybe that’s the exciting part.”

Stutervant’s last day will be Friday, July 30. Former Linc Up Executive Director Jeremy DeRoo will take over as leader of Dwelling Place.

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