After slow start, county affordable housing goal aims to build momentum in 2017

A long-term Washtenaw County plan to create more affordable housing in Ann Arbor and Pittsfield Township should gain some momentum this year, but officials expect a slow and steady race to the finish.

The county is now two years into a 20-year goal to add 2,797 new committed affordable units in Ann Arbor and 342 in Pittsfield Township by 2035 (or 140 units in Ann Arbor and 17 in Pittsfield per year). The goal is based on recommendations from a 2015 report prepared for the county Office of Community and Economic Development (OCED). Affordable housing is defined as being reserved for tenants who make 60 percent or less of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's area median income for Washtenaw County, which is $62,000 for a single person or $84,300 for a four-person household.

Teresa Gillotti, housing and community infrastructure manager for OCED, says her focus in these first few years is on developing a work plan, promoting policy changes and incentives that favor affordable housing, and generating more funds for projects.

Two affordable units were added in Ann Arbor in 2015. Gillotti says 2016 numbers aren't in yet, "but it's looking a little bit low."

"2017 looks like it has more potential, just with some projects that are in the queue," she says. "But the idea is that we start removing these barriers, we start opening up ordinance changes and dedicate funding and make some of those hard decisions. So every year instead of a few or three or five, we're getting 20, we're getting 30, we're getting 50 or even 60. So it just makes it more feasible every year to get closer."

For example, the the city of Ann Arbor approved zoning changes late last summer allowing residents who meet certain criteria to build accessory dwelling units on their residential property. Gillotti says the ordinance change should make a modest impact.

"They're getting tons of calls," she says. "We're hearing anecdotally that maybe 75 to 100 people have called since it passed, but no applications yet."

In the case of publicly owned property being redeveloped, Gillotti says local governments can ask developers to either include affordable housing in their projects or set aside funds for future affordable housing projects as part of their proposals.

The county is now reviewing development proposals for its Platt Road site adjacent County Farm Park, which could include 50 to 120 new affordable housing units.

Another boost could come from the sale of the downtown Ann Arbor District Library's parking lot. The city has committed half of the proceeds from a potential sale to support affordable housing. Although such a major cash influx would be a boon to the county's affordable housing goals, Gillotti says the real key is steadily increasing the number of affordable units annually.

"I don't think in 2017 we're going to have 140 new affordable units, but I want it to be more in every year," she says. "If we can get it to be more, we can at least get to the point where we're making a sizable impact on that goal each year."

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.