Is Ann Arbor affordable? Nope. (And that's official.)

The question has been posed for some time. Area residents have brought it up. Local and regional media have been talking about it. We've asked, multiple times, actually. And now we finally have a quantifiable, research-based answer: No. The middle class cannot afford to live in Ann Arbor. 

Affordable housing has been a hot topic lately, so the timing of Washtenaw County's Affordable Housing Needs Assessment, the final report for which is due out by year's end, couldn't be more appropriate. Though many details, including policy recommendations for elected officials, won't be released until the report is available, the broadest, early findings are notable: Ann Arbor and Pittsfield Twp. need to add 3,137 non-student, affordable housing by units over the next 20 years, just to get caught up with demand. It's in the nuances of the study, however, where things start to get into inconvenient truth territory.  

Ann Arbor's housing disparity

So who, exactly, can't afford to live in Ann Arbor? According to a public presentation of the study, which was completed by research firm cvz, an assistant principal at Huron Valley Catholic would have a difficult time finding affordable housing here. As would a supervisor at Cost Plus World Market. Do we need to even mention that a dishwasher at Mani Osteria couldn't live anywhere near his job? In fact, a full 31% of the workforce in Washtenaw County does not make enough to afford the average two-bedroom apartment here. 

According to the study, affordability is defined as having to spend more than 30% of your income on housing. Based on this, 87% of City of Ann Arbor's non-student working households earning between $20,000 and $34,999 a year are paying unaffordable housing rates. And get this: so are nearly half (45%) of those making $35,000-$49,999.

We're not talking about the un- or even under-employed here.

"If you're in Ann Arbor and you own a home, good for you," says Director of the Washtenaw County Office of Community & Economic Development, Mary Jo Callan. "But if you're not one of the wealthiest folks in Ann Arbor, you may have difficulty maintaining that home when you retire. Your kids most certainly won't be able to afford to stay and raise their kids in Ann Arbor."

Ypsilanti's demand disparity

Another eye-opening detail in the housing study is that Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Twp. have affordable housing, but not the people to fill them. Over the next 20 years, those municipalities need to attract 4,187 more households. Whereas Ann Arbor lacks supply, Ypsilanti lacks demand. That means those communities must bulk up on the quality of life and livability factors that make cities like Ann Arbor so attractive.

Are the problems on Washtenaw County's east side the answer to those on it's west? Not if we want to be a healthy, growing community, says Callan.

"Ann Arbor has always been a diverse community and espoused diversity, and it's actually becoming less diverse," she says. "It really is a long-term economic development issue."

That's because the talent the area wants and needs to attract is looking to live in diverse communities. According to Callan, the segregation happening in Washtenaw County is already making Ann Arbor a less attractive place for businesses and talent to locate. And there's no easy fix. 

"It's a huge challenge to grow demand and huge challenge to grow supply," says Callan. "Change is hard."

Is Washtenaw Ave. the Answer?

Conveniently, one possible path forward for Washtenaw County's affordable housing disparity is a project already underway: ReImagine Washtenaw. 

"Washtenaw Avenue is key because it is the main corridor that connects these four jurisdictions, and particularly, connects lots of the workforce to the jobs that are centered in Ann Arbor," Callan says. "It also has some great opportunities. It already has the most robust transit in the county."

Which could make it the perfect place for affordable housing. Were the many acres of parking lot along Washtenaw Ave. to be converted into street-facing, multi-use developments, creating both affordable housing and walkability along the commercial corridor, it could make for a pretty attractive — and affordable, not to mention multi-modal — place for people to live. 

In the community's hands

But activating Washtenaw Ave. isn't a job for the county alone, nor is attacking the overall affordable housing disparity in the region. While the county can act as a coordinator, it's each municipality — Ann Arbor, Pittsfield Twp., Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Twp. — that must take policy action to make a change. 

"It's also a business challenge," says Callan. "It's an institution of high education challenge, and it's a challenge for our major employers. And it's a challenge for residents who care about diversity and inclusion and creating a place that is sustainable, not only for their career time, but for their retirement and their children's careers."

Callan notes that elected officials pay attention to the priorities of their constituents. If this is to become a priority for the cities, residents have to make some noise. And likely, lots of it, considering the breadth and complexity of the issue. 

"We have to actually commit to it," she says. "Our hope is that our policy makers say we care about this and we actually want to change it."

Judging from the many rumblings from residents and others about housing affordability recently, that would be the hope of many who call Washtenaw County home. Now, armed with the data to back up those complaints, it's up to everyone to do something about it. 

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, development news editor for Concentrate and IMG project editor.
All photos by Doug Coombe.

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