Ann Arbor knows it has a problem with affordable housing. But more than two years after a study for Washtenaw County's Office of Community and Economic Development (OCED) provided hard data that many members of the middle class can't afford to live in the city, there still isn't a consensus on how to address the problem.
Affordable housing advocates believe that the path is clear but the political will is lacking. Government officials are concerned about balancing the need for affordable housing with the fears and desires of long-term city residents who don't want the character of their hometown to change.
What most people deeply involved in the issue agree on is that there isn't going to be a quick fix and that it will take years for the problem to be addressed. For instance, the county has a 20-year plan to add almost 2,800 affordable units in Ann Arbor and around 340 in Pittsfield.
Fruits of disparity
Affordable housing is locally defined as housing set aside for people who make 60 percent or less of the county's median income ($37,200 is the threshold for an individual, or $53,100 for a family of four). The 2015 report found that the county housing market was "basically healthy" but that the disparity between the housing market in Ann Arbor and Pittsfield Township versus Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township was likely to cause problems in the future, such as increasing traffic congestion as more people commute from outlying communities into Ann Arbor.
The problem has larger implications than just traffic jams, however – as described by nationally noted urban development expert Richard Florida in a timely visit to Ypsi this April. Florida warned that when cities become less affordable, they become less diverse and more boring – at which point even people with money no longer want to live there.
Carole McCabe is executive director of Avalon Housing, a nonprofit that develops and manages affordable housing and provides supportive services for the chronically homeless. She says she hears from both Avalon clients and employers that people working low-wage jobs in Ann Arbor can't live there. That causes inefficiencies in transportation that can negatively affect child care and other issues that are key to staying employed.
"Research shows that the most stable neighborhoods, the most resilient ones, have mixed incomes," says Teresa Gillotti, housing and infrastructure manager at the OCED. "You need a diversity of income and housing products to help a neighborhood survive when the economy changes or there are booms and busts in housing."
Recent local property-use debates demonstrate the barriers to creating more affordable housing and the different approaches public officials and nonprofits are exploring.
Ann Arbor City Council recently dedicated half the $10 million sale price of the "library lot" adjacent the Ann Arbor District Library's downtown location to an affordable housing fund. City officials have to be creative about ways to provide incentives for developers to create affordable housing because Michigan does not have ordinances or legislation allowing communities to require developers to include affordable housing in their plans, as other states do.
But this is a tricky tactic that can backfire. A developer who was interested in another piece of property, the city's vacant Y Lot near the city's transit center, walked away from the deal in October in part because of a request for more affordable housing, though the developer cited other issues as well.
In another case, developers, community members, and nonprofits have wildly different ideas for how to develop the 13-acre former county juvenile detention center site on Platt Road. Six different plans are vying for approval on the county-owned site. Avalon Housing advocated for 50 affordable housing units, leaving much of the lot undeveloped, while another developer proposed 35 single-family dwellings and 87 townhouses, none earmarked as affordable housing. The other plans fall somewhere in between. Some community members have advocated having no housing at all on the lot, leaving it as park land.
McCabe says a lot of the fear of affordable housing is based on stigma and unsupported stereotypes.
"Studies show that affordable housing doesn't increase crime or bring down surrounding property values," she says. "We are up against a lot of that kind of thinking, and we have to do a lot of education."
County commissioner Andy LaBarre says he has sympathy for the viewpoints of people who are leery of putting affordable housing on the Platt Road lot.
"I try to avoid the term NIMBY ("Not in my backyard"), because these are understandable desires on the parts of many people to maintain something they love," LaBarre says. "It is okay for someone to say they don't want to change their community because they love it how it is. It's not okay for them to expect that decision not to have outcomes, some good, some bad. There's a sort of natural tendency to push back on change, even if it's for wonderful reasons."
LaBarre says he does feel that the lot provides a unique opportunity and hopes that at least some of it will be used for affordable housing.
"It won't solve the issue, but it will make progress," he says.
McCabe calls the 13 acres of public land at Platt Road a "rare opportunity I hope the county does not miss."
"We're going to get very few chances like that, so it would be a crying shame if the county doesn't take advantage to support affordable housing efforts through use of that land," she says. "It's what their own studies suggested, and we need political leadership to follow the logic."
The future of affordable housing in Ann Arbor
So what's next for Ann Arbor's affordable housing struggle?
Washtenaw County, in collaboration with Ann Arbor's Downtown Development Authority and the communities of Ann Arbor, Pittsfield Township, Ypsilanti, and Ypsilanti Township, have committed to a series of 20-year goals related to affordable housing. The bigger goals break down to adding 140 units in Ann Arbor and 17 in Pittsfield each year, but so far in 2017 the numbers are far below those yearly goals.
Gillotti says other communities can use "inclusionary zoning," a practice that requires developers to either include affordable housing in their developments or make a donation to an affordable housing fund.
That kind of legislative tool isn't available in Michigan, so workarounds can include changing zoning and providing incentives to developers to include affordable housing.
"You could say to a developer, if you're going to build downtown, you can only build up to a certain height," Gillotti says. "If you want to exceed that and get taller, you can only do that if you provide affordable housing or a fee in lieu of."
Avalon Housing continues to look for properties to buy with grant funds that they can then manage as affordable housing. Because property is snapped up so quickly, Avalon has diversified its tactics and also works with existing public housing and private landlords to increase the number of affordable units in Ann Arbor.
Gillotti warns that the slow progress the county is seeing is to be expected.
"We have to chip away at barriers so we can get to bigger successes," she says. Busting barriers is "super important, but not sexy."
Gillotti says affordable housing advocates shouldn't expect a "major win" at the beginning of the 20-year effort.
"This is something we have to be persistent about and stay engaged with other groups and partners for a long time," she says. "I feel we have a lot of commitment, and we're building momentum."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.