What would make Ann Arbor a better place for all families to live?

Fortune magazine recently named Ann Arbor the best place in the U.S. for families to live, but the city's myriad assets are inaccessible to many. 
Earlier this year, Fortune magazine ranked Ann Arbor first on its list of the nation's "best places to live for families." Through 11 years living in and writing about Washtenaw County, I've seen a lot of lists like Fortune's that name Ann Arbor one of America's best places to live. Those rankings always prompt the same question from me: For whom? 

Fortune's write-up on Ann Arbor rightfully lauds the city's many assets, including the University of Michigan, the Ann Arbor Film Festival, and Ann Arbor's parks, schools, LGBTQ community, and dining scene. But Fortune also describes Ann Arbor as offering "a wealth of opportunities for all different types of families," a statement likely to ring false to many who actually live in or around Ann Arbor. Our metro area has been ranked one of the most socioeconomically segregated in the U.S. While Ann Arbor undoubtedly has much to offer, even neighboring communities like Ypsilanti are inaccessible to many families – let alone Ann Arbor itself.

In the interest of continuing to envision and shape a community that better lives up to rankings like Fortune's, I asked 12 Ann Arbor residents and leaders the same question: "What would make Ann Arbor a better place for all families to live?" Here's what they had to say. – Patrick Dunn, Concentrate managing editor

Lindsay Calka, publisher of Groundcover News: What would make Ann Arbor a better place for all families to live? More shelter for families experiencing homelessness, for sure. Right now, Washtenaw County only has capacity to provide emergency shelter for six families at a time. Alpha House, the only shelter designated for families experiencing homelessness, is wildly underfunded — especially considering the rising need for family shelter in our community. Just like individual citizens, healthy, happy families need housing. 

Rich Chang, partner/CEO of NewFoundry and board member of the United Way of Washtenaw County, Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, Michigan Works! Southeast, WCC Foundation, and others: What would make Ann Arbor a better place for all families to live? We realize, acknowledge, and act to fix our shortcomings (e.g. housing, child care, food security) as a community and stop placing so much weight on "best of" awards. Once that happens, we can truly work on being the best place for anyone to live – and we won't need awards to let the world know.

Looking at 2019 data published by the United Way: 31% of Washtenaw County households are in poverty/ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed). For the city of Ann Arbor, 38% are in poverty/ALICE. Those numbers should be close to 0% if we want to lay claim as the No. 1 place to raise a family.

We also need to remember that our success as a community is affected by the success of the communities around us, such as Ypsilanti. None of us can have success in isolation.

Jenny Jones, executive director of Title Track: I believe that my family moved from Detroit to Ann Arbor because my father felt that the Detroit Public Schools system would not meet the educational and safety requirements needed for my brother and me to thrive. This community became what we made of it; any community can and does. Ann Arbor will become a better place for all families not when we're checking off boxes for what to look for in a neighborhood, school system, or downtown; but when everyone understands our differences/our diverse backgrounds, whether it be from wealth and education, poverty and adversity ... or somewhere in between, make us wiser and richer and fuller people. We can have a whole realm of experiences and supreme understanding when we realize the strength of our communities in the different lives that we've led and continue to lead. In this moment, this community is seen as the best, but I see so much "sameness" – is that really what the development of a child within a family needs? We have to realize there is a difference between stability and a foundation.

Ji Hye Kim, chef and owner of Miss Kim: Ann Arbor is named the best place to live for families in the U.S., I guess, if you have a "traditional family," looking for cute shops, cute parks, and conventional family activities.  

Take my neighborhood, Kerrytown, for example. This neighborhood is walkable, near parks, and filled with cute shops and a kid-friendly museum. It’s great. It is also very expensive and very gentrified (my business included), with its Black history all but invisible. None of my staff can afford to live in Ann Arbor, yet we prioritize single-family zoning, with plenty of NIMBY ethos for affordable housing. I’d want to live in a town with more than just cute shops, conventional traditions, and best intentions. I want deeper connections with diverse communities, whether that's racial or economic diversity.

Jessica Letaw, community activist and advocate for housing and affordability: When I see Ann Arbor top yet another “best places to live” list, I have a hard time reading it.  

It’s not that I don’t think it's important for people reading these lists to know we have the area's largest employer, numerous parks and restaurants, and LGBTQ+ events. It’s just that I also want to know:

How would Black community members rate their satisfaction?
What percent of parents have access to local preschools? and/or feel their children are safe walking to school?
Does the community have a comprehensive definition of public safety including mental health, food and housing security, and educational access and support?
How would surrounding municipalities rate us?
How close do wait staff, retail employees, care workers, and creatives live near where they work?

I’d be more interested in how Groundcover News would rate Ann Arbor; and I’d be excited to attract to our community the people who think that kind of coverage counts.

Yodit Mesfin Johnson, president and CEO of Nonprofit Enterprise at Work (NEW): If more Ann Arborites were informed, more active, and more resolved to upend and repair the legacy of anti-Black racism here I think it could be a better place to live for all of us. In this "better place" we would courageously grapple with our complicity in settler colonialism and our nation's original sin of human trafficking, enslavement, and violence towards Indigenous and Black peoples. We would continue to break creative ground in the areas of storytelling, history, and full accounts of the legacy of racism, in policy-making, public discourse, organizing, repairing past harms to Black residents – boldly naming the truth whether folks are actively involved or complicit from ignorance. Importantly, we will have done so with love and care, accountability, and resilience, resisting guilt or fragility. In an era where polarization and extremism is now the norm, our human-centered, community-driven, fact- and research-based approach would be a "stat" that media outlets would uplift as a true measure of what it means to live in a great city. 

As a result, the general public and policymakers will have a better understanding that the segregated nature of Washtenaw County was caused by deliberate action of government actors, developers, banks, real estate agents, and white residents through policies such as, but certainly not limited to, racially restrictive covenants. This data would aid in bringing truth and reconciliation and reparative wealth to Black and Indigenous residents from disinvested neighborhoods and communities in Washtenaw County. It would also catalyze healing and co-liberation from systems that harm all of us. 

Truly Render, owner of Booksweet: The Ann Arbor I need includes a public school system that is proud of its special education programs and delivers these services joyfully and well district-wide. 

The Ann Arbor I need has high-quality, low-cost mental health resources at the emergency and the "everyday" level for youth of all ages: kids, tweens, and teens. 

The Ann Arbor I need is trans affirming. All families, all kids: affirmed. 

The Ann Arbor I need loves its Black residents. It does not suspend Black kids at vastly higher rates than their peers. Neighbors do not call the cops when Black teens enjoy an early release day in their public park. It does not allow racialized police brutality of its Black teens at Blake Transit Center. 

The Ann Arbor I need prioritizes affordable housing over million-dollar condos.

Julia Rhodes, content creator: At first glance Ann Arbor seems like a liberal safe haven for queers and artists, but queers and artists are economically disadvantaged and can’t afford the high rent caused by limited space and greedy landlords. So we find ourselves living in next-door Ypsilanti and working in Ann Arbor serving drinks to the doctors and professors this town is really for. We're kept from full-time pay by employers so dependent on student workers they’ve created a part-time economy, choking our ability to move up and trapping us in a cycle of exploitation. It’s a good town only for rich families, who try to do good by trickling wealth down through charities, but it gets stuck in the middle. Here at the bottom, we can’t even start families. I still love Ann Arbor’s beauty. It could be a beacon for a better America. But first we need to help it change its hypocritical infrastructure.

If those trying to help let the conversation flow both ways – that is, if our social roles were co-created between us and the businesses instead of pre-decided for us by the businesses – then our human potential would no longer be limited by those who, because they mistake power for knowledge, think they know better than us how we can contribute to the community.

Lori Roddy, executive director of The Neutral Zone: Fortune targets a particular audience of privilege as it describes Ann Arbor as a bustling metro area for all families. The article missed the opportunity to promote that a successful community is more than just economics, recreation, and health. Our community is intentional and strategic in its efforts to address tough challenges such as housing and food insecurity, mental health crisis, environmental degradation, and racial injustice, to name a few. Ann Arbor is a wonderful community and one of the reasons is because of the work it has done and needs to continue to do to ensure that our city is a just, equitable, and safe place.

Bilal Saeed, managing partner of Pakmode Media + Marketing, former chairperson of AFC Ann Arbor, and steering committee member of Washtenaw My Brother's Keeper: If we as a community were more intentional and genuine about developing relationships with neighbors from different backgrounds, this would build bridges through authentic connections and allow us to begin to tackle some of the inequities that were inevitably created by significant wealth segregation in Ann Arbor. This would make Ann Arbor a better place for all families to live, in my opinion.

Petals Sandcastle, co-founder of Express Your Yes Foundation: Shrinking the space between reality and the image sold in our brochures. To deserve the title of "Best place to live for families in America" we must acknowledge, support, and celebrate "Other" in meaningful, tangible ways, beyond performative gestures. Equity is more than a BLM sign in your window. Non-normative people are, at best, tolerated in this town – but tolerance isn't celebration!  The LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, and artist/creative communities are cast off the island they can neither fit into nor afford, then tokenized into weapons for vapid identity politics.

This is to say nothing of the poor and houseless! In a city as wealthy as Ann Arbor, there needn't be people begging on the street. What about a very simple-to-implement system where residents and organizations can donate, say, $5 a week into a collective kitty that offers a modest daily allowance, say, $20 to all the street folks for food/drink/drugs/entertainment/savings, etc. in exchange for them not begging anymore. Eliminating all panhandling for pennies will simultaneously 1. alleviate tremendously awkward daily confrontations 2. pump money into the local economy and 3. perpetually empower those most-at-risk, allowing them spacetime to dig deeper into their own earth journeys.

Lisa Sauvé, CEO/principal and co-founder of Synecdoche Design: While we have a solid distribution of parks and amenities, supporting kids safely getting to them independently is extremely difficult. Prioritizing accessible, economical, and sustainable transit options like walking, biking, and bus also reduces the traffic risk to kids by increasing the radius of independence from their home to connect to friends, schools, parks, libraries, etc. with limited concern for vehicle incidents. Our prioritization of cars also prioritizes drivers, which is anyone over 16 years old who can also afford the cost burden. Ann Arbor is moving in this direction, but far too slowly.

All photos by Doug Coombe.