Ann Arbor's Great Divide Part 2: How we can reintegrate our metro

My husband and I bought a house in September. And, all things considered, we count ourselves very lucky for having found it. It is, however, in Superior Township when we wanted to live in Ann Arbor. We wanted to be able to walk, or at least bike or bus to downtown. We wanted to be close to Vet's Park, for our future kids to attend Ann Arbor Schools, and to generally utilize the many amenities life in Ann Arbor has to offer. 

But those things are not available to us. Because we are having a baby (quite possibly as you read this) and we both work from home, the 800 square foot rental on Maple was no longer going to cut it. We saved up for a downpayment, were approved for a mortgage and started shopping. Nothing in Ann Arbor was even close to our price range. 

In fact, when we did find the foreclosed home we now own, the opportunity to buy an affordable four-bedroom house was so rare, we put all of our chips into the deal. We almost lost it multiple times. Our lease ran out and we lived in hotels for nearly two months (yup, homeless and pregnant!) without knowing if we'd prevail. It took six months from our first offer to closing, but we made it. We have to drive everywhere but one nearby coffee shop. The bus lines (nor local food delivery drivers, nor LTE service) come out this far. But all things considered, we are lucky. This house is a shooting star, a singular occurrence; we could have been marginalized much further from Ann Arbor than we are, given our income. I just filed our taxes. Combined, we earned more than $100,000 this year. 

As a reporter, I don't make a habit of sharing my finances in stories. But as pervasive and statistically proven as the housing inequality issues in Ann Arbor are, it's difficult to get people to share their experience with it. It seems to many young, hard-working professionals, that we're just not worthy of living in Ann Arbor. But the statistics tell our stories for us. 

"A full third of our workforce essentially can't access the local housing market," says Mary Jo Callan, director of Washtenaw County's Office of Community and Economic Development. "When you start getting proportions of your talent below the threshold at which they can access housing…it creates all sorts of issues around segregation. And we're seeing that play out locally."

In January, a Housing Affordability and Economic Equity Analysis by the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development told us that the middle class can no longer afford to live affordably in Ann Arbor. As if that wasn't enough, in February, the Martin Prosperity Institute released a study identifying Ann Arbor as the eighth most socioeconomically segregated metro in the country. 

In the first of this two-part series, we learned about some of the factors that contribute to that fact. Here, we begin to mull over what to do about it—beginning by looking to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, the American metro with the lowest rate of socioeconomic segregation, to see what they're doing right. 

A different kind of Metro

The Fond du Lac metro area is made up of about 100,000 Wisconsin residents, not terribly different from the city of Ann Arbor's 117,000. Fond du Lac County, which is mostly comprised of the metro area, has a median income of $53,820, not far from Ann Arbor's $55,003. But the comparisons pretty much end there. Fond du Lac has a manufacturing-based economy, rather than knowledge-based; is 95.4% white, as opposed to 73%; and while our median incomes may be similar, the percentage of those living below the poverty line in Fond du Lack is just 9.8%, as opposed to our 22.1%, and the median home value there is $145,800, compared to Ann Arbor's $230,700.

I have a feeling we could have bought a house there. So does Steve Jenkins, the president of the Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corporation. He wasn't surprised to find Fond du Lac on the least segregated end of the Martin Prosperity Institute report, nor to see so many college towns like Ann Arbor on the opposite end. Despite having two, four-year colleges there (most of the students that attend those schools, says Jenkins, "come with a different attitude" than those from a major university like U-M), his blue collar community is culturally different than university towns like Ann Arbor. 

"A community is fortunate when they have a large university," Jenkins says, "but there are things that come along with that that cause conflicts or difficulties, because they bring a range of opinions. There is a downside to that when it comes to getting things done."

Regulations and Income

Take regulations for business and development, for example. Fond du Lac has positioned itself to be very pro-business, so it has as few as possible. 

"So when there is a proposal to build a subdivision, there are not a lot of regulatory issues in terms of getting that housing off the ground and built," Jenkins says. "That's not to say we don't have codes, we just don't have a bunch of hoops to jump through." 

Strong opinions, codes and regulations are things Ann Arbor has no shortage of with regard to development, of course, But as Callan says, that's for a reason: Ann Arbor places a high value on environmental sustainability and thoughtful development. 

Jenkins also points to income distribution as a contributor to their lack of socioeconomic segregation. A recent economic analysis of Fond du Lac revealed a fairly even income distribution from the top to the bottom of the scale. In Ann Arbor, Callan says, we are seeing growing income disparity. While top earners are making more and low wage jobs are being added, she says, there is a gap in the middle—right where a manufacturing hub like Fond du Lac has all sorts of jobs. 

Becoming a better Ann Arbor

Becoming Fond du Lac certainly isn't Ann Arbor's goal, though it certainly seems like a nice enough place with lessons from which we could benefit. But solving the socioeconomic segregation issues here, Callan says, requires retaining our identity as we seek to improve. 

"Washtenaw County is a pretty exceptional community, and we should celebrate that," she says. "The community should take [this data] as a wakeup call for those who weren't aware and a call to action for those who are inclined to care."

Of the many recommendations in the Washtenaw County housing and equity study, Callan says housing is an important place to begin. 

"Adding affordable units in Ann Arbor is a way to add economic diversity," she says. "One big community goal is adding 2,800 units of opportunity housing in Ann Arbor. And while it's hard to do, it's also clear and simple." 

The report is flush with ways to support that goal, including addressing construction and regulatory barriers, housing preservation, mortgage foreclosure prevention, accessory dwelling units and exploring new housing production models. Long-term solutions, says Callan, are important as well, such as rethinking education policies and Pre-K investments, to guard against further socioeconomic segregation for future generations.

Can Ann Arbor remain the city where so many young professionals and middle class people want to live, while becoming a place where they actually can? It won't be an easy puzzle to solve, but it is a necessary one. 

"Less segregation is good for everyone, not only in terms of having the community that we say we want, that is diverse, but it's also in everyone's economic interest. That means really talking more about really scary and challenging issues, as as wage disparity," Callan says. "Democracy is an active sport. It would behoove all of us to be more interactive with our policymakers." 

Lots of encouragement and momentum from residents—and would-be residents, as well—along with a comprehensive and long-term approach to righting a number of economic imbalances will all a be necessary to make Ann Arbor a city where there is a place for everyone, not just those at the very top of the socioeconomic scale. 

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, development news editor for Concentrate and IMG project editor.

All photos by Doug Coombe except where noted.

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