Ann Arbor's Proposal C affordable housing millage passed with about 73% of the vote in the Nov. 3 election, but local housing affordability advocates stress that there's still work to do.
The passage of Proposal C means Ann Arbor will assess a 1-mill tax over 20 years to create a fund that will house about 3,700 residents through the creation of about 1,500 units of affordable housing, with up to about a quarter of those units being set aside as permanent supportive housing. The millage will raise about $6.5 million in its first year.
Those who campaigned for Proposal C were glad but not surprised that the measure passed with a strong majority, since polling in the spring indicated about a 77% approval rate for the proposal.
"The core goal was to get funding to build the housing, but beyond that, an amazingly strong majority at the ballot box provides political capital to overcome any barriers to the design process to build the housing," says Chuck Warpehoski, co-director of the Proposal C campaign.
A big step forward
Proposal C's passage will have wide-ranging effects in Ann Arbor. The city is now targeting city-owned lands to build the new units, which will be reserved for households earning up to 60% of the area median income (AMI), or less than $60,900 per year for a four-person household. The Ann Arbor Housing Commission will serve as part of the development team for the new units but may partner with another developer as needed.
These new units will meet about half of the goal established by Washtenaw County officials in a 2015 analysis of affordable housing in the area. Additionally, up to 20% of the millage revenue can be used for as many as 375 units of permanent supportive housing for those in the lowest income brackets, including those with disabilities and those with chronic housing instability. Supportive housing services are generally resident-directed and can range from long-term case management to short-term help with food or after-school programming.
"My hope is that we do maximize the number of supportive housing units we can get out of those developments, just because there is such a need for that resource," says Aubrey Patiño, executive director of the nonprofit Avalon Housing, which specializes in the supportive housing model. "The basic premise of the housing-first model is that housing is a basic human right … and you house people with as low a barrier as possible and provide robust wraparound services that are tenant-centered and tenant-driven and voluntary in nature."Aubrey Patiño.
The millage is also expected to have effects on many county residents' daily commutes. Jeff Gearhart is research director at Ann Arbor's Ecology Center, which was part of a six-organization coalition of environmental and climate groups that backed the proposal. Backing affordable housing is just an extension of work the Ecology Center and other coalition members have been doing around environmental impacts on health, such as pushing for action on drinking water quality issues, lead in homes, and transportation systems that lower carbon emissions.Jeff Gearheart.
"All these issues intersect, and I don't think you can address one without addressing them all," Gearhart says. "These issues are just inextricably linked in terms of how we produce healthier people and healthier communities."
Greg Pratt, an Ann Arbor activist and chair of the Washtenaw County Housing and Human Services Advisory Board, says it made sense for environmental activists to get on board with Proposal C. Before COVID-19 changed the work landscape in the Ann Arbor area, about 80,000 people commuted into the city to work every day, contributing to environmental and air quality issues.
"To whatever extent we can have our workforce living closer to their jobs, it benefits everyone in terms of air quality and doing our part on climate change," Pratt says.
Teresa Gillotti, director of the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development, notes that the county has made some progress in implementing some of the 2015 affordability report's recommendations, but "funding and financing is one we haven't really cracked." Teresa Gillotti.
A few dozen affordable units have been added here and there in the county since that report came out, but Gillotti says the millage funding "will really accelerate us toward this goal in a way we have not been able to do before."
Jennifer Hall, executive director of the Ann Arbor Housing Commission, notes that the millage's passage reflects more than 30 years of efforts to increase the stock of affordable housing in the city, and she's thankful to the city and its residents for supporting the proposal.
"I look forward to leading the development team and working with our community partners to put shovels in the ground, to create safe affordable housing for low-income individuals and families," Hall says. "We can stop talking and start doing."
Next step: Community engagement
Gillotti says the large majority of Ann Arbor residents appear to support the idea of affordable housing, but "for many people, it comes down to the details of how things are implemented."
To make sure community members are on board with implementation, the city has been holding a series of virtual community engagement events, and an online survey about several proposed developments is open through Dec. 14.
Amanda Carlisle, executive director of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance (WHA), says her organization has been encouraging the public to participate in the process so that "we make sure we're taking into consideration all the needs in the community."Amanda Carlisle.
"Our community has a say in this. Also, people who don't live here but work here … should have a stake in how these properties may be developed," she says. "We need to get folks out there, understanding what the next steps are and as engaged as possible in the next steps, so they feel invested."
Carlisle believes the COVID-19 pandemic helped highlight stable housing as an important social determinant of health and brought even more residents on board with affordable housing as a priority.
"Gosh, how much different it would have been if we'd been able to provide folks with permanent housing in their own unit where they could stay and comply with the 'Stay Home, Stay Safe' order," Carlisle says. "COVID-19 really heightened that issue in a way we have been talking about for years and showed the public that housing is such an important piece of the puzzle. You can't have good health care if you don't have safe, secure, and stable housing."
More work to be done
While Proposal C backers are grateful for the millage, Warpehoski notes that there is still work to be done throughout the county on affordable housing.
"This is a tremendous step forward for affordable housing but doesn't cover all of our needs," Warpehoski says. "We're going to need to continue community activism to address the rest of our affordable housing system."
Carlisle says the millage and proposed developments address two out of three priorities WHA has emphasized: financing and funding, and utilization of public lands. While she's glad that city-owned properties were targeted for affordable housing, she thinks the same can be done with county-owned properties or properties owned by other municipalities in the county.
Carlisle says WHA's third priority, zoning and regulatory reform, still has yet to be addressed.
"We need to look at reforms of zoning codes, not just in Ann Arbor but across different communities," Carlisle says. "How can we incentivize the use of affordable housing in developments in the private sector? And how can we change some of the regulations that go along with development, like parking minimums, just as an example?"
Pratt also emphasizes zoning changes, noting Ann Arbor's current emphasis on single-family homes. He says the city needs to consider all options, from community land trusts to housing cooperatives.Greg Pratt.
"The promise of home ownership is to build wealth, but a lot of folks, especially people of color, are excluded from that dream," Pratt says. "The system that props up home ownership and wealth creation in that regard is set up to promote white supremacy. I'm not saying zoning changes are a silver bullet, but it opens up different options for us to have housing."
He says creating "more and varied housing opportunities along transit routes in Ann Arbor" is another piece of the puzzle.
Warpehoski says Ann Arbor still has work to do in terms of addressing the need for affordable housing for residents who make more than 60% of the AMI but are still daunted by housing prices in the city.
"We don't have enough money to subsidize people in those income ranges, so we'll have to find other strategies to create affordable and accessible housing," he says.
Warpehoski says statewide policy changes could also help expand affordable housing options in Ann Arbor, but "we can't wait and hope and pray the state does something."
"We have to keep identifying what is in our domain of control now and what we can do that's in the toolbox we have now, as well as working with partners across the state to expand that toolbox," he says.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.