A recently formed, citizen-led coalition is aiming to increase public participation by inviting a plethora of residents and organizations to brainstorm stipulations for a community benefits ordinance (CBO) for the city of Ypsilanti.
City councilmember Lois Allen-Richardson describes the coalition as growing "spontaneously" and "organically." In October, she and Ypsi Township resident Tad Wysor assembled a group of residents, who she identified as current or potential community organizers, to learn about the Washtenaw Regional Organizing Coalition (WeROC). WeROC is an organization that brings together individuals and organizations in an effort to create a collective voice to impact public affairs and issues in Washtenaw County.
Those residents, including Desirae Simmons and Erica Mooney, spoke out against the controversial International Village development on the city's Water Street property last year and attended Allen-Richardson's first town hall on CBOs in September. At the subsequent meeting with Allen-Richardson and Wysor, the residents told the two WeROC organizers that they wanted to mobilize for an equitable community process in which all residents' voices are considered on similar future developments. They decided to form a coalition and started hosting community meetings as Rising for Economic Democracy in Ypsi (REDY) at the beginning of this year.
The purpose of a CBO is to enact a policy that would require potential developers to work with a group of community members to draft a community benefits agreement (CBA). A CBA is a contract that holds the developer accountable for addressing community concerns, like hiring local laborers and contractors and providing a prevailing wage for those workers, in exchange for the community's support.
REDY will explore how the CBO should identify which residents are called upon to meet with potential developers. REDY would like its coalition participants to be involved in CBAs, but the group of community members would likely feature different residents for each individual development, based on the stipulations included in the CBO. The coalition ultimately hopes the group will mostly be comprised of residents who live in the impacted area, rather than city officials or residents appointed by city officials.
"You need to have some sort of legally enforceable way to say we have to reach out really consciously to the entire cross-section of the community. Whether they're demographics, or neighborhoods, or formal or informal community groups, they each are equal stakeholders," says Mooney, who serves as REDY's liaison for WeROC and Defend Affordable Ypsi. "It doesn't matter how much they're contributing to the tax base. They're part of the fabric of the community."
REDY has received some help from the Detroit-based Maurice and Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice and has done independent research to ensure the CBO will be community-driven, legally binding, and enforceable. The Sugar Law Center also backed a Detroit CBO proposed by a group called Equitable Detroit Coalition. That effort sought to give residents leverage and "fundamentally alter expectations on how development is done in Detroit by normalizing a community-driven approach," according to a report on the initiative. But the group's proposed CBO was defeated on the November 2016 ballot in favor of an alternative CBO that's less restrictive on development. REDY plans to learn from Equitable Detroit Coalition's strides and setbacks as it advocates for a CBO that prioritizes Ypsi residents.
Simmons believes many of the residents who spoke up during the city council meetings on the International Village felt like their words were falling on deaf ears. She thinks Ypsi can do better in terms of thinking about who's participating and engaging residents on their own terms so those who aren't already participating can have a voice in community matters. She sees a CBO as a way of preventing city council from making decisions that benefit few rather than many.
"By being able to be at the negotiating table, we at least are able to see that we have some direct benefits and not just the benefits that other people choose for us," Simmons says.
At previous REDY meetings, the coalition has brainstormed dozens of organizations that should be invited to its meetings and encouraged participants to reach out through their own networks to invite individuals to future meetings. REDY expects this coalition-building effort to be ongoing throughout the process of establishing a CBO because organizers want to make sure as many people as possible can participate. REDY's next meeting will be held Saturday, Feb. 17 at 12 p.m. at Riverside Arts Center, 76 N. Huron St, and will focus on potential stipulations to include in Ypsi's CBO. Anyone is invited to attend and share their thoughts, even if they staunchly support development in Ypsi.
"If we all can agree that we want to live in a healthy community, then we have to be able to listen to each other and communicate with each other," Mooney says. "So I literally would welcome anybody who lives in Ypsilanti or feels like they have a stake in Ypsilanti to show up … with a willingness to hear other peoples' experience and not delegitimize it."
When the coalition is ready to share its recommended stipulations, Allen-Richardson will encourage assistant city attorney Dan DuChene to include them in the next draft of the CBO and bring it before city council. If REDY isn't able to convince council to include its recommendations, the coalition could campaign to put its CBO on the ballot to be considered by local voters. But REDY would like to be so successful in establishing Ypsi's CBO that it will become a model for other municipalities.
"We're getting clearer in publicly stating in a coherent, collective way what are the characteristics of a good CBO and what are the characteristics of something that might be called a CBO, but doesn't really have the fundamental principles of involving people in the community directly working out an agreement with the developer," Wysor says.
Simmons hopes REDY will eventually get involved in other local efforts beyond the coalition's CBO and CBA initiative. During the first meeting of the Ypsilanti Planning Commission's Citizen Subcommittee on Feb. 7, subcommittee chair Heidi Jugenitz expressed interest in forming a new coalition to ensure city council considers the subcommittee's forthcoming recommendations for updates and modifications to the 2013 Master Plan. As a sitting member of the subcommittee, Simmons suggested that REDY could get involved since it's an existing coalition with similar interests. She sees it as "an opportunity for REDY to continue its work of promoting community participation and economic democracy by promoting affordability and accessibility" on behalf of the Citizen Subcommittee.
"I think we should celebrate the fact that people care and that people want to put themselves on the line in order to help to make Ypsilanti the best city that it possibly can be," Simmons says. "I'm really excited and proud of the work that we're doing."
Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
All photos by Doug Coombe.