When Nathanael Romero first moved to Ypsilanti in 2012, he was attracted by the city's progressive politics, walkability, and affordable rents. Now, though, Romero says the city feels like it's starting to change. The arrival of a few trendy, upscale businesses has recently prompted debate among Ypsi residents – but more importantly to Romero, gone are the $700 rentals in walkable neighborhoods. Romero identifies as "extremely housing insecure," meaning he makes less than 30 percent of the area median income — about $16,000 per year. Though his housing has been unstable, Ypsi has been a haven for him.
"I like its working-class atmosphere and radical community," Romero says. "It's diverse but not really bougie at all."
Still, finding stable and affordable housing has been a struggle. Romero says the longest he's been able to stay in one apartment was from April 2016 until this May, when he was in a one-bedroom apartment in Ypsi's Midtown neighborhood. In that time, Romero's rent rose from $665 to $700, an increase of just over 5 percent.
Romero's experience is not unique. Preston Johnson (an Ypsi resident who uses they/them/their pronouns) narrowly escaped a 15 percent rent increase for their room when the property's owner decided not to contract with local housing startup CribSpot for management of the property.
Residents of Cross Street Village, an affordable senior living facility in Ypsi, are feeling like they are being priced out too. When the property was originally converted to affordable senior housing in the early 2000s, the project received low-income housing tax credits and was slated to stay affordable for a term of 99 years. But according to resident Jayna Eckler, residents have seen their rents go up between $40 and $120 this year, and they expect their rents to continue to rise at this rate.
Speaking under condition of anonymity, one Cross Street Village resident says her rent was $695 when she moved in in 2006. That has risen gradually to $755 by last year. On a Friday this spring, she received notice that she would have to renew her lease the following Monday and that her rent would rise to $855, an increase of 13 percent.
These renters' experiences reflect a broader trend in the Ypsi rental market. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the median rent in Ypsi was $703 per month between 2006 and 2010. For the 2011-2015 period median rent rose to $746, a 6.1 percent increase. This jump has been driven, in part, by an increase in population. Between 2010 and 2016 Ypsi was Michigan's fifth fastest-growing city, adding 1,583 residents to reach a population of just over 21,000. During this time, there has been no real increase in housing stock in the city.
Thus, the recent increases in residential rents can be attributed to increased residential demand with no increase in supply. The increased demand on housing has been exacerbated by stagnant or decreasing wages for many Ypsi residents. Between 2010 and 2015 the median income in Ypsi dropped from $34,685 to $31,061, a decrease of about 10 percent.
Increasing rents as well as the arrival of some upscale new businesses have led some Ypsi residents to worry about gentrification. Gentrification is generally defined as the displacement of vulnerable populations – such as working-class people and people of color – as more affluent people move into an area.
Carlos Franklin, owner of Black Stone Bookstore and Cultural Center in downtown Ypsi, has complicated feelings about gentrification. On one hand, he'd like to see a more vibrant downtown – it would mean more customers for his store. At the same time, he doesn't want to see people displaced from the community. Franklin doesn't necessarily see gentrification as primarily a race issue, but rather an issue of wealth and access to capital.
Mikal Muhammad, one of Franklin's customers, puts it this way.
"We're living in the world where George Bailey was never born," Muhammad says, referring to the altruistic, small-town banker in the movie It's a Wonderful Life.
Ramona Muhammad, Mikal Muhammad's wife, says decades of disinvestment have taken their toll on her neighborhood.
"I'm from the Willow Run area," Ramona Muhammad says. "The reason I chose to live there was because of the sense of community. With the loss of schools and the lack of commerce, we're losing the relationships we have in the community."
D'Real Graham, a program manager at 826michigan and former candidate for Washtenaw County prosecutor, is a member of Keep Ypsi Black. The group's goals are to advocate for equity within the Ypsi community.
"It's more than a group of individuals," Graham says. "It's a challenge to the existing community to recognize what is here."
Graham has lived in Ypsi and Ypsi Township for most of his life. While he is happy to see investment in the community and people taking pride in the city, he has also noticed rents rising.
"Historically, there have been more affordable spaces in Ypsilanti," he says.
As the city begins to change, Graham expresses hope that city government and residents can work together to find inclusive solutions for the community.
Still time for solutions
Romero thinks working-class people and renters need to start to organize and make sure their voices are heard by the city and the larger community.
"Fundamentally, what I'd like to see is an acknowledgement of the tension between the desire for development that's not necessarily targeted towards lower-income people and the needs of people who are housing insecure," he says. "I think a lot of it is not just the city. I think we need to see the community, especially low-income renters, get involved and claim their agency."
Graham is of a similar mind.
"It's important for us to have leadership pathways for people to explore," he says. "We need to respect people for their courage when they step into the room and sit at the table to talk about gentrification and other issues that are affecting the community."
Two of the solutions most commonly advocated for by those concerned about gentrification – rent control and inclusive zoning – are not legal in Michigan. But Richard Murphy, project coordinator for the Michigan Municipal League and a former Ypsi city planner, says there are still a number of solutions in the urban planner's toolkit.
"Part of the fix is the 'market urbanist' approach," Murphy says. "Rather than fighting about who gets the relatively limited business space and housing space, let's increase supply."
This could be done through encouraging new construction, increasing the density allowed in the city's zoning code, or even allowing people to build and rent accessory dwelling units on their residential properties. There are other ways to reduce some housing prices.
"The student housing co-ops were built to reduce cost for students in the Depression," Murphy says. "Community land trusts, where a non-profit owns a slice of the property and shares in price increases with the individual property owner, are another option."
There are some benefits to increased investment in a community too.
"It's better to have investment than disinvestment," Murphy says. "It allows the local government to provide more services effectively at a lower tax rate."
Despite the fact that rents are rising, Ypsi is in a good position to actually do something about it.
"The upside of a gentrification scenario is that it brings us new resources that we as a community can use to try to address the issues that it brings," Murphy says. "Ypsilanti is relatively earlier in the processes so that it allows us to address some of the 'fixes' more cheaply, compared to Ann Arbor."
Ben Connor Barrie is an Ypsilanti resident and founder of the blog Damn Arbor.
All photos by Doug Coombe.