Housing Theory & Housing Facts

May 16, 2020 | City Council

Ann Arbor currently has an insufficient supply of workforce and affordable housing. Some people have asserted that changes in zoning would be a solution to these problems. The question is: does market rate density have an impact on affordability? Does simply zoning to allow denser housing eventually result in so much housing that there is a surplus and prices go down?

Housing density theory is a serious debate in Ann Arbor, where the densest housing of apartments and condos is increasingly more and more expensive and the demand for housing of this type (the most unaffordable) seems insatiable. The people who engage in debate around this theory of density tend to be white and every bit as privileged as (or more privileged than) me: secure in their own housing (typically the least dense housing: single family homes) and able to simply contemplate such issues from a distance. Some of the folks pitching density theory as a benefit to the poor actually stand to profit financially, because the market for high-end multi-unit housing is so strong in Ann Arbor. 

Some argue that development of any type that adds density will incrementally move us closer to affordability. By this logic, opposition to any multi-unit development (or opposition to zoning that would allow for more dense, multi-unit development everywhere) is “anti” affordability. This kind of reasoning has inspired more than a few demonstrably false statements about the current Council’s attitude and commitment to affordable housing. Misinformation is frustrating, of course. However, more upsetting to me is how housing density theory — specifically, skepticism about it — is leveraged as “proof” of thoughtlessness about housing insecurity, lack of sympathy for the poor in our community, and (by extension) hostility to people of color who are disproportionately impacted.

The reality: City Council has looked for ways to directly address affordability in addition to approving more housing supply. We have supported most (but not all) new development, we have passed ordinance amendments that will provide (and negotiated directly with developers to provide) more affordable housing benefits in the form of financial support and built units. Additionally, we have looked for opportunities to add density that will result in more actual (rather than future, hypothetical and hoped for) affordable housing units.

Below is a summary of all the City Council votes related to specific housing development projects here in Ann Arbor since I was elected, with numbers that count the units approved/rejected with each. The rows in green highlight development projects for new housing that were approved. The rows in red highlight developments that were rejected. The rows in blue describe potential affordable housing projects that the current City Council asked our Housing Commission to study for feasibility. For the projects in blue, Council has funded preliminary public engagement and planning efforts (the unit number range estimates for these proposals come directly from the head of our City’s Housing Commission).

A2ELNEL Ann Arbor Housing Theory Housing Facts chart May 2020

In this chart, note that we rejected only two developments: one on top of monitoring wells for the Gelman Plume and one which met such strong neighborhood opposition in Ward 3 that our appointed resident volunteers on the Planning Commission unanimously recommended that Council deny it. Note, also, how little affordable housing is actually created through market rate development: those two (rejected) developments would have provided 74 units of affordable housing. These projects had considerable problems in their proposed locations, and provided a small number of units relative to other efforts currently being pursued by Council.

I have consistently supported building more workforce and affordable housing here in Ann Arbor. To understand why, you need to understand who I am.

Like many people in Ann Arbor, I have not experienced poverty personally. However, I have found opportunities to educate myself about it and participate in solutions. In college, I volunteered with a low income housing nonprofit in New Jersey, doing research on rental markets. In those days, such research was literally searching newspaper ads to find rentals, noting the prices and how few of them met the needs of low-income residents. It was in that work — twenty-five years ago — that I learned the formula that no more than 30% of a person’s income should go towards rent. The research was eye-opening. 

In law school, I did a lot of typical things (moot court, clerked at a law firm, president of my class) but the most important education I got in those three years came from volunteer work with a Tenant Advocacy Project in downtown Baltimore. The TAP had both a regular office space and borrowed space on-site at Rent Court. I worked in their regular office, alongside other volunteers (some of whom were former clients) and also at Rent Court. At Rent Court, I worked directly with people facing eviction and advocated for them, negotiating with their landlords (many of them slumlords, demanding rent for functionally inadequate housing) and helping them fill out paperwork to avoid eviction. I saw how vulnerable people were. I witnessed the gross imbalance of power and how it disproportionately impacted people of color. 

On City Council, I recognize my responsibility and influence over issues that will have an impact on people with less means and less voice. I take it seriously. I have seen how the City has power to directly (and indirectly) improve opportunities for everyone in our community: partnering with organizations and changing our own laws and policies to protect people who are vulnerable (i.e. shift the balance of power).

The current City Council asked city staff to evaluate eleven underutilized city properties, properties that we can develop directly and intentionally for affordable housing. I noticed that our housing market was so profitable for short-term rentals that there was potential to lose long-term housing supply, so I asked City staff to look at that issue, too. Council approved policies requiring that larger downtown developments include more affordable units and/or make greater contributions to affordable housing funds. We approved the purchase of a property on the west side, specifically so it could be transferred to our Housing Commission for affordable housing development. We passed ordinance amendments to prevent discrimination against people who use housing vouchers for market-rate rentals. A resident informed me about housing discrimination against people with criminal convictions and I brought that to city staff (who are still working on a city ordinance solution). The current Council has approved every funding request from city’s Housing Commission and we anticipate many more.

I see how often these issues are on our City agendas and I know how much these issues matter to all of my colleagues on Council. There is no room to accuse anyone of lacking values or lacking sympathy. Serious, concerned, and caring people can disagree about the right strategies. The housing issues of our City are complicated and the decisions that we make are not simple or easy. Long-term planning forces us to think hard about unintended consequences because often a mis-step cannot be undone, some opportunities are lost forever.

To those of you are reading this: thank you for taking the time to learn more about who I am and what my values are. I also want to thank everyone who has engaged in thoughtful debate around housing in Ann Arbor and everyone who continues to bring issues to our attention, educating us about opportunities to make a difference. It’s important.