Below are remarks I shared at a panel discussion with the University of Michigan Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) on December 3, 2020.
Thank you for inviting me to participate in this forum — I appreciate the opportunity to have a serious conversation about housing and shelter. This pandemic has really highlighted and underlined how many people in our community are in need of shelter and just how many people are on the verge of losing the housing that they have.
Before I start, I should explain that the city does not directly administer emergency shelter services, but we do partner and collaborate with County departments to facilitate it. So when I talk about the City’s emergency shelter needs, I’m talking about challenges facing our county Office of Community and Economic Development (OCED) and the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County (SAWC).
Locally, our solutions for emergency shelter depend on the efficiencies of large congregate facilities. This obviously puts people at risk of contracting COVID. In the early weeks of the pandemic, I got a lot of emails about the City’s homeless shelter at the Delonis center — people driving by could SEE that it was a place that brought people together, against public health recommendations. Then I started getting emails about encampments – and the need to PROTECT them from disturbance— every member of our community needed to be SOME place, in their own space, and away from others. Encampments were at least a way for people to isolate themselves.
The city did not have a lot of immediate solutions to house people safely this spring— people were eventually housed in rooms at a Red Roof Inn because there was no other place. Our City Administrator told me recently that he seriously contemplated whether it would be more cost-effective to simply BUY the Red Roof Inn, given the expense of renting those rooms. That Red Roof Inn will soon be demolished for upgrades and redevelopment.
We are now beginning a season of cold and also climbing COVID infection rates. The need for housing is even greater than it was this spring. Hotel rooms are not a practical solution. We can’t simply permit people to camp in parks— this was a pitifully inadequate strategy in the spring and it’s a non-starter moving into the winter.
During a typical winter, Ann Arbor relies on the generosity of local churches to provide additional overnight shelter for people in need. Local churches offer a part of their building space and allow it to be filled with cots for a week at a time, called a “rotating shelter.” Like so many other strategies, this is not a safe solution given the risk of COVID infection.
This September, I was thinking about winter shelter — and the news about climbing infection rates on campus— when I brought a resolution to City Council asking for a meeting with the Board of Regents to discuss “what if”… “What if” the in-person semester failed, and the university was forced to send students home again, and WHAT IF empty dorms were available on campus and could be re-purposed as emergency shelter. My resolution asked for a meeting with the Board of Regents to discuss this issue and also asked for a meeting that would include appropriate County health and housing support staff.
I got a lot of pushback when I first asked that this resolution be put on a Council agenda, City staff did not want to even talk about it. I was told various things— that such a public discussion was not the right “avenue” for raising the issue, that other University staff (not the Regents) were the right people to decide it. Mostly I was told that this was not a topic to bring for discussion at a public meeting and that it was best handled in private discussions internally between County, City and University staff. So here’s the problem with that explanation: those behind-the-scenes discussions, internally among staff, DID HAPPEN, in the spring, and they were unsuccessful.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I now know that staff from Washtenaw OCED did, in fact, approach the University of Michigan about using empty dorms this spring. When students were first sent home, it was clear that these dorms would be empty for some time. The County did privately ask the University about their empty dorms. In those discussions, internally among staff, the University was very unhelpful— responding with question after question until County staff eventually gave up. Communication dragged out over so many weeks that it was effectively a stall. We ended up housing people at a Red Roof Inn because the University of Michigan preferred that its own housing be wasted and sit empty.
A friend actually alerted me to the fact that other communities had already done this, he had read about it happening in northern California. When I looked for that story, I found that Boston, also, had re-purposed empty dorms to shelter people. In both situations, local housing support organizations were able to make arrangements and have people housed in a matter of weeks. Sonoma State University in California is a public school under more direct state control than the University of Michigan— they don’t have a Board of Regents. The governor of California simply directed Sonoma State University to work with local organizations to provide shelter. In Boston, Suffolk University is a private school, but the head of the local health department told me that it is tightly connected to city political leaders. She told me that the Mayor of Boston worked directly with Suffolk University to ask for their help in sheltering people. She emphasized that a project like this was simply a matter of “political will.” I was encouraged.
When my resolution was discussed at City Council, one of my colleagues voted against it, explaining that it was simply the wrong approach, that it wasn’t appropriate for City Council to be meeting with the Regents. The Mayor asked for amendments because it was too “negative” and assumed the likely failure of an in-person semester. I don’t understand either of these arguments. I think elected leaders are exactly the people— the most accountable people— to be raising and discussing issues as important as this one. Who is more accountable to the community than the Regents, who hold publicly elected positions? I also believe that public and visible conversations are the exact right way to raise an issue like this. The whole community should know how the University does or does not prioritize the needs of people who are vulnerable. I also don’t think that the University is so emotionally fragile (or stupid) to be shocked by pessimism about their poorly executed in-person semester.
In response to my resolution, we received a polite letter explaining that the Regents could not meet with us to discuss the issue of emergency shelter. They also assured City staff that they are open to discussing the idea with County departments. We already know that they are open to discussing the idea with the County because they did, months ago, and nothing came of it. Discussing the idea means delaying the idea. This is not news and it is not progress.
Just a few days after we got this sort of non-update, the University announced plans for an online semester and the cancellation of housing contracts. I am now even more determined to put pressure on the University. I approached one of my colleagues on Council — the one who actually voted against my September resolution — and I asked her, “What do you think is the best way to make this happen? If asking for a meeting with the Regents was the wrong approach, what is the better approach?” Her answer to me was that the students have been most effective at pushing the university to make changes in policy, that YOUR voice carries much more weight than anything from the outside. I hope she is right.
So that’s why I’m here. I started scouring lists of University organizations and looking for contacts. I know that you are more than just students, that you are crucial to the functioning of the University’s undergraduate programs. I’ve seen your organization elevate issues for public conversation, so I’m hoping this is an opportunity to raise another one. Like so many issues, I believe this is a matter of “political will.”
On related topics, I want to add— I look forward to comments from the Ann Arbor Tenants Union. Everyone facing eviction absolutely needs an advocate, I believe this should be a basic right. Years ago, when I was in law school, I volunteered with a tenant advocacy project in Baltimore, where we helped people avoid eviction at the City rent court— it was some of the most meaningful work I’ve ever done, on behalf of people who were extremely vulnerable. I don’t know that everyone realizes just how much landlords get away with when tenants don’t know their rights. No one should ever face eviction alone, without advocacy and support.
I also want to comment on one other issue that has come up during this pandemic. This past summer, City Council approved an ordinance that will restrict where and how short-term-rentals can operate. The ordinance mostly eliminates all dedicated, full-time non-owner-occupied AirBnB. When I first raised this issue over a year ago there was significant pushback from a small group of property owners and investors. I consider it a victory that we managed to approve it. However, in Council negotiations, the effective date for this ordinance was pushed out to March 1, 2021. New members of City Council have already expressed a desire to amend it before that date, in order to protect investors. One of my new colleagues has suggested “grandfathering” provisions to protect existing short term rentals. My hope is that the ordinance will NOT be amended — what’s at stake is a couple hundred units of housing that can return to the housing market for year-round residents.
I want to thank you again for having me here and hearing me out. I’m eager to learn from today’s discussion.