Ann Arbor’s (lack of) affordable housing

The city of Ann Arbor had another quixotic forum on sustainability on April 12.

As reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, Ann Arbor Housing Commission executive director Jennifer Hall oriented attendees to the context of trends in the city’s housing costs:

Ann Arbor’s owner-occupied housing market is getting more expensive compared to other areas nationally. According to data from the National Housing Conference, in 2011 metro Ann Arbor (Washtenaw County) ranked as the 87th most expensive housing market among the nation’s 209 metro areas, Hall reported. The median home price for the Ann Arbor metro area was $162,000. Just two years earlier, the median home price was $136,000, and metro Ann Arbor ranked 132 among the 209 metro areas, she said…

There’s a growing need for more affordable housing in this community, Hall said. A study conducted by the Washtenaw Housing Alliance showed that in 2004, 2,756 people in Washtenaw County reported that they had experienced homelessness. In 2010, that number had grown to 4,738…

Hall also observed that as people search for affordable housing and move further away from where they’d prefer to live, they often increase the amount they pay for transportation to get to work or to necessary services, like grocery stores. That increased cost often isn’t factored in to their housing decisions, she noted, and the more distant location can end up being more expensive overall…

It often seems like the average senior citizen in Ann Arbor is among the city’s most vociferous opponents of densification.  Consequently, it was refreshing to read the commentary at the meeting by former Ann Arbor City Councilmember Eunice Burns, who “described how she’d sold her house to her daughter and son-in-law, and now lives in the home’s garage that was renovated into an apartment for her”:

But because of existing zoning constraints, only a family member can live in an accessory dwelling, she noted – no one will be able to use the apartment when she’s gone. The city’s ordinances need to be revised to allow for more types of dwellings like this for a wider range of people, Burns said…

She recalled that when the city tried to change zoning for accessory dwelling units in the past, it had met with resistance…

The derailed effort that Burns mentioned would have changed the city’s zoning to make it possible for non-family members to live in accessory apartments.

Wendy Rampson, the city’s planning manager, told the audience that the concern had primarily been about neighborhoods close to campus becoming too densely populated…

Another attendee, UM planning professor Doug Kelbaugh, noted

The carbon footprint of those living in the suburbs is dramatically higher than for urban residents… Increasing urban density would have the single greatest impact on reducing that carbon footprint – saving energy, the amount of land that’s used for development, the amount time people spend commuting, and more.

He underlined the central irony of this forum, which is how the city’s efforts toward sustainability can be canceled out by its land use regime:

Kelbaugh said he loves the city’s parkland, but he sometimes thinks there’s too much of it – what the city really needs is more people living downtown. Perhaps parkland is being over-prioritized.

This thought often occurs to me when I drive or bike through the city’s northeast quadrant — the part of town roughly bounded by Huron Parkway to the south and Maiden Lane to the west.  Much of this area is occupied by UM’s North Campus, which provides a beautiful pastoral setting but is, environmentally, a disaster, and increasingly a nightmare for the university from a logistical and transportation standpoint.   Plymouth Road’s commercial strip and the residential neighborhoods to its north are isolated from the rest of town by the finger of countryside.  Huron High School’s rural setting likewise precludes walking to school for most of its students, forcing them to drive or take the bus, increasing traffic congestion and needless costs to the public school district.

Returning to previous speakers’ theme of affordability,

Regarding sustainability and affordable housing, Kelbaugh said the lowest-hanging fruit to address that issue is accessory dwellings. The previous attempt to revise zoning and allow for more flexibility in accessory units was shot down by a “relatively small, relatively wealthy, relatively politically-connected group,” he said. “I don’t think it was a fair measure of community sentiment.”…

There cannot be too many people living downtown, Kelbaugh concluded – the more, the better – and Ann Arbor is far from hitting the upper level of the population it can sustain.

I was reminded of the response of frequent Chronicle commenter Rod Johnson to another recent article on that site concerning a new development off South Main Street:

I’m generally pro-density downtown, but I have to hope that 618 S. Main falls through. It’s just so out of scale with the rest of the neighborhood, just like the Moravian etc. were. I’m not sure exactly where my intuitive boundary of downtown is, but it’s certainly north of Madison.

Acknowledging the aesthetic preference for keeping the neighborhood “at scale,” I would think there’d be a trade-off in the form of additional property taxes & spending at nearby businesses from the residents at 618 S. Main.  It’s easy to forget there are opportunity costs to arbitrarily confining denser development within what is traditionally designated as downtown.

As I’ve often said before, the goal of housing affordability in Ann Arbor continues to be undermined by incumbent homeowners and other residents who may not even live  near downtown, but whose aesthetic and driving preferences  lead them to rigidly cling to the status quo.  Solutions like relaxing the restrictions on accessory units could permit greater density while preserving the scale and historic built environment that preservationists love.  But an outspoken lobby already considers downtown too “congested,” who profess a desire to maintain a “vibrant Main Street” while somehow getting rid of all those pesky humans who keep it vibrant and help businesses there stay open.  (I would encourage them to relocate to downtown Detroit, where they can enjoy the emptiness and ample parking they strive for.)

This fear-driven mentality is what advocates for housing affordability and environmental sustainability are up against.


7 responses to “Ann Arbor’s (lack of) affordable housing

  1. Great article. Do you have any more information about the proposal to change the zoning rules for accessory dwellings?

  2. Great article. Do you have any more information about the proposal to change the zoning rules for accessory dwellings and it’s ultimate failure?

  3. Thanks for raising this again. Your posts are always thoughtful, even if I sometimes feel a bit uncomfortable because the views expressed feel pointed somewhat at my age cohort.

    As you saw in the comments on the Chronicle story, I was beat up after I said that I was coming around on accessory apartments after hearing some arguments by Richard Murphy that they might be a good compromise to provide more housing while still maintaining traditional residential neighborhoods. I haven’t brought up the subject since then.

    I was very familiar with the opposition to the accessory apartment proposal when it came up 10 years or so ago. It was not just Burns Park residents but also those in the northeast section of the city, who had a bad experience with a woman who turned her single-family house into a boarding house by renting out every room to a different renter (she actually moved into the garage). This meant about 10 more cars along a short stretch of what had been a peaceful block of single-family houses, as well as strange hours, etc. The neighborhood had a hard time getting rid of this because it was not an accessory apartment situation but merely “renting rooms in my residence”, which is legal.

    One question is how you can keep accessory apartments from becoming a duplex, thus violating zoning, and how that affects the way we zone residential neighborhoods.

    Keep on posting – you bring value to the discussion.

  4. As a Realtor in Ann Arbor for the last two years and a property manager for the eight years previous to that I am literally shocked at where property values and rental values currently are in Ann Arbor. When I moved to downtown Ann Arbor 10 years ago it just seemed like there was more room for just “regular” people that worked “regular” jobs. Ten years later I can tell you that that has changed dramatically. Not only is it too expensive for “regular” (by regular I mean common folk that make $40,000 or less per year) people to live in the city but the increase in expensive high rise apartments seems to be the only housing on the upswing in this city. Renting a two bedroom apartment at $1,600 per month or a one bedroom at $1,000 is just not realistic for the common guy.

    So, I believe what we need to do as individuals, as Realtors and as common folk is look to the East “Ypsi”. With increased focus on improving public transportation in Washtenaw county busing and possibly rail transit into Ann Arbor has become increasingly relevant. I love selling amazing houses in Ypsi to my young smart and motivated clients that are paying $700 per month to live in a great home that would be completely out of their reach in Ann Arbor. Check out my blog for info about our great city and we hope that more of you can see the value and beauty and the history of our great city (shameless plug)

  5. Welcome to the blog, Tyler. I agree, Ypsi is ripe to take in those priced out of Ann Arbor. I am hearing anecdotally of, for lack of a better word, gentrification.

  6. Pingback: Back from the dead (The ghost of Christmas present) | Motown To Tree Town

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