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Carolyn Lusch: Communities and choice

BY CAROLYN LUSCH

Published July 9, 2010

I’ve been living in Ann Arbor for about three years now, and I can never get over how lucky I am to be a resident of the city. There are relatively safe, vibrant streets with lots of places I can hang out with my friends. There’s a pretty clean river and tiny random parks all over the place. I have a nice library, understanding clerks who process my late water bills and even city composting. If I were of the older sort and raised a family here, I’d certainly take advantage of the excellent public school system. Given the impressive public services, it’s not a surprise that the waitlist for government-subsidized housing in Ann Arbor is large.

I was startled, however, to find that the list had grown so long, it’s now been closed for three years — with no sign of reopening any time soon. For now, those who require low-income housing are effectively shut out of this city.

This is not to belittle the respectable effort Ann Arbor has put into providing that housing. Compared to other municipalities, Ann Arbor, with 355 units of low-income public housing, does pretty well. Still, if the demand exceeds the available units by so much, we need to rethink the dynamics of housing in Southeast Michigan.

It’s easier to imagine government-subsidized housing in some areas than in others. The sidewalk-less subdivisions of sprawling suburbs fall into the latter category. In such areas, possibilities for low-income housing often do not exist. Municipalities establish zoning restrictions that essentially limit the class of family that can reside there, such as specifying single family housing throughout.

To some, this may seem acceptable. It’s an extension of freedom of association and a product of the market's inner workings. Many believe that if a suburb wants to identify itself by restricting access, as long as it does so in terms that aren’t explicitly race-based, it has every right.

However, thinking about the issue in regional terms brings up some concerns. You may have noticed that in Southeast Michigan, the areas with the most limited resources also are home to the largest number of people who need special assistance (because of extreme poverty, disabilities, language barriers, etc.). One of the reasons cities like Detroit have trouble providing public services and support to their residents is that they have an inflated number of residents who need them. Detroit struggles with its bus system partially because it has so many residents who rely on public transportation. It struggles with its school system partially because it contains so many children whose home conditions preclude concentration on academics. Fair distribution of resources is important, but so is fair distribution of needs.

While the Department of Housing and Urban Development provides grants for low-income housing initiatives, offering low-income housing that is aesthetically pleasing, integrated into the wider community and provided with essential community services does put a financial burden on a city. But the idea is, if everyone shares that burden, it won’t be overwhelming for anyone. This is particularly true for those municipalities blessed with economic strength. They, most definitely, can afford it — monetarily, that is.

But money isn’t the only factor causing places to use restrictive zoning. Wealthy communities don’t attract families just by financial uniformity, but also by a certain level of culture. Understandably, people value having the choice of what kind of individuals live near them and what kind of lifestyle surrounds them. But in doing so, they restrict the choice of families with lower incomes and debilitate neighboring cities. The not-in-my-backyard mentality may make things more comfortable for a municipality’s residents, but it perpetuates the stark divisions of race and class that have existed here for decades.

Some private organizations have worked to pick up the slack that government-run programs do not. Avalon Housing began in 1992 and since then has been working to provide permanent housing and support services to people with low-incomes and disabilities in Washtenaw County. With 324 units of housing integrated into Ann Arbor communities, it just about doubles the availability of low-income housing. Clearly, such non-profit organizations add a vital component to the housing response. But the roles of public and private institutions in creating low-income housing deserve to be further discussed and defined. Executed skillfully by dedicated people, the two sides can complement each other and use their partnership to provide quality low-income housing in communities throughout Southeast Michigan.

Carolyn Lusch can be reached at lcarolyn@umich.edu.