Every August, Ann Arbor is filled with a rush of commotion as students return to campus. Moving trucks line the inner streets, and students begin the tedious process of lugging mattresses up steep flights of stairs and turning a house into a home for the year.
Yet not even three months after settling in, many students begin the hunt for the next August-to- August lease cycle. Students, though sometimes unsure of what their living situation will look like for the next year, often sign leases simply to ensure that they’ll have a place to stay on or near campus — sometimes with people they aren’t friends with one year later.
Ann Arbor’s city ordinance — established in 2006— currently requires that landlords wait 70 days after tenants sign their lease before showing the property to others or asking the current tenants if they want to sign again. For most students, this means if their lease begins in August, their landlord can begin searching for tenants for the next year starting in late October. This practice continued even during the COVID-19 pandemic last fall, when some students were forced to sign leases without knowing whether classes next year would be online or in-person.
To alleviate rampant student frustration with the Ann Arbor student housing market, the Graduate Employees’ Organization has been collaborating with Ann Arbor City Councilmember Elizabeth Nelson, D-Ward 4, in hopes of implementing a new ordinance that requires landlords to wait at least 240 days before signing or showing a property for the next year.
Rackham student and GEO secretary Amir Fleischmann said his landlord approached him in early November asking him to resign his lease, putting him in a difficult position of resigning for convenience or having to search all over again for a place to live.
“I ended up not wanting to be in that apartment for the following year, and it was not possible for me to get out of them,” Fleischmann said.
Most undergraduate and graduate students sign a lease without knowing what their plans are for the coming year, Fleischmann said. Some students decide to travel abroad or take the semester off to pursue an internship later on in the school year, leaving students bound to a lease regardless of if they decide to reside in the house.
“This forces tenants to make a commitment that is very difficult to get out of, and it puts a lot of pressure on people who really do not know where they’re going to be that far in advance, and it forces people to make difficult decisions that they’re really not prepared to make at that time,” Fleischmann said. “As this current ordinance stands, it gives landlords legal license to bully tenants into resigning their lease before they’re ready.”
Rackham student Ember McCoy said she has experienced problems every year with the housing market since she first moved to Ann Arbor for her master’s degree. In the six years of living in Ann Arbor, McCoy said she has been approached five times by landlords asking her to renew her lease in October.
After their lease started in August 2020, McCoy said she and her sister were approached by their landlord on Oct. 19, which was before the 70-day ordinance currently in place and thus illegal. McCoy said she was asked to renew her lease, notified of an increase in rent and given five days to decide if she and her sister would be living there the following year.
McCoy said her sister was in the process of applying to graduate school and was uncertain if she would be staying in Ann Arbor for the following year. The pair did not see the email from their landlord when it was first sent out five days earlier, and when they opened the email, they realized they had 24 hours to make a decision.
“We just needed more time,” McCoy said. “They gave us 24 hours, and obviously nothing changed about our circumstance within 24 hours, and so they signed our lease to someone else the first week of November for August 2021 to 2022. That was the first time I was hurt by the system. I had known this was an issue and it was always really frustrating to me, but this is the first time that I was personally impacted by it.”
Nelson, who said she has never experienced the Ann Arbor rental market, said she was unaware of the 70-day ordinance before GEO asked for her help. Because an ordinance already exists, Nelson said the next step would be to introduce a resolution or ordinance amendment for a City Council vote.
“When I read the (current) ordinance, I realized we actually took a stab at creating a timeline and it was pitifully short,” Nelson said.
Nelson said the city is legally allowed to restrict the time period that landlords have to wait before showing a property, making this proposal possible.
Nelson said she has met with the city staff in charge of enforcing rental regulations and found that the current ordinance is not heavily regulated. No one has been taken to court or questioned about their violations, Nelson said. At most, the city has received phone calls from tenants reporting their landlords for violating the ordinance, but landlords are rarely held responsible, Nelson said.
“The reason there hasn’t been any meaningful enforcement probably is because the standard is so low that we’ve kind of set the bar so that everybody can easily meet (the 70-day limit), there’s little temptation to follow (the current ordinance) because (70 days) already is such a low bar,” Nelson said.
Nelson said this issue involves finding a balance between both the landlords and their tenants, both of whom have stake in the housing market. Nelson said she is collaborating with city coordinators to determine the limits of the possible new ordinance and how to enforce it.
“This is one of these situations where we’re balancing the interests of the person who owns the property, and the person who is renting the property,” Nelson said. “If we passed a regulation that said the landlord can’t show the property and can’t even ask for renewal until 24 hours before the end of the term of the lease, that would be indefensible because a property owner could argue (that) we had made it impossible for them to use their property.”
Nelson said she met with a landlord who rents out one house in Ann Arbor who said that she never feels the need to harass her tenants because the market is hot, making her confident she can eventually find a student who will be interested in renting the property.
A different landlord, Margaret Wyzlic, marketing manager of Oxford Companies, said that if the number of days required to re-lease changes, they will adhere to the days and continue to respect the city of Ann Arbor’s leasing regulations.
“If that number changes it would give students more time to make a decision,” Wyzlic said, “I think that’s kind of integral to the idea of extending the time frame, which (…) depending on what person you are in the equation may have benefits or drawbacks.. We’re just really happy to support whatever decision is made.”
Wyzlic said Oxford Companies is unsure how the new regulations, if passed, will change the city’s housing market.
“(If the new regulations pass) we will continue to work within whatever regulations are set and continue to do our best within those regulations to show our units to potential tenants,” Wyzlic said. “We love working with University of Michigan students — both undergraduate and graduate students — and we’ll just do our best to continue showing our spaces.”
GEO hopes to see this resolution voted on by the council before the end of the term in 2022, Fleischmann said.
Fleischmann said he is concerned about how the council will approach GEO’s proposal. He said though 54% of Ann Arbor residents are renters, all councilmembers are homeowners, making it possible that City Council will not be attuned to the needs of students and renters.
“Renters are not represented on City Council at all,” Fleischmann said. “And this is a really important constituency, who is really being taken to task by landlords right now. So I hope the (councilmembers) see the power imbalance that exists and understand that they’re there to fight for us, not for the landlord’s pocket.”
Daily Staff Reporter Shannon Stocking can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.