Ann Arbor City Council is introducing a new tenant commission to better represent and protect renters in Ann Arbor — but with non-voting landlord members on the commission too.
This led up to the council approving changes to the Early Leasing Ordinance, which now restricts landlords from showing prospective tenants or entering into new leases for the following year until 150 days before the end of the current lease.
In passing Monday night’s resolution, Ann Arbor became the third city in the nation — after Seattle and King County, Wash. — to implement a tenant commission for increasing discussion around issues related to renters and providing recommendations for City Council on rental policies. However, the other two cities don’t have landlord members, voting or non-voting, as part of their commissions.
Councilmember Travis Radina, D-Ward 3, who is the lead sponsor to the resolution, said it is crucial to amplify the voices of renters while also encouraging a “robust and thoughtful collaboration from all relevant stakeholders,” including landlords.
“We know that too often renters’ voices are overlooked or forgotten in important policy decisions that impact our community on things like housing affordability, access to transportation, land use, public health, public safety and economic development,” Radina said. “And yet until now there has been no formal city body to provide our renters with a true voice in our policy and decision making process. So this is a really big deal tonight.”
The resolution cites a 2019 study from the American Community Survey, which found that 53.3% of housing units in Ann Arbor are rentals, making up the majority of residences in the city.
The survey also estimates 52.6% of rental households in Ann Arbor are paying 30% or more of their gross income in rent, which Radina says has contributed to the affordable housing crisis in the city.
The council then debated the clause in the resolution to include non-voting landlord perspectives to the commission. Councilmember Elizabeth Nelson, D-Ward 4, moved to remove this clause due to concerns about landlord members overpowering tenant perspectives.
“Having landlords at the table versus having the opportunity to come to a renters commission and make public comments and complain or offer perspective in the same way that we heard perspectives in just the last few months — I mean I don’t know that anyone sitting here can really accept that landlords will not be heard unless they’re allowed a seat at the table,” Nelson said. “We heard them loud and clear. They are very well organized.”
Ultimately, Nelson’s amendment to exclude non-voting landlord members failed 5-6, with Councilmembers Erica Briggs, D-Ward 5; Jeff Hayner, D-Ward 1; Lisa Disch D-Ward 1; Julie Grand, D-Ward 3; Ali Ramlawi, D-Ward 5; and Radina voting no.
Members of the University of Michigan Graduate Employees’ Organization called in to Monday’s meeting to express their support for the new commission. Rackham student Ember McCoy told the council she supports the new commision, especially amid a lawsuit from landlords who are fighting against the Early Leasing Ordinance.
But McCoy said the power dynamics are disproportionately against tenants and is worried about Ann Arbor being the first city to implement a landlord voice on a renters commission.
“The fact that landlords are now suing the city over the changes only highlights the power that landlords think they have in the unjust conditions that renters have been dealing with for decades,” McCoy said. “I do want to note that I’m glad that landlords are at least non-voting members of the commission, but I too am worried about the precedent that was set for Ann Arbor to be the first renters commission to have seats for landlords.”
Ramlawi said he disagreed with Nelson’s suggestion to remove landlord members because having perspectives from all parties involved is important when discussing policy changes that impact both tenants and landlords.
“These are non-voting members to the commission,” Ramlawi said. “I think it’s important to get that perspective whether you like it or you don’t like it. I think it’s important that we have more people under the tent.”
Following what Grand called a “fairly hostile” conversation between councilmembers and landlords this past summer in discussion of the Early Leasing Ordinance, Grand said building trust and strengthening communication can help develop more productive policymaking.
“I just think that some of the issues that we’ve seen with the way that landlords have been communicating — and frankly in a fairly hostile way at this table — could possibly be mitigated if we start building some trust and communication,” Grand said. “And having that perspective about what a certain policy would look like on the ground to implement, understanding some of the barriers, especially as a non-voting member, I think this is a compromise.”
Councilmember Linh Song, D-Ward 2, supported Nelson’s proposal to remove landlord members. Song added that there will be room in the future to revisit the commission’s bylaws to introduce landlord perspectives if deemed necessary.
“I’m a little worried about the power dynamics, and I think that’s what the amendment is speaking to,” Song said. “I’m kind of struggling to understand why we’re a little bit hesitant to at least try to see if maybe with the commission’s bylaws and just revisit with renters and see if they see it really fit to include landlords then.”
The council then discussed how the new commission should elect members. In response, Nelson proposed an amendment allowing the commission to have a voice in nominating members. The amendment ultimately failed 5-6 with Nelson, Ramlawi, Hayner and Councilmember Kathy Griswold, D-Ward 2, voting yes.
Ramlawi also introduced an amendment to include recommendations from the city’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion coordinator in considering nominations for the renters commission. The amendment was supported by the council without further discussion or vote.
During the public hearing portion of the meeting, Ann Arbor resident Michelle Ryan Hughes called in to say she believes the council made a “grave error” in not approving the removal of landlord voices on the commission.
“If we want to have a renters commission where renters can advocate for their own interests, they need to be the ones who are on the commission, not landlords,” Hughes said. “If there are landlords on that commission, then I’m not sure what its purpose is.”
Daily News Editor Kristina Zheng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.