The Michigan Affordability and Advocacy Coalition hosted an Affordability Forum Wednesday night with Democratic University of Michigan Board of Regent candidates Paul Brown and Jordan Acker along with State Rep. Yousef Rabhi.

MAAC Presidents Lauren Schandevel, a Public Policy senior, and Griffin St. Onge, an LSA senior, presented questions and moderated the forum. The discussed topics included finding affordable off-campus housing and dealing with tuition increases.

Brown said the responsibility of the University extends beyond housing for students on campus, encompassing off campus issues as well.

“It is the University’s job and therefore the regents’ job to make sure that housing and food is affordable for students during their whole education period,” Brown said. “For the University or Board of Regents to say, ‘Well, we gave them relatively affordable dorms as freshmen and a meal plan and the last three years are not our responsibility’ – it’s a city issue I think that’s a cop-out.”

One of the questions submitted asked if the University could build new student housing on land the University currently owns, making it environmentally friendly and low cost.

Acker responded the University has allowed the private sector to build in parts of campus like S. University Street and students pay a substantial amount to live in a good location.

“I think there’s an element of planning that needs to go on,” Acker said. “When I hear the amount that people are paying for housing close to campus, it’s become such a premium that it’s really ridiculous.”

Rabhi added the University has land that is underutilized currently in parts of North Campus, especially near Baits.

“The University has a considerable amount of land up there,” Rabhi said. “Some of the more underutilized land the University has is some of the Northwood developments where there’s vast swaths of mowed grass that could be potentially utilized for University students that are housed and families.”

Another question mentioned a U-M Dearborn survey that collected data on student housing and food insecurity. The question posed whether similar information would become available for Ann Arbor and whether any action would be taken.

Brown said the lack of information on Ann Arbor would make improving or helping these marginalized populations difficult.

“I can’t believe there hasn’t been a survey,” Brown said. “How do you understand the group you’re trying to serve if you don’t have the data?”

Rabhi added a Washtenaw County perspective, mentioning there is data and information available on homeless populations in the county but not so much for students.

“The county Human Service net knows a lot about hunger in the community,” Rabhi said. “But there’s a lot of gaps when it comes to the student population in particular.”

Rabhi also mentioned money the county receives for these populations takes into account low-income students.

Many questions brought up also dealt with the changing socioeconomic demographic of the University, including how large parts of the state may view the University as expensive and inaccessible. The median income at the University measures at $154,000. 

Brown compared the differences of students who attend the University based on county.

“You look at the number of students that get admitted from Oakland Country versus Macomb County it’s about half adjusted for population,” Brown said. “This perception is a reality, this is a fact that we are failing in this regard.”

Engineering student Corey Bowen, who is a member of the Graduate Employees’ Organization, asked whether the regent candidates would support the Lecturers’ Employee Organization and GEO bargaining for contracts, including greater health care coverage for transgender members.

Brown voiced strong support for the LEO and GEO unions, referencing the lecturers’ contract bargaining last year.

“I am a member of the LEO union here,” Brown said. “I support every single one of the proposals you made.”

Another question asked whether the Tenants Union would ever be brought back in Ann Arbor, especially in regard to off campus housing. Rents have risen steadily in Ann Arbor in last decade — the median rate for rent in Ann Arbor increased 14 percent from 2010 to 2015 reaching $1,075 per month. 

Rabhi said due to some of the hesitations from the University to fund such a union, students and residents could gather to discuss ideas regarding the issue.

“The Tenants Union was valuable partially because of its independence,” Rabhi said. “I don’t think politicians or University officials can recreate something like the Tenants Union. People in this room need to take it upon themselves to help start something up like that again.”

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