For years, we’ve all felt it. Life seems to be getting more and more expensive. And for years — for most of us — complaining about low pay, car payments and rising housing costs seemed to be the solution.
Earlier this year, Ann Arbor was ranked the eighth-most economically segregated city in the nation. We’re definitely a culture and a generation that loves our news in rankings and list form. And sure enough, this news went viral.
Now I appreciate any wake-up call, Buzzfeed-style or otherwise. But simply being ranked eighth-worst doesn’t tell the full story. What does economic segregation really mean in Ann Arbor?
A desirable city attracts people who can choose to live anywhere. And people who can choose to live anywhere make a city even more desirable. At first glance, it’s a nice problem to have. But it’s also a cycle that has a lot of unintended consequences — consequences disproportionately felt by those who don’t have the luxury of choice.
In any city, there’s always visible poverty. We’re quite aware of the fact that there are residents who live on our streets. Unfortunately, it’s usually an awareness measured only in spare change. But it’s the economic hardship that we don’t see, the hardship faced by neighbors and coworkers, that’s the most pervasive and toxic to a healthy community.
Since 1979, the top 10 percent of Ann Arbor incomes have jumped almost 19 percent. That’s meaningful economic growth that you can be proud of. But that growth is matched by a staggering drop in income for the bottom 10 percent of our community — a drop of more than 14 percent. I have a hard time being proud of growth if it isn’t felt by my neighbor. And neighbors aren’t feeling that growth. In fact, they’re feeling the opposite.
There’s a timeless maxim that says work is the greatest form of welfare. But not all work is created equal, and that inequality is felt by many people. Prior to taxes, a couple both working minimum-wage jobs, with two kids, would need to spend about 44 percent of their annual combined income on a one-bedroom apartment in Ann Arbor. If they wanted to give their kids a separate room to share, that number jumps to about 58 percent, nearly double what the federal government defines as remotely affordable. That doesn’t really leave room in the budget for a car, let alone food. For the wage-earner — the person who waits our tables, serves our coffee or cleans our classrooms — life in Ann Arbor seems increasingly impossible.
But while those numbers are alarming, the story is more complicated than the richest and the poorest. As the gap between the top and bottom of income grows, so too does the size of its middle. In Ann Arbor, the starting salary of a public school teacher before taxes is just over $38,000 — still only half the median income of the city. To live in that same one-bedroom apartment, a new teacher would need to spend nearly 40 percent of his or her annual salary on rent alone. Professionals who once lived comfortably in communities are being pushed out. Clearly, there is a “Missing Middle” in the housing market.
As of now, Ann Arbor’s solution to rising costs and increasing inequality is to export people to Ypsilanti. Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti may only be 10 miles apart, but our neighbor can feel a world away. With average rental rates hanging about $200 per month lower than equivalent units in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti has become our affordable housing option.
As of now, Ann Arbor’s solution to the 10 miles separating our two communities has been expanded public transit. I believe public transit to be a public good — one worthy of investment. But this isn’t a sustainable solution. It’s a bandage on a wound that’s bleeding human capital, draining our community of economic opportunity and dismantling our inclusive character.
The solution has to be holistic. It has to take wage and transit and housing into account. It has to be thoughtful in design and decisive in implementation.
This is a crisis affecting every city across the country. As we graduate, look for work and decide where we settle, it’s a crisis that will affect each of us.
Ann Arbor City Council has pledged to do its part by creating 2,800 new units of affordable housing in the next 20 years. This can’t be lip service. This goal has to be matched with clear resolve and opportunities taken.
It’s a complex issue that has to be approached very intentionally. But we can tackle that in my next column. For now, simply put, if you work in a community or serve a community, you deserve the opportunity to live in that community.
Unfortunately for many, that opportunity is fading.
Zachary Ackerman is an LSA senior and member-elect of the Ann Arbor City Council. He will take office Nov. 16, representing Ward 3. He can be reached at email@example.com.