From the Daily: Room for improvement with affordable housing

BY THE MICHIGAN DAILY

Published September 13, 2009

When designing an affordable housing complex, one might think it important for low-income families to actually be able to fit in the apartments. But if residents have their way, overblown concerns about the height of the Near North affordable housing project on Main Street will force the city to scale back the building, making the individual apartments too small for low-income families. And if Ann Arbor's City Council sits on the proposal much longer, the project may forfeit tax benefits and become less financially viable. City Council needs to approve an appropriately large Near North by the end of the month to provide low-income families much-needed housing downtown.

The Near North building would provide housing for low-income residents and homeless individuals. Plans include 25 regular units and 14 supportive units that would be specifically set aside for homeless persons who are disabled or addicted to alcohol or drugs. All units would be for those who make between 30 and 50 percent of the median income. But a group of residents signed a petition in opposition to the plan for the building, citing the building’s proposed height as the main concern. The petition means that eight city council votes instead of a simple majority will be required to pass the plan.

Concerns about the height of the building overlook the benefits of building up. Height caps in the downtown area restrict the amount of people who can live in the city. This pushes lower-income residents to the outer limits of the Ann Arbor and creates communities that are segregated based on socioeconomic status. Worse still, those on the outskirts of town have to pay more to commute into the city, further widening the economic gap. The city of Ann Arbor should foster cohabitation of all types of people, and keeping buildings arbitrarily low to the ground works against this goal.

As a result of the height complaints, the developers have lowered the building plan from five stories to four. This means that all of the units will now be one-bedroom apartments instead of the previously planned mix of one and two bedroom apartments, effectively excluding low-income families from living there. It’s a terrible shame that low-income families will lose access to this housing just because of some residents misguided obsession with “preserving the city’s aesthetic.” Weighed against the merits of having multi-bedroom apartments for low-income residents, lowering the building’s proposed height by one story seems laughable.

The Near North development project outline is now on the agenda for the Sept. 21 Ann Arbor City Council meeting, a little over a week before the state Housing Association’s deadline for tax cuts on affordable housing. City Council should approve the development plan before it misses out on these tax breaks. And despite what residents may think about limiting the height of buildings, City Council should approve a plan that establishes plenty of space for low-income families.

While it’s certainly true that low-income residents need more affordable housing, it’s important for the city to remember its students. After all, students drive down Ann Arbor’s average income, causing the city to get more money for affordable housing projects. It’s only fair that the city spend some of its resources to provide better housing for struggling students, too.