In an effort to increase student engagement in local and national politics, local elected officials — including State Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor — participated in a panel discussion Monday evening as a part of a Q&A Representative Roundtable. The event was the first segment in the Central Student Government’s Civil Engagement Series, which aims to connect University of Michigan students with local government officials.
The event focused on the relationship between the University and local policymakers as well as student affordability in Ann Arbor, among other issues.
LSA senior Morgan Solomon, government relations coordinator for CSG, helped organize the series and said she hoped the panel would encourage student involvement in national and local politics.
“I split it into a series of six events, some more general, some focus on local politics, while some are focused on the federal government and executive decision-making,” Solomon said. “And then others are more focused on themed events like racial justice and DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) or climate justice and sustainability.”
Solomon also said she hopes these events inspire students to become more informed about local and national issues.
“I think this group of events will hopefully reach an audience that cares about these issues,” Solomon said. “But also an audience of people that are interested (in) learning more about these issues but don’t know where to turn. And hopefully they can find some answers in this week of events.”
City Councilmember Elizabeth Nelson, D-Ward 4, one of the panelists, said the easiest way to get involved is to contact local officials who are engaged in the decision-making for the local community.
“The thing is that at this local level, we’re all really accessible,” Nelson said. “That’s one of the things that I find really exciting about local government, is that I’m regularly just getting a phone call from somebody who is so directly connected to the decision I’m about to make.”
Washtenaw County Commissioner Sue Shink said students should find ways to work with the city.
“Students have special skill sets,” Shink said. “We’re happy to try to take advantage of your skill set if you want to work with us because there’s plenty of work to be done.”
The representatives at the panel were then asked how local governments and the University can work together to create more affordable housing solutions. Hayner said he believes the first step in solving this issue is urging the University to take responsibility for the demand for housing it creates in the city.
“I really think the University needs to start taking some responsibility for the pressures that they put on our housing, not just the number of people who come here as students, but also as workers and as professors,” Hayner said.
Nelson echoed this statement, saying the city’s housing market should warrant more attention from the University. In early November, Nelson brought a resolution to City Council urging the University to provide emergency shelter for Ann Arbor’s homeless population in residence halls, a proposal the University has acknowledged but not explicitly committed to. Nelson cited the University’s role in the Ann Arbor housing market as reason for supporting the city.
“We’re told…that (local housing)is not really (the University’s) primary mission,” Nelson said. “Well, their primary mission is teaching students who need to live somewhere. And so I think the housing is very directly related to the primary mission of the University, and it makes a whole lot of sense for them to use their heavy pocketbook to invest in this.”
In an interview with The Daily in December, University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said the University is in discussions with the county’s Shelter Association about the possibility of opening University housing to the city’s homeless population.
“The University has been in contact with the county officials at the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, which actually operates the shelters in the city,” Fitzgerald said. “The University has been in touch with those officials to try to see, to better understand what their needs are, and if there’s a way that the University might be helpful.”
Councilmember Jeff Hayner, D-Ward 1, also said the city and county need to invest more in public transit, an important step toward creating more affordable housing options around the University.
“If we made improvements in transit, then we could have improvements in housing in other parts of the community,” Hayner said.
When asked by students how the city will be able to invest in more affordable grocery options that are in walking-distance to campus, Hayner said one step toward fixing the problem would be to reassess city zoning boundaries. When developers claim a property as mixed-use, meaning they can be used for multiple different purposes, the land often gets filled with expensive housing and very little commercial property, Hayner said.
“We’re just not going to get the kind of community we want if we allow these (developments) to slip through like that,” Hayner said. “(Corporations and developers) are gaming our system for profit is what’s happening.”
Rabhi said affordable and accessible grocery options are essential, particularly for low-income families and businesses who have been ushered out of the community in recent years due to high rent prices. While a small-format Target store plans to open downtown in the coming months, the city still lacks affordable grocery options within walking distance of campus.
“When groceries cost too much, you price people out just as much as rent prices people out,” Rabhi said. “And so it’s not enough to have grocery stores downtown, you have to have affordable groceries for everyone.”
Nelson said an accessible grocery store would be a resource, not just to the students, but to all city residents.
“There would be a huge value to the city finding a way to subsidize a grocery store in some way,” Nelson said. “Just recognizing the benefit of it as a local resource.”
The panelists concluded by emphasizing the importance of student involvement in local issues.
“There’s so much to work on,” Rabhi said. “We need you to be engaged and involved in the process of fighting for these things to create a more just future for all of us.”
Daily Staff Reporter Paige Hodder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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