On Tuesday night, a town hall meeting hosted by Ward 5 precinct delegates of Washtenaw County took place at the Ann Arbor District Library’s Westgate Branch. The meeting focused on the issue of housing affordability in Ann Arbor.

Guest panelists at the meeting included Chip Smith, D-Ward 5, and Ali Ramlawi, D-Ward 5, from Ann Arbor City Council; Teresa Gillotti, director of Washtenaw County Office of Community & Economic Development; Jennifer Hall, executive director of Ann Arbor Housing Commission; Michael Appel, Avalon Housing senior developer and Develop Detroit senior project manager and Peter Allen, developer and Ross lecturer. 

The meeting started with a presentation on affordable housing and how different variations of it apply to different groups such as low-income groups, elders, people with disabilities and working and lower-middle class. During the presentation, affordable housing was defined in two ways: Housing costing less than 30% of a household’s gross annual income or a combination of housing and transportation that, in total, costs less than 45% of the gross annual income.

“If you are a renter, that includes utilities,” Hall said. “If you are a homeowner, that includes your mortgages, taxes and insurance … another way to think about it to also include transportation. … Why that is important is if you live in downtown Ann Arbor and work in downtown Ann Arbor? You can probably spend more on your housing than your car, but if you live in a suburb getting to your job or school, you are going to have transportation cost built-in.” 

Gillotti explained the severity of Ann Arbor’s current housing crisis with a graph showing only about 26,000 people who work in Ann Arbor also live in the city, while the other 89,000 are either unable or unwilling to afford housing and chose to commute daily.

The first question the panel received asked about the biggest obstacle that is obstructing Ann Arbor from achieving affordable housing. Gillotti answered, saying it is the private real estate sector.

“The private sector is able to access capital quickly to be able to acquire properties, whereas those of us who work in the affordable housing arena, we actually have a complicated, years-long process to acquire capital to purchase any kind of property,” Gillotti said.

Gillotti said the real estate market is high-risk and volatile, which makes it difficult for private developers to lower their housing price without subsidies.

“For anyone who’s dealt with real estate, it is very high risk,” Gillotti said. “It is site-specific and a competitive marketplace, so private developers are not going to be able to provide affordable housing if the numbers don’t work.”

When asked how zoning affects affordable housing, Appel explained zoning differences are what make affordable housing possible in certain areas and not feasible in others.

“If you look at the map, Ward 5 has more affordable housing units as compared to rest of the city,” Appel said. “If you exclude the co-ops, that’s even stronger, and that has to do with the zoning.”

The panel also discussed the impact of the University on the housing market and specifically how the growth in student population has driven up the price of housing.

Appel said the city has large areas which can be used for affordable housing, but since they are zoned as single-family units, they are not allowed to be used in such a way. 

“The price of one bedroom has increased from $800 to $1,500,” Appel said. “Students are well funded, and their parents are willing to spend however much to keep their children close to campus.”

The section ended with panelists addressing the rise of “not in my backyard” sentiment, an ideology of opposition from residents to a proposed development in their local area. NIMBYism opposes affordable housing units being placed in a community because its proponents believe those units lead to higher crime rates and put an unnecessary burden on the community.

“The most important thing is communication and open dialogue,” Smith said. “So, when I can call and talk to Jennifer (Hall) and say ‘Hey, I had a constituent reach out to me — we have this concern — can we have a sit-down neighborhood meeting?’ Often times the neighborhood doesn’t know who to talk to or doesn’t feel comfortable to reach out to organizations.”

After the discussion section, Allen gave a presentation on his solution to the housing crisis. He proposed redevelopment of all public parking space into high-density housing units and proposed to move parking underground.

“This is a high-density solution, and Ann Arbor hates high-density,” Allen said. “But it is one of the ways to address affordability and sustainability. You got to have high density.”

The panel addressed concerns from the audience and discussed future plans of dealing with the housing issue. Allen said a zoning change is needed.

“If you leave it to the private sector, it won’t get done,” Allen said. “It is just too easy to make too much money building private sector houses, so it’s got to be a zoning change. It’s got to be mandated that (buildings will have) 20% affordable units and 80% market price units.”

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