Photo courtesy of Samantha Rich

Members of the University of Michigan Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) staged a demonstration Monday night at the Ann Arbor City Council meeting, attending the meeting with signs reading “Evict landlords” and “Right to renew or get evicted.” Participants hoped to push the council to pass a proposed “right to renew” ordinance. The legislation would require all landlords to offer lease renewal to current tenants before renting to someone new. It would also require that landlords who choose not to renew a tenant’s lease help offset the costs of moving to a new home by providing an assistance payment equal to two months’ rent. 

The “right to renew” campaign comes after City Council passed the Early Leasing Ordinance in July 2021, which prevents landlords from showing properties to prospective tenants more than 150 days before the end of the current lease. 

Since the ordinance was passed, residents and housing activists have pointed to a number of loopholes allowing landlords to avoid Early Leasing Ordinance requirements, including creating waitlists and holding units for new residents before the 150-day mark. 

The more recent push for a “right to renew” began April 10 and proposed the city modify the Early Leasing Ordinance to further bolster housing security. Since then, over 700 individuals have signed a petition calling on the council to pass this legislation. 

Nathan Chesterman, University of Michigan alum who has been organizing with GEO, said concern over this issue is not unique to U-M students or GEO members. 

“This issue affects all renters right now,” Chesterman said. “The area we live in is one where landlords can evict their tenants basically at their discretion, with virtually no consequences. Landlords might say that only a few graduate students care about this issue, but that’s not true. All renters live in the shadow of the possibility that their landlord might displace them for whatever reason.”

Rackham student Claire Arneson said she felt the “right to renew” would not only protect current tenants from eviction but also make it easier for new renters to find housing. 

“Like many Ann Arbor renters, both students and working families and adults, I was subject to signing a lease on a deadline imposed by the offered opportunity to work and study, not my own schedule or desires,” Arneson said. “The proposed right to renew will help both renters new to the area and existing renters by ensuring that leases are not filled more than half a year before they’re scheduled to begin and providing stability for Ann Arbor residents planning their living arrangements.”

Chesterman shared his own experience of being unable to renew his lease for the coming year, despite not breaking any terms of his lease agreement. Chesterman said he felt blindsided by non-renewal and said “right to renew” legislation would help tenants feel more secure in their current housing. 

“This past spring, I emailed my landlord to renew my lease and they told me that they had leased my house to someone else,” Chesterman said. “They had given me no notice that they had listed the house, no notification that it was time to renew the lease and no reason why they had leased my home to someone else.”

Rackham student Amir Fleischmann told City Council he was glad to see them discuss this legislation, but said he felt they should have taken action when the “right to renew” proposal was first brought to their attention in April. 

“(The resolution) is a product of a lot of work on our behalf and we’re really excited to see it moving forward because it’s such a critical piece of legislation,” Fleischmann said. “But time is running out, and to a great extent it has already run out. The new leasing cycle is already upon us. People have already moved out, they’re starting to move in, their new leases will go into effect, and this legislation has not yet passed. What does that mean? Another year and more evictions. Because let’s be clear: non-renewal is eviction.”

Following Fleischmann’s comments to the council, GEO members stood facing the council and the cameras recording the livestream and chanted “What do we want? Right to renew! When do we want it? Now!”

The council passed a resolution from the Ann Arbor Renter’s Commission recommending that the Council adopt “right to renew” legislation, and that any changes to the proposal be written in consultation with the commission. 

Councilmember Elizabeth Nelson, D-Ward 4, said the council is expecting a legal memo from the city attorney’s office on the “right to renew” by Aug. 26 at the latest and hopes to have a first reading of the legislation on the agenda by the council’s first September meeting. 

The council also discussed an ordinance to modify the city’s development code to specify zoning policies for marijuana facilities. The city’s current policy does not include specific provisions on land use for dispensaries and other production facilities. If passed, the ordinance would explicitly prohibit anyone from living in these facilities, require that all purchases and consumption take place indoors — with the exception of curbside pickup — and prohibit unreasonable noise, dust, odors or any other disruptions. 

The same ordinance proposes changes to the city’s landscaping policies, proposing to exclude the width of curb cuts from the measurement between street trees, typically placed 45 feet apart, and outlining specific conditions under which these landscaping policies can be modified. 

In a motion proposed by Councilmember Jeff Hayner, D-Ward 1, the council opted to split the landscaping changes from the marijuana licensing changes into two separate votes. The council passed the marijuana ordinance, with Ali Ramlawi, D-Ward 5, Kathy Griswold, D-Ward 2, and Nelson voting no; the council separately passed the landscaping ordinance, with Hayner voting no. 

The conversation then shifted to an ordinance that aims to reduce the number of unused parking spaces by eliminating parking minimums — zoning policies that often require new developers to build a certain number of parking spaces — and requiring that the size of a new building’s parking lot not exceed the footprint of the building itself. 

Councilmember Travis Radina, D-Ward 3, highlighted the potential community benefits of reducing the number of large parking lots. 

“I have talked about with my neighbors planning our neighborhoods and our community to support businesses like an Argus or a Roos that folks can walk to — these walkable, bikeable neighborhoods with things nearby that not only enrich our community, but become places of gathering and service,” Radina said. “These are the types of changes that are necessary in order for us to plan for that community going forward.”

Councilmembers and public commenters alike expressed their support for this policy, emphasizing the positive environmental impacts and the benefits to the community. Councilmember Erica Briggs, D-Ward 5, said she was energized by the amount of support from the public and feels this is a positive step in the city’s climate policies. 

“We heard a great deal of enthusiasm during public comment, which is really wonderful to see how this has been received by our community,” Briggs said. “I think (the ordinance is) very much in line with the plans that we have recently adopted in terms of our carbon neutrality plan (and) our transportation plan, both of which have called for this, both of which were unanimously adopted at this body and both of which did call upon us to figure out ways to reduce car usage in our community for a variety of good reasons. Climate change is happening and we need to be planning for our future in a way that’s beneficial.”

The parking ordinance was approved, with Hayner voting no out of concern that reducing parking availability may negatively impact people who operate service vehicles and Ann Arbor residents in general. 

Daily Staff Reporter Samantha Rich can be reached at sammrich@umich.edu

Correction 8/17: Nathan Chesterman is not a GEO member.