Ann Arbor City Council convened Tuesday evening to discuss the Housing and Human Services Advisory Board’s financial constraints, including cutbacks on housing vouchers and the council’s vote to amend the city’s zoning ordinance, which prohibits front yard installments of solar panels.

According to Anne Bannister, D-Ward 1, the Housing and Human Services Advisory Board discussed during their meeting on Feb. 9 how funds from the mental health millages—a new tax approved in last November’s midterm elections—will be spent in the 2019 fiscal year to support the Affordable Housing Fund. The millage was projected to raise $15 million in sum. 

“That’s an eight-year millage and we’re expecting a million dollars coming from the 40 percent designated (for) affordable housing,” Bannister said. “Of that money, we are recommending to council 25 percent pass through supportive services with a handful of nonprofits in tow provide services on site of the housing commission and the other 75 percent of the million dollars would go to the Affordable Housing Fund.”

Zachary Ackerman, D-Ward 3, highlighted though the housing commission has been successful with rehabilitating affordable housing units, their difficult financial position may restrict them from continuing to provide Section 8 housing vouchers — a primary function of the commission.

“Over the course of the next months, we will better understand what Congress intends to do with our Section 8 program, but it’s looking like cuts of at least 10 percent, which looks like a real effect on our housing commission and our ability to provide housing vouchers for people to live in our community who may not otherwise be able to,” Ackerman said.

Ackerman emphasized the commission’s current concern to ensure they can support their own regulatory costs.

“The result is a very fiscally responsible manner, the housing commission has looked inward about how to keep their house in order and has decided to focus revenues on ensuring they can handle their administrative costs,” Ackerman said.

However, Ackerman also stressed the significant role local service providers play in Ann Arbor and their reliance on the commission’s funds.

“There are eight service providers in the community who do tremendous good staffing after-school programs and support programs at our various housing commission properties,” Ackerman said. “They may be looking to us for support to continue those services which are absolutely necessary for our affordable housing system.”

Ackerman said the legislation passed on the mental health millage from the past year will aid the commission through their financial struggle.

“Fortunately, during the Trump administration, we passed a mental health millage that will help us carry our efforts forward,” Ackerman said. “The Housing and Human Services Board will be working on a resolution expressing some guidance to make sure the housing commission remains afloat.”

The Council also voted on an ordinance to amend a chapter of the city’s zoning ordinance. The ordinance passed with eight votes in favor and two votes opposed.

The ordinance supports the efficient use of solar energy systems and outlines guidelines for their siting, design and installation. Within these standards, the ordinance allows ground-mounting solar panels on the rear or side yards of single-family homes, but prohibits the installation of panels in front yards.

Ackerman expressed his support for the ordinance and need for clarity in the current zoning ordinance.

“I think that accessory structures are a blind spot in our zoning ordinance when it comes to single-family homes,” Ackerman said. “They allow for 21-foot structures to be put in place. But for the reasons I’ve stated tonight, I will be voting for this ordinance as written today.”

However, Ann Arbor resident Ernest Figueroa brought up his disapproval of the ordinance and desire to install solar panels in front yards rather than limiting homeowners.

“What I can’t understand is that our neighbors simply don’t like the aesthetics of solar panels in front yards,” Figueroa. “It appears that it’s the aesthetic of an open, green front yard. Working with a landscape architect, we can put solar installation in the front yard. We’re simply trying to do what we think is right and according to our conscious.”

Yet, Jane Lumm, I-Ward 2, emphasized the community’s commitment to the beauty of the residential neighborhoods and supported the ordinance’s limit to only side and rear panel installation.

“There’s a clear lesson learned here: The aesthetics and character of our neighborhood is something our residents care deeply about and that shouldn’t come as a surprise to us,” Lumm said. “It’s a major contributor to our quality of life. We clearly need to engage the community and ask them what they think.”

However, Chip Smith, D-Ward 5, emphasized the city’s need for community-level solar to support residents who own properties unfit for solar panel installations.

“I view climate change as the most serious existential threat that we face and I think that aesthetics versus presenting somebody with no other options, the opportunity to create renewable energy is a mistake,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, we have DTE, it has not communicated a willingness to partner with us for community solar.”

Moving forward, Ackerman highlighted the next steps the Council should take toward improving zoning and solar energy.

“One is figuring out an approach to accessories in front yards and to leave it to be one of the small pieces of our zoning that puts a lot of the character in our neighborhoods at risk,” Ackerman said. “The second is doubling down on our efforts around climate change. Any ability to act on the environment in a concrete way that speaks to your property, I think it has to be matched with double the resolve to do things as a community of the properties affected to meet those residents goals.”

These goals involve providing resources to support the community as a whole, including residents who may not be able to fund solar energy on their own.

“This includes things such as continuing to fight interpretations of solar taxation to make it more economically viable for homeowners to put solar panels on their roofs,” Ackerman said. “Things like figuring out legal structure to support the community solar so that people can pool the resources and build solar panels should their properties not permit it or their pocketbooks not allow it individually.”

Ackerman also emphasized how funding from the mental health millage will be used to reach these community goals toward sustainable energy.

“Finally, finding significant dollars to invest in climate action funding, like we will be with our rebate from our mental health millage, which $900,000 a year will be directed toward climate action finding in tangible and meaningful ways that speak to individual property owners, the community at large and business owners,” Ackerman said.

Overall, the community is dedicated to improving their local environment and doing whatever they can to use clean energy.

“I am personally deeply committed to the cause of climate change,” Figueroa said. “Whenever we can, we try to reduce our carbon footprint.”

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