In November 2018, about 4,300 people from the Washtenaw County area applied for 600 spots on the Ann Arbor Housing Commission’s limited housing choice voucher waitlist, according to an MLive report. Before November, when the waitlist was available for five days, the voucher waitlist had not been open since 2012.
The high demand for vouchers reflects Ann Arbor’s rising housing prices and the increasing desire for affordable housing solutions. A report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found home sales in the city increased by 4 percent from January to December of 2015, with an average home sale price of $235,200. Currently, the median home value in the state of Michigan is around $150,000.
Jennifer Hall, the executive director for the Ann Arbor Housing Commission, said in an email interview that affordable housing projects are actually beneficial for both residents and the city. Hall noted programs like the voucher waitlist reduce the number of people who have to find alternate living situations.
“When people cannot pay their rent, they end up losing their housing and end up moving in with family and friends or living in their vehicles or living on the street,” Hall said. “It is much less expensive to build housing than it is to provide emergency services to homeless households in shelters, schools, hospitals and jails.”
Housing choice vouchers are subsidies given by the federal government to assist low-income families with demonstrated need. Public housing agencies, which are specific to each county, manage the vouchers. According to a fact sheet from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the individual public housing agencies determine a family’s eligibility for a housing voucher and ask that each family allocate 30 percent of their income to rent and utilities.
According to Hall, more than 90 percent of Washtenaw County households that make less than $20,000 spend more than half of their income on rent. Hall said the high cost of living in Ann Arbor is due in part to the University, which is the largest employer in the community and often forces low-income residents to seek housing elsewhere.
“The University does not pay property taxes to support the city’s infrastructure and continues to purchase private properties, which removes them from the tax rolls,” Hall said. “The University continues to increase student enrollment and hire more faculty and staff without providing additional housing opportunities in the community. It’s simple supply and demand and the demand is far outpacing supply, which drives up housing costs for everyone.”
Lauren Schandevel, Public Policy senior and chair of Central Student Government’s Food Insecurity and Affordability Task Force, echoed Hall’s statement and said the affordable housing crisis can even affect areas outside of Ann Arbor.
“There aren’t enough dorms for the students we are admitting, and that’s a huge problem,” Schandevel said. “But also Ann Arbor is becoming increasingly expensive, so students have to move far away from campus or to Ypsilanti, which is subsequently gentrifying Ypsilanti, which is a city-university dynamic going on that makes it really unaffordable to live near campus.”
A few weeks ago, Schandevel and the other members of the task force contacted a pastor at a local church to turn that church into an affordable housing complex for students in need of more low-cost housing. Schandevel also noted how most of the solutions to affordable housing are organized and implemented by students rather than the University administration itself.
“None of this stuff is initiated by the University, which is a huge problem,” Schandevel said. “If it’s students doing all the work, there’s only so much we can do.”
In the past year, a variety of student housing developments have been proposed in Ann Arbor with mixed success. These proposals include a plan for 19 units designated as affordable housing for low-income students.
Hall said the city has taken steps to fix the issue of affordable housing but has not yet been able to address the needs of all residents. She said the city’s current measures, which include donating over $1 million per year to local nonprofits, do not confront the root causes of housing unaffordability.
“The root cause is that the housing stock in the community does not match the income of the community,” Hall said. “We either need to increase the amount of housing stock that is affordable to low-income households and/or people need to make a living wage so that they can afford the housing that is available.”
Susan Beckett, publisher at Groundcover News, a news outlet focusing on the needs of low-income Ann Arbor residents, said the plans currently in place for affordable housing were made 15 years ago and are no longer sufficient. She also noted how people from across the country apply for housing choice vouchers in Washtenaw County because there are no restrictions on where applicants’ geographic location is.
“It was done with these low-income housing tax credits, which only required those places to stay affordable for 15 to 30 years,” Beckett said. “So that’s one thing. And there aren’t enough housing choice vouchers available and then the way those things work is that anyone can apply for a housing choice voucher anywhere in the country, they have to live in whatever place they first came from for a year, but after that they can transfer it anywhere. So people who live in places where housing choice vouchers have never come up because they’re in such high demand, they apply for them no matter where they come from.”
Beckett, who said the high number of applicants indicate that the system is “highly distressed,” also highlighted how the U.S. government as a whole is often unwilling to spend money on housing subsidies. She said this lack of funding contributes to affordable housing crises across the country.
“We’ve got a Congress that has been unwilling to spend money on anything except tax cuts for quite a long time,” Beckett said. “I don’t think it’s that they don’t want to spend it on affordable housing — if it’s not a tax cut, they don’t want to spend it at all. But the other side of it is that a lot of them associate subsidized housing with housing projects and that being a failure, and nobody wants to be part of a failure. So I think part of it is a matter of education, letting them build places that have done integrated housing — it works.”