Editor’s Note: The sources Ethan Jones, John Doe and James Leo, referenced in this article, have had their names changed in order to protect their identities and housing. The Michigan Daily has verified their identities and their stories.
When Ethan Jones moved out of his apartment due to unaffordable rent and started searching for a two-bedroom unit over a decade ago, South Grove Apartments, a 1970s suburban apartment complex, immediately stood out to him. Sitting near the city limit with several major bus routes passing by, South Grove (formerly Pheasant Run Apartments) offered easy access to the University of Michigan, where Jones was employed. According to Jones, his monthly rent then was around $600, whereas the median rent in the city was around $900.
“We were just looking around on Craigslist when we found this place, and it was cheaper than anything else by a couple of hundred dollars a month,” Jones said. “So we’ve basically been here the entire time, and the buses are just as convenient (as they were before).”
Jones said he felt a sense of impending doom earlier this year. In recent years, the rents in many previously affordable suburban apartment complexes were adjusted to the market rate. South Grove recently switched their management from Hartman & Tyner to Village Green, a rental company with one of the largest portfolios in Ann Arbor. Jones said the switch alarmed him.
“I checked the website, trying to get an idea of what the rent increase for next year is going to be, and then I noticed that (our rent) went up to $1,350,” Jones said. “I’m thinking, ‘Holy cow, that’s like a $350 increase. That’s a big jump over (the) $45 (increases in past years).’”
Village Green did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment. In interviews with The Daily, multiple residents of South Grove confirmed the rent hike; their rent increases ranged from 20% to 33% based on room types. In comparison, the city’s median rent increase is 13.6% from last year, according to the data published by Apartment List, a rental research website. The rent hike could potentially affect more than 800 people currently living in the community.
John Doe, who has lived in South Grove for almost seven years, told The Daily he believed the rent increase was unjustified. He said the property’s rebranding effort with the name change seems inconsistent with its declining amenity and service quality.
“Everything’s…expensive in this area, but it used to be like Pheasant Run was outdated,” Doe said. “Since (Village Green) took over, the outdoor pool hours have been reduced and indoor pool was done away with. The washer and dryer prices have gone up. So I kind of felt like it went from bad to worse.”
South Grove’s website and Facebook page say it has renovated some of its units this year. However, the rents of the advertised newly renovated units go up to $1,600, indicating an even higher jump in rent among these upgraded units.
For some of the current residents, their leasing cycles require them to finalize their renewal decisions with the rent increases within a compressed timeline. James Leo, who moved into South Grove during the COVID-19 pandemic, described his experience in an interview with The Daily.
“(The management) reached out to me and told me that I didn’t reply (to their email), and then I told them I’m not just gonna agree over email, and I want to know about my rent change stuff like that,” Leo said. “That’s when they told me the rent will go up to what it is now. I told them it was unfair to have such a quick and dramatic increase, and then they agreed to give me three days to make up my mind. I obviously couldn’t find somewhere else to get approved to move in three days, so I pretty much got backed into a corner here.”
In the past few months, housing activists in Ann Arbor have been advocating for an amendment to the city’s rental law to alleviate the anxiety in lease renewal. Ann Arbor Rising For Tenants (AART) , a housing justice coalition, has created a petition asking the City Council to put a Right to Renew (R2R) clause onto the ballot in November. The proposed amendment requires that landlords make a good-faith offer to renew a written lease for each tenant at least 180 days before the end of the current lease period, or the landlords shall pay relocation assistance unless the landlord has “good cause” to not offer renewal.
However, Michigan law prohibits local governments from imposing rent control. In a Facebook message to The Daily, Rackham student Lucy Peterson, the chair of the Graduate Employees’ Organization’s Housing Caucus and a member of AART, wrote that she believes the rent-control ban undermines the local government’s ability to address rent hikes faced by tenants, including South Grove renters.
“Legally speaking, renters don’t have much recourse,” Peterson wrote. “The statewide (rent-control) ban means that we can’t pass local legislation that regulates rent increases … (South Grove renters’) best option is to band together and confront their landlord as a united front. If they can stand together, they may be able to use their collective power as leverage to get their landlord to meet some of their demands.”
Jones, who closely followed the city’s ballot initiative, said the renters have formed a social media group to communicate about their situations. However, he said the renters didn’t plan to escalate the confrontation for fear of Village Green’s legal power and retaliation.
“Village Green is nationwide, so I’m not really optimistic that we’d really be able to go through and do something like that,” Jones said. “Our group right now is more like a sounding board.”
Meanwhile, multiple long-term residents, dismayed by the attitude of the management, have already decided to leave.
Srikanth Elesela, a Michigan Medicine research fellow who had lived in South Grove for five and a half years, was contacted in May, within a month before the end of his lease, that his rent for a two-bedroom unit would increase from $945 to $1,170.
“They did not even care to inform us like, ‘Heads up: three months from now or four months from now your rent will be increased,’” Elesela said. “They just said ‘next month.’ Another brutal thing I feel is they did not respect you. When I called Village Green, saying that you can’t increase like this and you should have told us ahead of time, they said if you want to stay, stay. Otherwise, (go) look for something else.”
Elesela decided to leave. He said he noticed that at least 15-20 residents have been packing luggage into U-Haul trucks before him, presumably leaving the community.
But uprooting and looking for rental options at this time of the year could be challenging. Over the past decade, Jones said he has grown used to the convenience of public transit and familiar neighbors. After bouncing around multiple housing sites, Jones decided to stay put because he couldn’t find a suitable option for both him and his roommate. He planned to settle on a deal with Village Green in which he would pay rent that was lower than what he saw on the website, but still more than 20% more expensive than last year’s rent.
“There really isn’t much in the way of options in this area without having to room with strangers,” Jones said. “Things like work from home make that an issue, as I would need a larger bedroom than available in many shared places, as I’d need to fit my desk in as well. On the Facebook groups, it’s all private landlords or people subletting looking for roommates. So there’s always that uncertainty.”
Daily Staff Reporter Chen Lyu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.