Recently, the University of Michigan Central Student Government has been working with Ann Arbor City Council to increase student political participation in city elections, especially following concerns on campus about how the council’s decisions affect University students.
Efforts by CSG in 2015 resulted in a town hall proposal to City Council to place election reform proposals on the upcoming November ballot for voter consideration. The proposed reforms would have involved moving city primary elections to November, and making both mayoral and council member elections nonpartisan. The proposal failed with the City Council, however, by a 7-4 vote.
Public Policy senior Nadine Jawad, CSG senior policy advisor, is working on initiatives to continue discussing the potential of switching from partisan to nonpartisan elections for City Council, which she says will increase enfranchisement and give the students a greater voice in city matters that affect their time in Ann Arbor.
“We believe that students should have a greater relationship with the city, and it makes it a lot easier for students to get involved in the democratic process without the constraints of having to put a label on yourself like Democrat or Republican,” Jawad said.
Jawad also co-authored the resolution urging Ann Arbor to switch to nonpartisan November elections. At CSG’s first meeting of the winter semester, the resolution passed 27-5 with five abstentions and no additional amendments. It pointed out the University’s size makes students a key constituency in Ann Arbor, and reiterated the need for student civil engagement. It also mentioned students’ historically low voter turnout rate, which has been under 20 percent the past few years.
“Ann Arbor is one of only three cities in the state of Michigan that has partisan primary elections and general elections in November, Ionia and Ypsilanti being the other two, and … students, one of the largest constituencies in Ann Arbor, are largely unable to vote in the August Primary elections as most students are not on campus during the summer,” the resolution states.
Councilmember Kirk Westphal (D–Ward 2) agreed nonpartisan elections would be beneficial to Ann Arbor residents. He argued since most residents vote straight-ticket Democrat, the meaningful choice would occur during the August primaries, when most students are gone, rather than the November general elections.
“Ten out of 11 members on (City Council) are Democrats,” Westphal said. “Part of the logic for nonpartisan elections on the local level is that more people will be making a meaningful choice in effectively a one-party town in the general elections.”
However, Councilmember Zach Ackerman (D–Ward 3) said a candidate’s party affiliation is crucial in communicating a candidate's values.
“I believe parties are a critical identifier of values,” Ackerman wrote in an email. “While there may be no partisan way to plow roads or pick up trash, there is a reason we do not have to debate how we treat our immigrant, LBGTQ, and low-income neighbors.”
Increasing anxieties about recent price surges in off-campus housing for University students is one motive for CSG’s ongoing efforts to convince City Council to approve election reform and a stronger dialogue between the city and the students. Since the University only guarantees on-campus housing to freshmen students, many struggle to find suitable houses or apartments in the city that reasonably adhere to a college student’s budget.
In September, CSG President David Schafer, LSA senior, described to the Board of Regents the necessity for cooperation between City Council, CSG and University students, emphasizing how a positive relationship could greatly help with students’ struggles with affordable housing.
"The issue of increasingly costly off-campus housing for students is an issue that I believe we’d be well-served to tackle together,” Schafer said.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median monthly rent in the entire city of Ann Arbor has increased 14 percent from 2010 to 2015. It is an issue that has been brought to CSG in the past, as many students stress about housing after freshmen year. Many students are victims of arbitrary price surges and competitive time frames as the time approaches for them to move off-campus, and many feel Ann Arbor lacks affordable mass living developments.
LSA sophomore Mary Kate Kemp, who lives in a house near the Intramural Sports Building, expressed similar sentiments about off-campus living arrangements and said the unavoidably high prices of Ann Arbor living pose a major problem to students seeking to live off-campus long term.
“The prices keep going up,” Kemp said. “Our house went up this year, too, $200 from what the kids paid last year, and I think that’s kind of ridiculous. It does go up, and it’s nerve-racking, especially for kids who have to pay on their own.”
Westphal explained, though City Council recognizes the dearth of convenient student housing near campus and is considering new options to solve affordable housing issues, there is simply too high demand and too little supply of land left around campus for everyone to fit.
“I don’t think there’s any way (the housing market) can keep up with the increasing enrollment at U of M,” Westphal said. “The market is helping, but not sufficiently.”
City Council has recently invited a developer to build a new apartment on a vacant downtown parking lot, but the company terminated the contract last October after disagreeing to the City’s requests for more affordable housing options in their plans for construction.
Ackerman said before students look to the City for assistance, they could convince the University to do more for students in need.
“The University has an endowment of $9 billion and spends north of $200 million on each new building that goes up,” Ackerman wrote. “That's over twice the Ann Arbor City general fund budget for a single building. When we talk about our neighbors of means helping to provide for our neighbors of less, we need to acknowledge that the University has a lot of means.”
He also wrote, though the city has been pursuing an affordable public housing project, with a goal of 2800 affordable units built by 2035, students, for the most part, are dependents and do not qualify for public housing. He said students must look to the University and the private market.
Jawad recently said student participation is the key to long-term reform on large policy issues such as student housing. Although it’s a big question of policy to tackle, improvements to living situations in the city will begin with the student vote.
“In terms of affordable housing, it’s really hard to tackle when we don’t vote or we’re not registered to vote here, and so that’s why we started switching to registering students to vote or working on non-partisan elections,” Jawad said. “Things that would give students more enfranchisement and community involvement, so then, once we’re an active stakeholder in the community, we can undoubtedly start bringing up things like affordable housing.”
Kemp agreed student involvement in politics outside the University must increase because of the effects that city decisions can have on students once they attempt to live on their own. In the midst of a significant political atmosphere, Kemp stated student voters turnout could, and should, increase from the low 20 percent of recent years.
“After this major election, I feel like a lot of people are very interested in politics right now, in any form,” Kemp said. “They want to make their voices heard. So it would not surprise me if a lot of people wanted to vote in city elections. If it were for a good cause, like helping lower these rents, which I feel go up every year, why not?”
Ackerman wrote City Council has been working on registering students to vote during orientation, and would like to expand that process to freshman move-in season.
“We need to get students registered immediately, not just hope they will register at some point in their college career,” Ackerman wrote.
Since the November resolution that urges CSG to ask City Council for election reform passed, CSG has taken measures to create a two-way conversation between the University and the city. CSG has begun an initiative in which student representatives meet with city officials to voice their concerns, and hopes that election reform is a possibility.
CSG Communications Director Joe Shea, a Public Policy senior, spoke on City Council’s recent resolution, which will help establish a system for students to vocalize their concerns to the city.
“We’re extremely excited about the resolution that was passed just last week by Ann Arbor City Council to create a Student Advisory Council, which will allow UM students to serve as liaisons between City Council members and our student body,” Shea said.
But election reform, and more affordable off-campus living arrangements for students, are projects that are still in the works for CSG. Jawad stressed it takes mutual understanding from both sides to create forward progression, but that increased student enfranchisement is the ultimate goal.
For students currently seeking off-campus housing, however, the stresses are time-sensitive. According to the Michigan Housing website, 97 percent of freshmen students choose to live in dorms on campus. After freshman year, only 40 percent of undergrad students choose to continue to live on campus, which leaves the majority out to find housing in downtown Ann Arbor or near Central Campus.
LSA junior Samia Elahi, who is currently living on Packard Street, said her experiences seeking off-campus housing have never been easy. She stated the process can be unfair and uncomfortable with landlords who lack sympathy for the college student budget.
“The only reason I can afford my current place is because we squeezed in three people in a two-person apartment, and are squeezing six into a four-person house next year,” Elahi said. “These are legal quantities for these places, but uncomfortable. All the apartment complexes have poor compromises for those who need affordable housing.”
Kemp agreed the process after freshman year grew increasingly difficult, and that help from the University was lacking as she and her friends moved out of Alice Lloyd Residence Hall and searched for a shared house. The group sought a house that was both reasonably priced and conveniently located to campus, a situation that is becoming hard to find.
“It’s a really long process,” Kemp said. “It’s very difficult. You have to call all these places, and unless you know someone, it makes it a little more complicated. We’re all sophomores, and when we were freshmen we thought, let’s all just live in a house — but where?”