James Brennan: Gentrifying the student ghetto

By James Brennan, Columnist
Published January 11, 2015

Twelve years ago, “student ghetto” meant Greenwood Avenue — the one-way street home to hanging sneakers and the Ann Arbor Police Department’s favorite block party. Even former Mayor John Hieftje agreed with the label, telling the Daily in 2003, “That's what it’s called, and it’s part of being in a university town.”

More than a decade later, Hieftje still sees symptoms of a student ghetto at Greenwood, but recently shifting real estate trends could change this. What were previously student neighborhoods, Hieftje told me, are beginning to see families and non-students move in. In Ann Arbor, the term “student ghetto” may only last as long it takes to build a luxury high rise.

In the last decade, the area surrounding Central Campus has seen a development boom, as lofts like Zaragon, Landmark and Varsity have elbowed their way into the Ann Arbor skyline. Ann Arbor Blu, currently a hole in the ground next to Pizza House, should be finished and open for business in the fall of 2015. Given the increasingly wealthy makeup of Michigan’s student body, it’s hard to see the number of lofts staying stagnant for long, especially as the University continues to renovate dorms potentially, creating short-term housing shortages.

Many residents of Ann Arbor, including less wealthy students, supported the development of these monstrous apartment buildings, largely in the hopes of lowering rent costs. For non-student residents, this hope may soon be realized.

As wealthier students move into high rises, landlords owning moderately expensive housing shift their focus from the remaining student renters (who would require reduced prices) to new families or young professionals. These non-students can afford rent close to campus, which is lower than a house or an apartment near Main Street. As these neighborhoods become increasingly non-student, value-lowering factors like trash, noise and poor maintenance will peter out, raising overall prices.

For now, low-income students can still afford a limited amount of housing near campus, often by splitting rooms, packing houses, or accepting shoddy living conditions. If the above prediction plays out, it will limit options for low-income students even more, pushing them as far away from campus as Ypsilanti (from where some low-income and otherwise frugal University students are already commuting).

In the big picture, these trends are troubling for several reasons. One issue that has already begun to play out is greater campus segregation and polarization. For poorer students, this means living only near other low-income students while being forced to commute to campus by car or bus. Conversely, lofts like Landmark concentrate large numbers of wealthy students all in one place, while their close proximity to campus means that residents rarely leave their comfort zone for much of anything.

This residential polarization also has snowball-like political consequences. According to Ann Arbor’s City Charter, City Council wards are to be drawn like slices of a pie, with the pieces converging near the center of the city, i.e., the center of campus. This layout divides the student vote across each ward, meaning no single district is likely to elect a student or a candidate focused on student issues. With heavier concentration in the city center, this problem may only become worse.

The Michigan Daily

Wards are in orange, purple, red, blue, and brown. Dorms are pink and high rises are yellow (Shane Achenbach, The Michigan Daily)

As the above map shows, heavily concentrated student housing (dorms and high rises) is neatly divided amongst city council wards. Washtenaw County Clerk Larry Kestenbaum, when I asked him about this inconvenient distribution, said, “I’m sure it’s deliberate.”

Rather than a diabolical gerrymandering scheme (my original theory), Kestenbaum believes the city wanted to avoid creating one ward with only a few likely voters. According to Kestenbaum, who is also an attorney and history blogger, the layout of the city wards was decided before the voting age was reduced to 18, meaning most students couldn’t vote anyway. The fear, Kestenbaum explained, is of a ward with so little voting activity that its elections could be easily manipulated.

Given the current boundaries of City Council wards, the student vote is set up to be watered down for any City Council election. If wealthy students continue to crowd even closer around the center of the city while poorer students are forced into the outskirts or out of the city completely, the student voice may suffer even more, especially for those who need it the most. And as student voices dissipate, city government will have fewer and fewer incentives to craft policy favorable to both students and non-students.

Many of the necessary pieces for the above scenario are already in place. For future low-income students, their time on campus does not look particularly promising — and let’s not forget that the only important City Council elections in Ann Arbor, the Democratic primaries, are held in August, when most students are gone.

However, there is one glimmer of hope: general elections, which are held in November, include ballot proposals. Hieftje noted that many candidates won office running on hugely popular issues in the 1970s thanks to students. What kind of issues galvanized the student vote forty years ago? According to Hieftje, it was decriminalizing marijuana possession to a $5 (now $25) fine.

The student ghetto may soon be a thing of the past, but in Ann Arbor, some things may never change.

James Brennan can be reached at jmbthree@umich.edu.