In 2021, the Ann Arbor City Council voted to zone newly annexed residential neighborhoods for single-family use. The same year, the state of California effectively banned single-family zoning when the Legislature passed a bill that allows homeowners to subdivide their property into two lots and build two homes on each of those lots. California took a step in the right direction; Ann Arbor did not.
Single-family zoning originated in Berkeley, Calif., to prevent a Black-owned dance hall from moving into a predominantly white neighborhood. Single-family zoning in Ann Arbor is rooted in racism as well. Advocates for diversifying housing zoning cite a 1970 article that stated larger lots would be too expensive for Black people to purchase. The legacy of this law lives on in the United States. Seventy-five percent of the residential land in major American cities is zoned for single-family use, contributing to the racial wealth gap.
While cities like Berkeley and Ann Arbor are known for being progressive, the application of these laws suggests otherwise. In addition to structural racism, single-family zoning contributes to many other problems in Ann Arbor and the U.S..
One such issue is rent prices. The median rent in Ann Arbor is up 11.1% from last year, raising median rent prices to $1,300. This is expensive by itself, and appears even more dramatic when compared to the median rent of $1,090 in Detroit and the statewide median rent of $953 .
The reason that single-family zoning contributes to high rent prices is because it prohibits multi-unit housing from being built on single lots, artificially decreasing supply. There is a limited supply of land in the city of Ann Arbor, making it difficult to build enough housing if each lot can only accommodate a single unit. Allowing homeowners to build multiple units on a single lot would expand the housing supply in Ann Arbor, putting downward pressure on rent prices and giving people more housing options.
Another benefit of ending single-family zoning is that it allows for greater diversity in the use of property. In many residential areas like Ann Arbor, people have to drive to do activities outside of the home, including to go to work, school and the supermarket. One important reason for this problem is that property is zoned exclusively for residential use in residential areas. Policies to end single-family zoning could lead the way for the zoning of residential communities into mixed-use commercial and residential, allowing for the construction of small local businesses in residential areas. This would accomplish two important goals. This would have the benefit of building more housing, while making communities more walkable and social.
But these policies do not have to go that far. An important feature of ending single-family zoning is that it does not require homeowners to build a second unit on their property; it just gives them the option to do so. This is a free market response to a major problem in Ann Arbor that reduces rent prices, increases the housing supply and could provide homeowners with another stream of income.
On its own, eliminating single-family zoning will not solve the problem of high rents in Ann Arbor. But this policy could help alleviate the burden on city residents, both Ann Arborites and students alike, while City Council considers other policies to make Ann Arbor a more affordable city.
One major factor in the housing makeup of Ann Arbor is the University of Michigan. The University is the largest employer in the city, while also being one of the single largest providers of housing as well as one of the largest land owners. The University of Michigan without a doubt has a role to play in addressing housing affordability in Ann Arbor. Duke University in Durham, N.C., has partnered with the city to identify the needs of the neighborhoods surrounding the university, including addressing affordability and fostering community development. Considering the gargantuan footprint that the University of Michigan occupies in Ann Arbor, it should be involved in any attempt by the city to lower housing costs.
Ann Arbor should also eliminate single-family zoning as a way to address racial inequities. As I wrote above, single-family zoning arose as a way to prohibit Black buyers from purchasing homes in predominantly white areas. Now, Black people have the lowest rate of homeownership compared to other racial groups, and property in Black neighborhoods is valued at 23% less than in white neighborhoods. Today, Black people are excluded from neighborhoods with higher property values due to the legacy of redlining and current racial inequities. While eliminating single-family zoning will not end racism, it could be a way for Ann Arbor to address its history of racism in the housing market.
During the 2020 election cycle, candidates for City Council addressed the need to confront the affordability crisis in Ann Arbor, including ideas like offering legal guidance to renters and creating affordable housing. Along with these policy ideas, City Council should end single-family zoning ordinances to increase the housing supply and lower rent costs across Ann Arbor.
Lydia Storella is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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