On Tuesday, July 20, and then again on Monday, August 2, Ann Arbor City Council held public hearings about the Graduate Employees Organization and Central Student Government’s proposed change to the Early Leasing Ordinance. This much-needed change — which passed unanimously after months of work by GEO’s Housing Caucus — will prohibit landlords from showing or leasing your unit until 210 days into the lease. During the public hearings, we heard from dozens of renters and a handful of landlords. Their comments tell us a lot about the abysmal state of the Ann Arbor rental market and demonstrate the need for City Council to take swift and dramatic action to protect renters from predatory landlords.
After listening to the stories told by renters calling into the public hearings, one can only conclude that Ann Arbor’s rental market is in a crisis. Caller after caller argued that renting in Ann Arbor is worse than any other place they’ve lived — including cities notorious for their own housing crises, like Toronto and London. Renters spoke of serious repairs left unaddressed for months, threats to increase rent and other bullying tactics that coerced renters into renewing leases before they were ready. Landlords were described as being unwilling to even consider reasonable requests from tenants or to negotiate, on generous terms, early exits from leases. We heard reports of landlords perniciously exploiting loopholes in the recently expired federal eviction moratorium in order to put families out on the street amidst the pandemic. Given that pandemic evictions have been linked to increased COVID-19 mortality rates, such actions put our entire community at risk — just so landlords can make a quick buck. The picture painted by renters was clear: We are powerless against Ann Arbor’s oppressive landlord class.
The landlords told a different story. They claim that there is abundant housing in Ann Arbor. They claim that renters are the ones driving the early renewal cycle. They claim that they need as much as eight months to rent out apartments or prepare for repairs for apartments that will turn over.
These claims are bald-faced lies.
The fact that a one-bedroom apartment in Ann Arbor typically costs 50% of a graduate student instructor’s salary demonstrates that Ann Arbor’s rental market is in a supply crisis. For our housing to be affordable, we would need nearly double our annual earnings. And it is not just graduate students. 51% of Ann Arbor renters are considered rent-burdened, meaning they spend over 30% of their income on rent alone. The fact that 91% of renters surveyed by GEO felt pressured to renew their lease before they were ready tells us that it is landlords, not renters, who are pushing for September renewals. And if you went to Chicago in January to look for a lease beginning in September, you would be laughed at: In Chicago, landlords only have two months before the end of a lease to show a rental unit to a prospective tenant. Landlords in Ann Arbor will be just fine renting out their apartments in the five months the ELO would give them.
In addition to these easily disproven lies, Ann Arbor residents were also treated to what we can only describe as the temper tantrum of a spoiled brat, used to always getting their way, who has just been told “no” for the first time. The ELO proposal under consideration — which would not affect landlords’ bottom line, and which is considerably weaker than the protections enjoyed by renters fortunate enough to live somewhere other than Ann Arbor — was treated as apocalyptic. They claimed that this reform would do damage to their business model, force them to operate on a seasonal basis and drive non-student renters out of Ann Arbor. Hearing the landlords, you would think this ordinance was the second coming of Mao Zedong’s land reforms, not the modest protection that it is.
One caller, in particular, stood out for his cruelty and disdain towards renters. He argued that his right to “exclude” people from his property — which is essentially the right to kick people out of their homes on a whim — was foundational to the rights laid out in the American constitution. He promised to be first in line to sue the city should they enact this modest reform. He threatened to take the entire Ann Arbor rental market onto a semester-to-semester basis should City Council enact any type of Right to Renew legislation.
For the members of City Council — none of whom are renters — these kinds of threats may be shocking. Ann Arbor renters, however, are all too used to being threatened by landlords. They threaten us with drastic rent increases if we do not renew before we’re ready. They threaten us by showing our apartments if we need more than 24 hours to make a decision about renewal. They threaten us with eviction for things that ought to be included in the right to quiet enjoyment guaranteed in our leases, such as owning pets, smoking on a balcony and possessing marijuana.
These meetings made one thing clear: Ann Arbor landlords are out of touch and out of control.
Renters are fed up. Ann Arbor City Council has not, as of yet, paid sufficient attention to the needs of renters who have been bullied, harassed and terrorized by landlords for far too long. With notable exceptions like Councilmembers Elizabeth Nelson, D-Ward 4, and Travis Radina, D-Ward 3, councilmembers have not been willing to stand up for renters. This situation cannot be allowed to continue.
The passage of the ELO represents a victory for renters, a first step to correcting the immense power imbalance in favor of the landlords. The long-awaited formation of a Renters’ Commission, championed by Councilmember Radina, is another step in the right direction. At the August 2 meeting, Councilmember Ali Ramlawi, D-Ward 5, made a fatuous and naive remark implying that the pendulum had swung too far in favor of renters. This remark shows his allegiance to property owners and business owners and his willingness to put their interests above the majority of Ann Arbor residents. The idea that this ordinance change, which is really just a crumb thrown in renters’ direction, somehow undoes the structural and largely unchecked power landlords hold over tenants, is patently absurd.
By comparison, less than one hour away, in Ontario, renters have rights far beyond what we have in Ann Arbor. There, renters have the right to break a lease with two months’ notice; automatic transition to month-to-month after one year; Just Cause Eviction; rent control and a ban on damage deposits. Landlords in Ontario are doing just fine. The sky has not fallen. While not all of this is possible in the state of Michigan, it is obvious that the pendulum has not even begun to swing toward renters. Councilmember Ramlawi and other opponents of tenants’ rights on City Council better smarten up and get out of the way. Renters are done being pushed around.
GEO’s Housing Caucus is calling on City Council to take immediate action on the rental crisis in Ann Arbor by any legal means necessary. We demand:
— The immediate formation of a renters commission-free from landlord involvement.
— Legally defensible Right to Renew and Just Cause Eviction legislation.
— Mandatory early termination clauses in Ann Arbor leases.
— Rental deposits, equal to no more than 20% of a month’s rent, to go in escrow, not to the landlord.
— Automatic conversion of leases to month-to-month after one year.
— A resolution committing the city to lower the average rent in Ann Arbor.
— The construction of thousands of tenant-managed public housing units.
Being a landlord in Ann Arbor is like having a license to print money. Rents skyrocket year after year. The vacancy rate is so low that landlords have come to expect having no risk associated with their business. Landlords are not simply “housing providers” that are doing some altruistic good for the community. They’re businesses whose very model is one that relies on reaping their profit by taking as much as two-thirds of our annual salaries. Ann Arbor cannot call itself a progressive city while having a rental market that is, by many accounts, one of the worst in the country. City Council needs to stop governing for the benefit of the home-owning minority and start defending the interests of the majority.
You don’t have to be a GEO member to join the caucus! If you’re interested in fighting for your rights as a renter, fill out this form.
Amir Fleischmann is the Contract Committee Co-Chair at the Graduate Employees’ Organization writing on behalf of GEO’s Housing Caucus and can be reached at housingchair@GEO3550.org.