It’s no secret to students at the University of Michigan that landlords have more than their fair share of power in this town. Due to their political and economic influence, Ann Arbor landlords pocket a significant chunk of student incomes while at the same time often creating an immense amount of stress in the lives of renters. Tenants face a whole host of issues in this town. For example, the average rent increased by 12% just last year, creating financial strain for the vast majority of us. Meanwhile, many renters are all too familiar with the predatory practice of early leasing common in Ann Arbor. If you’ve rented an apartment in Ann Arbor you’ve probably also been asked to renew that lease just a couple of months after moving in — and if you aren’t able to commit then and there, you may have had your apartment rented out from underneath you.
Last year, the Graduate Employee Organization’s (GEO) Housing Caucus worked to pass the revised Early Leasing Ordinance through Ann Arbor City Council. This campaign illuminated the extent to which renters in Ann Arbor struggle with housing instability between leasing cycles. So, we’re excited to launch our next campaign: a ballot initiative to secure a right for all Ann Arbor renters to renew their leases and stay in their apartments.
Passing “right to renew” legislation in Ann Arbor would seriously improve the lives of renters. Currently, Ann Arbor landlords have no obligation to offer current tenants renewal terms at the end of the lease, which means that each of us relies on the good will of our landlords to not displace us between leasing cycles. Moving is expensive and difficult, and renters should have protections against such a serious disruption to their lives.
GEO members are launching a ballot initiative campaign in order to put the decision to adopt the “right to renew” directly in the hands of voters. Passing “right to renew” won’t be easy, but it is important. If we are successful, this ordinance will be the first of its kind in Michigan — potentially paving the way for other municipalities to follow suit.
Importantly, this change will also close a loophole in the Early Leasing Ordinance, and push back the early leasing cycle. Our hope was that changing local law to prohibit landlords from showing or leasing occupied units to prospective tenants for the first 210 days of the lease would help tenants feel less pressure to renew their leases so early in the term.
Last year, members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization, the labor union that represents graduate student instructors at the University, and the Central Student Government embarked on a campaign to improve conditions for all Ann Arbor renters. Our goal was to change the leasing cycle timeline through a revision to the City’s Early Leasing Ordinance. Prior to this change, it was all too common for landlords to present tenants with an ultimatum two months after move-in: renew your lease within the next 24 hours, or someone is coming to see your apartment tomorrow.
Being pressured to renew a lease before you’re ready is serious: it can force you into unsafe living conditions and potentially drive you into bankruptcy. Renters are forced to make the choice between housing insecurity and financial and personal inflexibility almost a year in advance. This ordeal is so ubiquitous that nearly every person we know in Ann Arbor has experienced it. That’s why nearly 1,200 people signed our petition calling for this change.
After months of work — meeting with lawyers, collaborating with allies in the community and student government, writing petitions, working with allied City Councilmembers like Elizabeth Nelson, D-Ward 4, and Travis Radina, D-Ward 3, calling into Council meetings and organizing email zaps — the ordinance passed. Despite attempts to weaken the ordinance we won a change for the full 210 days we had fought for.
Nevertheless, when October 2021 rolled around, landlords began pressuring tenants for early renewal even more aggressively than before. They got around the ordinance we helped pass by telling tenants they would not be given the option to renew if they did not make a decision immediately. They did this even though they could not legally enter into a rental agreement with a new tenant for another five or six months, using waitlists (with costly deposits) to keep people on the hook. To make matters worse, the city was sluggish to follow up on complaints and failed to enforce the ordinance. Further action was needed to ensure that renters get the rights and respect that we deserve.
That’s where our new campaign to secure a “right to renew” comes in. By requiring that landlords offer renters the chance to renew their lease, we can close the loophole in the Early Leasing Ordinance and take immense pressure off the backs of Ann Arbor renters. What’s more, this new ordinance would make it impossible for landlords to rent out apartments without first offering the current tenants a chance to renew — a practice that is far too common in Ann Arbor.
In addition, by passing this law through a ballot measure we will avoid running into the same setbacks that plagued the Early Leasing Ordinance campaign. In that campaign, numerous City Councilmembers allied themselves more closely with landlords than with renters. These Councilmembers sought to weaken the ordinance or flat out rejected it in the name of protecting landlords’ profits. These efforts were largely successful, which is why securing the “right to renew” needs to be kept in the hands of voters.
Tenants face excessive housing insecurity compared to homeowners. Since landlords do not have any obligations to offer lease renewal to current tenants at the end of a lease term, many renters have grown accustomed to packing up all their belongings and setting up a home in a new place in a different part of town on a yearly basis. Put simply, landlords are able to evict renters from their homes each and every leasing cycle.
That’s why the ordinance we’re proposing would ensure that if a landlord insists on arbitrarily evicting a current tenant, they will owe the tenant relocation costs. How much a landlord owes you will be based on the average cost of rent and the size of your apartment.
This ordinance is based on similar legislation in Ithaca, NY and Oregon that have secured this basic right for tenants. If a landlord wants to evict you from your home, they would now need a real reason — or, in legalese, a “just cause.” Tenants would only be denied renewal without compensation if they are in violation of their lease or if the landlord is taking the unit off the market.
Winning this critical and basic protection is no small task. Even the comparatively modest Early Leasing Ordinance change faced stiff opposition from landlords. They are well-organized, litigious and have nearly limitless resources at their disposal.
Even so, we still think we can win.
Doing so will require vocal support and participation from Ann Arbor renters. It will require close collaboration between GEO, CSG, the Huron Valley Democratic Socialists of America and other like-minded organizations. It will require many hours of volunteer work, knocking on doors, calling into Council meetings and talking to voters.
Ultimately, whether we’re able to win will depend on whether Ann Arbor renters are willing to stand up for themselves. Are you willing to take a stand for housing security? Are you willing to fight for a right to renew?
We’re seeking volunteers to help us pass the “right to renew.” If you’re interested in fighting for your rights as a renter, or want to learn more about our latest campaign, go to aart.vote/support-us or donate to our campaign here.
The Graduate Employees Organization is a union of graduate students at the University of Michigan. The Housing Caucus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.