Housing is controversial. Housing is controversial in Ann Arbor, and it is controversial in many other places. Housing particularly controversial when it is built for a profit. Cleaning up brownfield, or land abandoned due to pollution, is controversial. In 2017, Ann Arbor repeatedly postponed a vote to approve a development that would clean up a significant amount of brownfield. Even affordable housing comes under criticism.
Affordable housing is derided as not affordable enough. Even if the housing is owned by the government, entirely without a purpose of profit, it can still be controversial. University of California, Berkeley’s plan to build housing for students — with no profits — on People’s Park has been held up by protests and lawsuits for years. Being built by the government for students at a state university did not shield the University of California from accusations of “prioritizing profits.”
The University of Michigan is building a new residence hall on Elbel Field, with hopes that it can provide more housing options to upperclassmen while maintaining the University’s guarantee of on-campus housing for all first-year students. This project has all the elements of controversial housing developments seen previously in Ann Arbor, Berkeley and beyond.
The new dorm will be taller than the neighboring houses. It will house a disproportionately wealthy population (the median family of a U-M student has an income nearly twice that of the county). The dorm is replacing historic Elbel Field, a community institution for decades. The Elbel field project has all the characteristics of a controversial construction project, but has not garnered the expected criticism. The controversy of Elbel has, so far, effectively skated under the radar. The reason? The new dorm project is good. A new development that will house thousands of people, even considering the context, is an undeniable net positive for the University and for Ann Arbor as a whole.
New construction projects are often met with a repetitive series of criticisms, yet none of them have been applied to the new Elbel project. A chief complaint is height and scale in contrast to the neighbors. In 2019, a three-story affordable senior housing development drew dozens of complaints from the neighbors. It was called a “jurassic monster.” A chief complaint was the height of the development. Granted, the Ann Arbor community has less control over the actions of the state-wide Board of Regents compared to the Ann Arbor City Council, but it’s still perplexing that, given the size of the dorm development, there’s still no criticism.
Another common criticism applied to new construction is “neighborhood character.” The designs of the new dorm don’t match any existing development in the surrounding neighborhood. The purported character of a building has been problematic in construction near the site of the new dorm. In 2010, the Ann Arbor City Council denied The Morovian, a proposed development just one block away. The Germantown Neighborhood Association, founded in 2009, had much criticism of that development and several others. That same association has now been silent. There has been no noise surrounding the height of the new building, up to seven stories in places, from a neighborhood that once referred to a five-story building as “the Great Wall of China.”
Any expansion of the University also impacts the community through lost tax revenue. The new residence hall is being built on the site of Fingerle Lumber, which closed in 2019. The University acquired it shortly after. Although a sale of University property is typically unlikely, the new residence hall is confirmation that the lost revenue will never be regained. When Fingerle ended operations, the lot only paid $30,000 a year. Had the same property been privately redeveloped, it would have generated significantly more. Moves to acquire land by the University have cost the city millions in the past. The 2013 acquisition of the Pfizer research property, now the NCRC, removed 4.8% of the city’s tax base. Phase 2, to be mostly developed on properties being acquired by the University and University Regent Ron Weiser, is also causing a drop in property tax revenue. Yet once again, no criticism of the university’s actions.
The new dorm is uncontroversial because it is an objectively positive addition to Ann Arbor. Public ownership might be posited as a reason, but that cannot be completely cited here. The aforementioned People’s Park development will be publicly owned. Even North Quad Residence Hall, the last new dorm completed in 2011, had its share of controversy when it was being constructed. Two students vandalized the new building, complaining that these were “fancy buildings for the few” and that the new development would come at the cost of 10,000 student tuition.
Ann Arbor desperately needs new housing, and the scale of that need trumps any of the criticisms that can be levied against the new dorm. Housing is extremely expensive in Ann Arbor. Fair market rent data shows that Ann Arbor is more expensive than 98% of Michigan. Students need housing. A growing student population caused the University to activate lounges into temporary housing. Average rent is up between seven and eleven percent. Some real estate experts estimated that Ann Arbor needs up to 10,000 units of housing to bring prices back down. The cost of rent is a large burden on students. Harvard researchers analyzed Ann Arbor data alongside other college-dominated metropolitan areas, and found that households headed by college students have significantly higher cost-burden rates than other households.
New housing of any kind is going to lower prices. New housing has been shown to lower costs for all residents. Adding new housing capacity, regardless of price point, has been shown to suppress rent growth. This was part of the University’s thesis in building the new dorm. Even though the new dorms can still be a very expensive form of housing, they still open up spots in other, more affordable housing types that substitute for dorms through a process called filtering. New construction scares commercial property owners. In the Sunbelt, abundant new supply is forcing owners to cut rent costs and face lower profits. The new dorm project is going to be a part of the housing market. Its status as a submarket with restrictions on who is allowed to live there doesn’t change that many students choose between living in a dorm or finding an apartment arrangement close by.
University decisions are made under constraints. The new dorm was developed here instead of a more convenient location, such as south of the Ross building, because of the opportunity the University had to acquire the Fingerle lot. This new dorm has some flaws. It could be more dense, and house more students, and there could be a guarantee for it to have truly net zero CO2 emission. Yet, this project is still a positive development for the university and for our campus community. It will lower housing costs, and make our community more vibrant and equitable. The opportunity cost of lost taxes is unfortunate, but a response to that will require cooperation from the University and the state. “Neighborhood character” and other fear tactics don’t mean much. It is important to focus on the tangible results of changes to our communities. The tangible results of the new dorm will undoubtedly be positive.
Abdulrahman Ateya is an Opinion Columnist writing about urban issues in Ann Arbor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.