City and students share concerns over affordability of housing
Rather than merely walking across the Diag to get to class, Music, Theatre & Dance senior Mackenzie Larrance’s morning routine consists of fighting traffic during her daily commute across town from her Ypsilanti residence.
Her reasoning behind renting an apartment so far from central campus? The rapidly rising cost of living for both students and Ann Arbor residents.
“I decided to live outside of Ann Arbor for two reasons: I had a car, and it was less expensive,” Larrance said. “I’m also in a serious relationship where my boyfriend and I have been dating for almost 5 years. He and I can't afford an apartment in downtown Ann Arbor without getting a full time job. It's also difficult finding other couples like ourselves who would want to split the costs of living.”
Larrance further noted her expenses for living in Ypsilanti are almost a thousand dollars cheaper than if she were to rent an apartment in Ann Arbor.
“I’d say on average, I pay approximately $1,400 a month when living in Ypsilanti,” she said. “This includes rent, food, gas and other college expenses. For a single room apartment in Ann Arbor, that's about $1,200 which is $400 more than my apartment in Ypsilanti. Then once you add my other expenses, I would be paying $2,200 a month. I took out gas in that calculation too.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median rate for rent in Ann Arbor has increased 14 percent from 2010 to 2015 and now sits at approximately $1,075 per month — despite the amount of high-density housing areas also rising by 32 percent. It is important to note this number accounts for the entire city, so it may not reflect the experiences of students living in areas such as Kerrytown or South Campus.
However, rent prices are high enough that in 2016, 599 students, such as Larrance, listed an Ypsilanti zip code as either their permanent or local address — a number troubling to urban planners.
A 2015 study, commissioned by the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development and prepared by czb L.L.C., a Virginia-based urban planning and neighborhood development consulting firm, stated the increasing economic inequality between the two cities will negatively affect the county.
Unless policies are changed, the report states Ann Arbor will only continue to become more expensive, while Ypsilanti property values will plummet due to high turnover rate.
"The result will be a county decreasingly affordable and out of balance and, eventually, unsustainable, as some parts of the county possibly degrade beyond a point of no return, and others grow in value beyond a point that's ever again affordable," the report reads. "The imbalance in income, education and opportunity between the jurisdictions, along with the socioeconomic segregation that goes with it, will hamper the regional economic growth potential of the area.”
As a result of this report, in 2015, Ann Arbor City Council members voted 10-1 to adopt affordable housing goals such as creating nearly 2,800 new affordably priced rental units by 2035. They also hope to augment demand for housing in Ypsilanti by 4,187 units through measures such as increasing energy efficiency and tearing down vacant buildings.
In a Central Student Government 2016 fall panel, Councilmember Zachary Ackerman (D–Ward 3), who is a recent University graduate, and then-County Commissioner Yousef Rabhi, who is now an Ann Arbor state representative, expressed concern that increased housing costs would continue to lower socioeconomic diversity within Ann Arbor as students move elsewhere in search of cheaper rent.
“(Ann Arbor’s) diversity is slowly escaping us,” Rabhi said. “If we don’t work hard and make sure we have our full options on where to live, not only will our student body become less diverse, our community will become less diverse.”
Yet, despite the commitment by city officials to work towards increasing housing diversity in Washtenaw County, the issue remains at the forefront of the minds of both University students and city residents — especially in regards to the influx of luxury housing being constructed in downtown Ann Arbor.
Cost of luxury housing
After freshman year, students not living in University housing usually procure off-campus housing or choose to live in one of the numerous luxury apartments scattered across Ann Arbor, such as Landmark or Zaragon Place. However, with monthly rates ranging from from $1,059 to $1,889 per person, these apartments only cater to a certain percentage of the student body.
As the high-rises were constructed, developers touted the supposed benefit of having luxury apartments in the center of the city. They initially believed wealthy University students could afford the high rent prices, while the demand in the center of town caused rental prices for houses on the periphery of campus to drop.
A local commercial real estate agent Peter Allen said though the apartments are expensive, the average University student can afford to pay for convenience and extra amenities.
"The profile of students can afford these super ammenized, very convenient locations," he said in an interview with the Ann Arbor News in 2012.
However, this past spring, Ann Arbor students and residents reacted to the news of a new high-rise building, called the Collegian, which will be built on South University Avenue, with surprise and disgust.
In a public Facebook post, University graduate Sara Otto expressed her discontent with the decision to redevelop the South University area to make way for another luxury high-rise.
“As I get ready to graduate, it saddens me that there are plans to redevelop yet another block on South U and turn Ulrichs into ANOTHER luxury student apartment building,” Otto wrote. “See that tiny building in the corner of this picture? That's Espresso Royale. This has been kept on the down low but it's time students know about what's happening to their campus.”
In another recent Facebook post, LSA senior Darian Razdar wrote that neglect of affordable housing positions community members in uncertain circumstances.
“The more I think about it, the more I'm getting fed up with the 'luxury' student housing boom in Ann Arbor,” he wrote. “Where will this leave students who cannot afford paying more than a few hundred dollars a month for rent? Where will it leave others in our community without secure access to affordable housing and in precarious social and economic circumstances?”
Razdar ended his statement with a call to action, urging students to join him, when he returns to Ann Arbor, to put pressure on developers.
“If anyone is interested in putting pressure on the city and property developers, I'm planning to exchange with community benefits & housing rights activists when I get back to Ann Arbor, and would love some help,” he wrote.
In an interview, Razdar said his passion for obtaining more affordable housing is fueled by his studies, as well as recent events, such as the Grenfell Tower fire in London last week where 79 people perished due to cheap, flammable building materials.
“I’m pretty passionate about housing rights as I study urbanism through my major in Social Theory and Practice,” he said. “The Grenfell Tower fire last week in London got me heated about the right to affordable and dignified housing in cities. Since Ann Arbor is where I live and pay rent and where I couldn't afford to pay for about half of the city's housing options that are near campus, my passion and anger is sort of personal. But it also comes out of a place of care for other students and people in Ann Arbor who are struggling to get by in a housing market that's made for the rich.”
Despite the outrage expressed by students on social media, the reactions to increased luxury housing are not all negative. In May, City Council unanimously approved the construction of the new apartment complex, citing responsive developers and increased business along South University as reasons why.
In an earlier interview, Councilmember Kirk Westphal (D–Ward 2) stated the council believes the new real estate development will revitalize the area.
“It’s our history that retail has struggled in the area,” Westphal said. “More people living in that immediate area will certainly give the district a boost.
Furthermore, Councilmember Julie Grand (D–Ward 3) noted at the same time the developer for the apartments has been very responsive to recommendations made by the city.
“What’s really great about this particular project is that it went through the Design Review Board, and part of the reason it wasn’t controversial is that this particular developer was responsive,” Grand said. “He actually went back and made changes based on those recommendations.”
Yet, despite giving recommendations to developers, Councilmember Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1) made it clear, in another earlier interview, that city government does not hold the power to directly halt new development — unless it violates zoning and building codes.
“Private property rights are very strongly supported by local government because they’re required by statewide government,” Briere said. “It’s difficult because sometimes people think that we are going to stop a development, but mostly our job is to allow development but within constraints.”
Business junior Jake Allain, who lived in the Varsity apartments, said he chose the apartments simply because he procrastinated on procuring housing for the next year.
“I was kind of late to the game, I was super busy with school and stuff, so I just put off searching for housing, and my dad has money so I just kind of didn’t really worry about the price, so last minute I just kind of snagged a two bedroom apartment,” he said.
Allain added developers recognize the demand for luxury apartments, which could lower prices for off-campus housing, but he believes they still neglect the needs of lower-income students — needs that continue to not be met.
“I’d probably say that obviously on the basis of competing, prices could lower, but at the same time, you have people in Zaragon paying 16 to 17 hundred dollars a month, same with Arbor Blu,” he said. “I think the demand is there for these pricy apartments, and people and developers are realizing this so they’re just like ‘...we are just going to keep building these because the demand is there,’ when obviously there’s totally a neglect in cheaper housing, which I mean is super tough, especially when you have a growing population around Ann Arbor, so it’s just going to keep rising.”
Central Student Government housing iniatives
Public Policy senior Nadine Jawad, CSG Vice President, has spent her University career advocating for increasing affordable student housing, and a priority of her new position is to continue to drive housing initiatives for the upcoming year.
In an email interview, Jawad pointed to her work as senior policy advisor for CSG last year, collaborating with former CSG leadership, as a launching point for making affordable housing a platform for her administration.
“Last year I had the opportunity to work on the executive team ran by David and Micah,” she wrote. “When they were running for their positions, a lot of students expressed sincere concern on the issue. As a result, my work as senior policy adviser focused heavily on understanding and thinking about ways we can work with the current housing issues on campus and also figure out what it was students were looking to see. The topic was really complex and there is a lot of elements of affordable housing options that tie back to the great city of Ann Arbor, so given the research, (CSG President and LSA senior) Anushka (Sarkar) and I decided that this would also be a priority of our administration.”
Jawad explained most of last year was spent developing a relationship with City Council, as well as local students, in order to better address the multi-faceted issue of increasing housing options for students and residents.
“While there are many dimensions to tackling this problem, the first we believe was essential was developing a relationship with City Council in Ann Arbor,” she wrote. “As a consequence of the effort, City Council passed an ordinance creating a committee of students who meet to advise City Council on student concerns — with representation from not just Umich, but other local schools, even from Ann Arbor Pioneer High School. At these meetings, CSG representatives have begun to work to think about ways we can approach the already very highly worked on topic of making housing more affordable for both students and Ann Arbor residents.”
Over the past year, CSG also hosted a town hall which gathered together local officials — from City Council to University staff — in order to discuss how students can become part of the housing advocacy process, as well as began work on an affordable housing guide for students to use in their search.
Jawad noted the crux of the issue is ensuring that students, of all socioeconomic backgrounds, have access to affordable housing, and CSG will continue to work to achieve this goal over the upcoming year.
“Overall, thinking about affordable housing is really a matter of equity,” she wrote. “We want to use our voices as elected members of CSG to really advocate for options for students to make campus accessible and affordable. The issue is incredibly complex and many people all over our county are working to address the ever-increasing issue of access to affordable housing. We are always looking for new ways to make a dent on this topic and will continue in the year to come to think about the issue with new members of our team.”
As CSG advocates to lower the cost of rent for houses off-campus, another student group, the Residence Halls Association, is working to lower the price of residence halls.
University housing negotiations
A University student’s first experience with housing in Ann Arbor is through the campus residence hall system, where freshmen are required to spend their first academic year. According to the University, a standard double room for the 2017-2018 school year will cost about $11,198. This is a 3 percent raise in total including renovations from the fiscal year '17.
Executive Vice President of the Residence Halls Association, LSA sophomore Ryan Rich, said there is a definite need to increase affordable housing for students choosing to live in the University’s residence halls. Rich said as part of the RHA, he works to procure the cheapest rate for room and board as possible through yearly negotiations with housing.
“For our constituents living in the halls, room and board are one of the largest expenses they will face and is something we take very seriously,” he said. “In addition to advocating for students to Housing, we work with Housing to set the rates each year. We spend most of the second semester in negotiations and then our general council votes whether or not to approve it. In doing so, we work to get the lowest price possible as well as improvements to the dorms so that our residents are getting their money's worth.”
Rich further stated RHA wishes to open up housing within the dorms to all students, not just freshmen.
“We are also working to try and open more rooms to returning students as most of them are taken by freshman, though the University guarantees that freshman get housing, so that isn't a simple task to work out,” he said.
Students, from a wide range of backgrounds and campus organizations, have listed housing as one of the primary issues on campus, yet they also recognize they can draw power from within their own population to push for meaningful change.
Jawad expressed in the future, CSG will work less with City Council and more with students on campus within their jurisdiction.
“City Council has been helpful, though moving forward we will be thinking a lot about ways we can increase options for students on campus, as this is our jurisdiction,” she wrote. “I hope I can provide you with more information about steps moving forward in the fall September when CSG recommences.”
Despite the gap between the city and students, Razdar believes an issue such as affordable housing is one that brings all of the Ann Arbor population — students and residents — closer together.
“In a city of mostly students I think that housing rights is one of our frontline struggles and bridges gaps between students and locals,” Razdar said.