Councilmembers discuss affordable housing development in Ann Arbor

Monday, November 18, 2019 - 9:37pm

Community members raise awareness about the importance of affordable housing in a City Council meeting in Larcom City Hall Monday.

Community members raise awareness about the importance of affordable housing in a City Council meeting in Larcom City Hall Monday. Buy this photo
Kyto Batt/Daily

Ann Arbor City Council convened Monday night at Larcom City Hall to discuss matters of affordable housing development and the city’s deer population.

Jennifer Hall, executive director of the Ann Arbor Housing Commission, began by speaking about the commission’s ideal site recommendations for new housing projects for the city.

“I believe it is a well established fact that we need more housing that is affordable in our community to seniors, low income families, special needs households, homeless households, people working in the service industry and young professionals,” Hall said.

According to Hall, building publicly funded affordable housing can be an uphill battle, particularly due to the ease and effectiveness with which private developers can purchase properties and begin construction.

“In a hot market like Ann Arbor, affordable housing developers cannot compete with the private sector to purchase property, because it can take us a minimum of two years to secure the type of financing that we need,” Hall said. “And unless you have a sympathetic seller who’s waiting for you to get your money together, then you’re not going to be able to complete.”

Ann Arbor residents present at the meeting were adamant about the need to move forward on housing development. Community member Michelle Hughes expressed the urgency of developing affordable housing in Ann Arbor.

“There is always going to be some excuse,” Hughes said. “Any change that would develop affordable housing gets a great deal of scrutiny around here. But we should also be giving more scrutiny to the status quo. There’s 4,000 people on the list on the waitlist of the Ann Arbor Housing Commission. That’s 4,000 people experiencing housing insecurity while we sit around and worry about, you know, whether it might be convenient to park at the Fourth and Catherine Parking Lot.”

During her address, Hall recommended more than a dozen potential development sites across the city, including properties on Catherine St., Ashley St. and N. Main St..

The council also debated the issue of carbon neutrality, and how this would be achieved in the new housing developments. Last month, the council declared a climate emergency, and set out goals to achieve carbon neutrality in new city development plans. According to Councilmember Elizabeth Nelson, D-Ward 4, based on the environmentally progressive actions of the council, the measure should not have been as contentious as it was.

“As recently as last month, we articulated the idea that our entire community can achieve carbon neutrality and here we can’t,” Nelson said. “We are not brave enough to assert that we can do it on individual properties. I just, I guess I misunderstood the meaning of what we passed in the most recent meeting, because I don’t feel like this is consistent in any way at all.”

Several community members supported this notion, including Rita Mitchell, who expressed a need to take environmental factors into account when planning new housing developments and infrastructure.

“We need to recognize that we exist as parts of an ecosystem, and that for our collective purposes, it will be best to place housing in areas that do not challenge existing functioning, green ecosystems,” Mitchell said. “We should look at existing built infrastructure first, before we allow for the degradation of our environment.”

Ultimately, the measure was rejected, 6-5, with Councilmembers Jeff Hayner, D-Ward 1, Anne Bannister, D-Ward 1, Jane Lumm, I-Ward 2, Jack Eaton, D-Ward 4, and Nelson supporting it. The matter will likely be reevaluated again once development begins on the local properties.

Despite the failure to approve the carbon neutrality proposal, the proposition to begin development on Catherine St. was approved 9-2, with Eaton and Lumm opposing it. 

Councilmember Zachary Ackerman, D-Ward 3, noted that any decisions reached by the council represented only the first steps in a 4-5 year process towards affordable housing development. In the next several years, more decisions will be made by council on the development.

“Just keep in mind as we do deliberate, that this is deciding what direction we want to head down,” Ackerman said. “This is where we need to go. It is not the details of how we’re going to get there — that will come in time, and service. So tonight is really an opportunity for all of us to get behind this report and take the next step to take it off the shelf and make it practical and impactful in our community.”

At the council meeting were also about two dozen advocates for Stop the Shoot, a local advocacy group standing against certain methods used by the city to manage the deer population.

Community member Ellen Rowe spoke at the meeting, explaining that any method involved in killing or hurting deer populations in the area is unethical and should not be allowed by the city.

“I believe that I represent a great number of Ann Arbor residents who do not believe that wildlife is a disposable commodity. I oppose this slaughter not because of ‘Bambi-itis,’ but because of deeply held ethical beliefs,” she said. “How about the next few years we engage in a process where we study data collected over time, assess the population changes without a cull and allow for experts to come up with more humane management protocols.”

Eaton, however, argued that the methods currently in place are the best and only option the city has to effectively manage deer populations.

“I don’t like guns, I’ve never hunted, this is not my first response to a problem,” Eaton said. “But according to the studies done by various universities, this is the method that works. Everything else is an illusion.”

The council meeting concluded deliberation around midnight and will continue discussing issues of affordable housing in the coming months, as plans for development unfold.