From the Daily: Housing must be more affordable

Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 8:52pm

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As the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor grow in population and develop each year, demand for off-campus housing increases. Developers encourage a higher concentration of wealth in the downtown Ann Arbor area by building luxury high-rise apartments, and even with increased housing availability provided by these high-rises, prices in other areas around campus remain astronomical. Ann Arbor’s municipal code allows rental companies and landlords the autonomy to overcharge residents for the quality of their properties because of a lack of regulation around pricing. The municipal code's lack of specificity regarding when new tenants can sign leases also induces a race to secure off-campus housing each fall. Developers must build more affordable apartment complexes for the average in-state student and the average Ann Arbor resident. Additionally, the city of Ann Arbor needs to tighten rent regulations and increase enforcement of such regulations to combat these issues.

Though newly built high-rises change the city landscape of Ann Arbor dramatically, time has shown demand for such housing matches supply, as these buildings continue to be filled each year. In an ideal world, luxury apartments concentrated in the center of the city, close to campus, would lower housing prices in areas closer to South Campus and Kerrytown. But according to a recent study prepared for the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development, this may not be the case. Instead of decreased prices for housing options a little further off campus, UM students are seeing rent prices that stay at the same high rates in surrounding areas.

Furthermore, wealthier students and city residents are the ones living in these luxury high-rise apartments, which could possibly result in an increased wealth disparity within Ann Arbor. And according to the Washtenaw County OCED, wealth disparities are also increasing between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. While Ann Arbor’s economy may continue to grow because of new development and businesses moving in, the study suggests Ypsilanti’s will only worsen over time. These disparities are especially damaging to students at the University, as they attempt to balance living in a location suitable to getting to classes and maintaining affordability with rising tuition prices.

All options need to be explored to fix Ann Arbor’s housing affordability issue. In particular, City Council should look at options for altering the city’s housing code pertaining to how and where development companies build luxury high-rise apartments. City Council also needs to address ways in which it can change the housing code to improve the leasing process.

High housing demand south of campus and near Kerrytown causes residents and students to pay relatively high rent for what they’re getting. Landlords can charge upward of $850 per month per tenant for what may be mediocre to subpar properties.

Beyond paying high prices, the logistical timeline to find a lease has become a rat race. The city’s leasing laws allow rental companies and landlords to lease their properties according to a schedule that creates a housing frenzy for students at the start of each fall semester. According to the city’s housing code, leasers may not start showing properties to prospective renters until 70 days after the current tenant's lease has begun. Because of growing pressure to find housing, however, prospective tenants are incentivized to find homes on their own and secure under-the-table promise for the next year’s lease before the 70 days have passed.

These transactions can, and often do, occur under the table, but leasers themselves sometimes ignore municipal code and officially sign leases to new tenants before the 70 days have passed. In an interview with The Michigan Daily in Oct. 2015, Ann Arbor property manager Jon Keller said rental companies and landlords do this because the penalty fee is negligible — and sometimes not enforced.

Whether it’s done under the table or illegally, Ann Arbor’s current municipal code leaves students scrambling for next year’s housing each fall, during a time when they’re trying to settle into campus life and into their current houses. Many students also don’t know who they’ll want to live with a year down the line, when their lease will actually begin. Ann Arbor’s municipal code should place tighter controls on the leasing process, and these controls should be better enforced for the sake of students and Ann Arbor residents alike.

Luxury high-rise apartment complexes keep popping up and will continue to unless tighter regulations stop them. While there is demand for such housing, the increased supply and concentration of luxury living spaces in the center of the city is only contributing to increased wealth disparity within Ann Arbor and between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. What’s more, the city’s current municipal code too often leaves residents and students in off-campus housing with no other option but to sign leases before they’re ready and to pay more for rent than properties are worth. City Council needs to move to alter the housing code and tighten enforcement to combat these issues, which would benefit residents of Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor and students at the University.