Op-Ed: Reform the Ann Arbor Tenants' Union

Monday, January 29, 2018 - 6:51pm

The recently published Campus Affordability Guide by the University of Michigan’s Central Student Government has produced understandable and justifiable backlash. Affordability in Ann Arbor is a structural issue and will hardly be solved by suggesting students spend less money. One of the biggest costs to students is rent, which continues to increase every year. As the University continues to admit more students and refuses to build more housing for those students, more are pushed into the private market. Due to the high cost of land and developers seeking to maximize profits, the market will continue to supply unaffordable luxury student high-rises. Students, however, need not be powerless as consumers in the housing market. One recommendation of the affordability guide that CSG should pursue is the reformation of the Ann Arbor Tenants’ Union. The AATU was formed in 1968 as the coordinating committee of a city-wide rent strike initially protesting the poor housing at a time when 90 percent of rental properties failed to meet city code requirements. After its formation, the AATU undertook several more strike and advocacy actions to combat failure to meet code requirements, privacy violations and sexual harassment in cooperation with women’s groups and anti-racism efforts. In addition to serving the whole of the Ann Arbor area, the AATU received most of its funding from Central Student Government, then known as the Michigan Student Assembly. In 2004, CSG stopped funding the union, despite 58 percent of the student body voting to continue funding the union through a one-dollar increase in tuition. CSG’s decision to stop funding the AATU led to its dissolution in 2004.

CSG provided funds to the AATU as well as office space in the Michigan Union because of the benefits the AATU provided to students. The vast majority of students are renters in Ann Arbor and renting for the first time, making us particularly vulnerable to predatory actions by landlords. Due to CSG funding, the AATU provided free services to students such as legal advice when dealing with landlord issues as well as lobbying efforts on behalf of the city’s renters. At the time, CSG incorrectly claimed the AATU was ineffective. While students can get legal advice from Student Legal Services when dealing with landlord issues, it hardly fulfills the same advocacy on behalf of students that the AATU once did.

A great deal of the need for the reformation of the AATU is the disempowered status of students. Looking at the wards of Ann Arbor, from which City Council members are elected, one notices that they look like slices of pie. They are shaped this way for an explicit and by no means accidental purpose. At the height of student activism in the late ‘60s, students wielded substantial influence over city council. When this activism subsided in the ‘80s, the wards were redrawn to weaken and disempower students.

Additionally, because Ann Arbor is a Democratic stronghold, City Council members often run unopposed in the general election, thus making the only election of meaning the August party primary. Students are often not on campus at the beginning of August, and thus the average age of the primary voters is mid- to late-60s. Because students don’t vote for the members of City Council, the city government has little electoral incentive to represent our interests. While Zach Ackerman, D-Ward 3, was able to win a seat on the council as a student, he is the exception and not the rule. He is also the only member of the 11-member city council who rents and is not a homeowner, a significant underrepresentation considering that 40 percent of Ann Arbor residents are renters.

The reformation of the AATU would give students political power as renters. It would have the ability to influence City Council year-round when the students are not here and be an institution that represents our interests. When the AATU existed, it demonstrated its power and influence by initiating rent strikes and even suing the city of Ann Arbor. In 2004, students felt that the AATU should continue its existence, and it is unfortunate that CSG did not honor the will of the students at that time. While restoring the AATU would not be a silver bullet solution to fixing affordability in Ann Arbor, its return would be something CSG could do to improve affordability in Ann Arbor and an effective use of student tuition dollars; providing an important service to students that the affordability guide does not. The tenants’ union at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was used by nearly 8,000 students in 2015 and assisted in writing a comprehensive landlord-tenant ordinance in Urbana. If there is one thing that comes out of the backlash to the Campus Affordability Guide, it should be for CSG to take action on its call for the reformation of the Ann Arbor Tenants’ Union.

Christopher Olson is an LSA junior.