Ann Arbor: Not immune to the COVID-19 housing crisis

Sunday, October 11, 2020 - 8:48pm

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Illustration by Maggie Wiebe

On the last Friday of August, Craig Teschendorf passed the day wondering where he and his puppy Eleanor would go after his eviction from the Orion MainStreet apartment complex in Ann Arbor. In a touching act of unity and protest, about 20 members from the area showed up to successfully postpone the eviction of the elderly disabled retiree. Photos from the event show a diverse, masked community successfully coming together to protect a vulnerable citizen of their city amid a pandemic.

 

The protest was able to keep Craig off the streets until the end of September, when staff from the apartment complex and Ann Arbor police showed up to carry out the eviction. In an email, the Ann Arbor Tenants Union wrote that he is still looking for housing for him and Eleanor. Though Craig is becoming the face of the anti-eviction movement in the Ann Arbor area, evictions are still taking place across the nation no matter the coronavirus case count or the perils of wildfires, hurricanes and other aggressive weather. While the United States housing crisis did not start with the pandemic — in fact, it has been a decades-long problem — the circumstances of the pandemic have certainly exacerbated this growing issue. 

 

The economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic has left millions both temporarily and permanently unemployed across the U.S. The national unemployment rate skyrocketed to over 14% in the beginning of summer and is currently projected to dip below 8%. Adding to the problem, the number of permanent job losses is increasing, creating a negative outlook on the job market as the U.S. continues to stagger through the economic consequences of the pandemic, left uncontrolled by an administration incapable of acknowledging and addressing the worst public health crisis in over 100 years. Irrespective of the abysmal public health policy of the 45th president, the Trump administration’s culture of downplaying the severity of the virus to the American public and refusal to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines are enough to impose blame for the state of the nation.

 

All of this economic turmoil has resulted in an estimated 30 to 40 million Americans facing the threat of eviction, mounting debt, late fees and interest due to back rent and the legal consequences of unpaid rent, such as a wage garnishment if landlords sue to evict a tenant. In September, an unprecedented, nationwide eviction moratorium was declared by the CDC to protect renters and prevent the spread of COVID-19, but the effectiveness of this action is unknown as evictions continue to take place across the country, even in Ann Arbor, and landlords challenge the legality of the moratorium itself.

 

Needless to say, the housing crisis is not exclusive to Ann Arbor, which is already one of the most economically segregated cities in the nation. Though over half of University of Michigan students come from the top 20% of American households and have differing levels of concern and parental support when it comes to paying rent, many students struggle to cover the cost of housing even without a pandemic and its crippling effects on the economy. While the fact that 78% of undergraduate credits are now offered virtually makes the need for housing in Ann Arbor less pressing, the obligations of student renters have remained intact for the most part. From all over the country and around the world, students flocked back to Ann Arbor in August to fulfill already-signed leases.

 

With the fall semester underway, the issue of housing for the academic year may have faded in the list of students’ most pressing concerns. I spoke to Gayle Rosen, a landlord and tenant attorney for Student Legal Services, to learn more about student housing concerns amid the pandemic. She said that “(SLS) received hundreds of calls in the spring when U-M decided to move to online learning. Students headed home and said they wanted to break their lease because they no longer needed to stay in Ann Arbor in order to complete their schoolwork, or because they lost their jobs and could not afford their apartment. We have also heard from students who needed to return home to help care for a family member as a result of the pandemic.”

 

After the University declared its plans for a “public-health informed” semester, “SLS received a lot of calls from students who wanted to terminate their leases for 2020-2021 because they decided not to come back (to campus),” Rosen said.

 

Rosen acknowledged that for students, the problem is that there is not a strong legal basis to terminate their leases, even during a pandemic. Because leases do not often contain provisions that allow for an early termination due to an emergency, rent is still due and leases are still binding for many students, no matter how dire the circumstances. 

 

Needless to say, the housing crisis is just another straw on the camel’s back for many students juggling the typical stressors of college life that have intensified during the pandemic. To all the Ann Arbor landlords I spoke to over the phone, the public health and economic crises are not enough to convince them that desperate times call for desperate measures, such as cutting rent or allowing renters to terminate their leases under once-in-a-century circumstances. Amid the crisis, there have been heartwarming stories of landlords showing great empathy to renters, but these few instances are the exception, not the rule.

 

According to an employee at Z West Apartments who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, students can break their leases after paying six monthly installments. Google Reviews from May 2020 claim that McKinley Properties offered a 5% percent rent cut, which after its annual rent increase, did not seem very meaningful to tenants. In addition, I talked to a number of landlords who worked to waive subleasing or late fees for a period of time. 

 

As described to me by many landlords over the phone, their policies did not change due to the pandemic because their tenants have not had trouble paying rent, and did not express the need for rent concessions — so, there seems to be no reason to cut rent. If this is the case, the income of landlords, based in legally-binding leases, should be relatively stable. Yet several landlords have applied for financial support made possible by the Paycheck Protection Program. 

 

Data from the U.S. Small Business Administration shows many landlords in Ann Arbor, in response to the pandemic, received low interest, federally backed loans that may be forgiven under certain circumstances. According to a data project from ProPublica, McKinley Companies received between $5 and 10 million, Cabrio Capital and Cabrio TNM Holdings received between $150,000 and $350,000 each, Wickfield Properties between $350,000 and $1 million, Wilson White Company between $150,000 and $350,000 and Landmark Properties, the nation’s top developer of student housing that has stakes in Z West, Z Place and Foundry Lofts, received between $5 and 10 million.

 

If tenants are not having trouble paying rent, as high-rise complexes and landlords with houses across Ann Arbor told me over the phone, why do these enormous companies need coronavirus bailout money? Where exactly is it going? And who exactly is benefitting?

 

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In an email, Lisa Disch, a professor in the Department of Political Science and Women's and Gender Studies, and the Democratic nominee for Ann Arbor City Council Ward One, wrote of the painful truth of the housing crisis during COVID-19.

 

“The pandemic definitely helped make many more people aware of this crisis but it did not cause it,” Disch said.

 

Citing a 2015 study of American metros, Disch continued.

 

“Ann Arbor has never been an inexpensive place to live but it is no exaggeration to say that we are currently facing a housing crisis,” she wrote. “Not only is Ann Arbor the eighth most economically segregated city in the nation — not Michigan but the nation — but we are second in the nation for excluding ‘essential workers’ from living alongside the people who depend on them.”

 

The University’s role in the Ann Arbor housing market is worth noting: “Over the last 15 years, UM enrollment has grown by 8,557 students, up 22%, while just under 6,000 beds have been added between new apartments and dorms in the downtown/campus area.” Where does the University expect these additional nearly 2,500 students to live? What does the University expect to happen to the cost of housing when students must compete with a growing Ann Arbor population for a place to live, and they do not guarantee on-campus housing? 

 

Disch commented on the recent growth of the student population.

 

 “I do think that the growth of enrollment and employment at the U (the problem is not just adding more students but adding more jobs generally) have contributed to the housing crisis but it is important not to lose sight of these long-term trends. We’ve been coasting along with an outdated vision of the city that has accelerated inequities and reduced racial and economic diversity,” she wrote.

 

The impacts of redlining and racial discrimination are twisted into the economic inequality seen throughout the country and become even more apparent during these crises. The disparities that make home ownership more difficult for Black and Hispanic households compared to white people and eviction rates that put minorities at a larger risk of ending up on the streets are inseparable from health and wealth inequalities that are exacerbated by the pandemic. According to the CDC, “long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19.” Understanding the reciprocal relationships between owning or having a stable place to call home, maintaining health and building wealth is key to understanding the disproportionate impact of the pandemic and the housing crisis on minority communities.

 

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The lack of rent concessions and ability of students to break leases is disheartening and displays a lack of empathy. Yet, it is not surprising that after the University announced its plan to welcome students back to campus, many questioned and even protested the potential conflicts of interest for Regent Ron Weiser (R). Weiser, who is both a U-M Regent and the founder of McKinley Properties, a real estate tycoon that, as of 2013, had over 35,000 units and $500 million in revenue, stood to gain millions by having students return to campus.

 

Nevertheless, individuals do have the power as voters, students and renters to humanize the Ann Arbor housing market through collective action.

 

This November, a millage (a tax on property) to provide funds for affordable housing in Ann Arbor will be on the ballot. Additionally, representatives and senators for the state and federal governments are up for election and each party will have to account for their own agenda to address or ignore the housing crisis. Following the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a second stimulus bill, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, which includes $60 billion in rental assistance and moratoriums for both evictions and foreclosures. The competing Republican bill, the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools Act, provided no rental provisions, and Trump has been back and forth on his willingness to participate in stimulus talks. Our ability to vote for legislators who work to provide rental assistance is paramount as the pandemic, and the housing crisis, rage on. 

 

Students can also take action on an individual level in hopes of faring better in a landlord’s market. Specifically, Rosen advises students to wait longer to sign a lease.

 

“Generally, even without a pandemic, I caution students against [signing] leases early,” Rosen said. “I always believe that it does not make sense to rush and recommend that students wait, because there is a lot of uncertainty ... a lot can change in a year.” 

 

While waiting to sign a lease limits the selection of housing available to students, there is also a financial incentive behind this patience. 

 

“The students that wait are often able to find apartments or houses at reduced rates,” Rosen said. Because at that point, landlords are getting closer to the start of the semester and are more willing to reduce rates. I am hoping that will result in students delaying signing leases so they are more certain about their plans.”

 

The best outcome for all students would be for everyone to refrain from signing a lease until later in the academic year; in doing so, students would gain leverage and landlords would likely reduce or negotiate rent in hopes of locking in tenants. However, acting collectively in this way is next to impossible among the student population. From my experience, finding housing at the University is a hyper-competitive environment. Students sign leases as early as the first week of classes to lock in the closest, nicest housing, often with new friends or even acquaintances. Since students often live in a different place each year and many are not concerned with paying rent due to being financially supported by their parents, taking on a landlord to negotiate rent or argue for a termination provision in the midst of juggling classes and other activities is not commonly pursued across campus. 

 

Because of the pressures of the fall leasing period, student renters are bound to sign the best lease they can find quickly. Despite the pandemic, many landlords are moving forward with leasing for the 2021-2022 academic year, disregarding the city ordinance that mandates lessees have 70 days after their lease begins to determine whether to resign.

 

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Even with government attempts of postponing evictions and providing direct, financial assistance to relieve tenants and landlords through the CDC eviction moratorium and the CARES Act, the decades-long housing crisis, one that is exacerbated by a pandemic, calls into question the effectiveness and ethics of a mainly for-profit, private housing market. Rosen offered her opinion on the continuance of the crisis. 

 

“I think unless the government intervenes, there is going to be a flood of evictions, and this is especially troubling during a pandemic when people are otherwise being advised to stay home and social distance,” Rosen said.

 

Political Science graduate student and Graduate Employees’ Union Secretary Amir Fleischmann spoke about his take on the housing crisis in a phone call with the Daily.  

 

“I think that as long as housing is a commodity, an investment, it will not be affordable for regular people,” Fleischmann said. “Having real investments in affordable housing, public housing, is the only out of this crisis. It means, yes, property values are going to need to go down — rents are going to need to go down. It is not something that should be hugely profitable because it is something people need to survive, like healthcare, like education.”

 

With no end to the debate about how to fix the housing crisis with a definitive solution in sight, it looks like the future of the housing market is dependent on those working tirelessly to solve a collective action problem muddled by insatiable greed. Regardless of how we plan to make housing better, more affordable and more accessible to all people, only time will tell whether we act and vote to keep our neighbors off the street and finally work toward an end to the housing crisis.


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