CSG, city officials consider students and residents needs on issues of housing

Thursday, October 13, 2016 - 10:55pm

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At a town hall Thursday with Central Student Government members and Ann Arbor city officials, members of each group tried to find common ground between city and student interests for downtown housing.

During the event, individuals compared housing costs near the University of Michigan to other Big Ten schools, saying that the University’s housing is more expensive. Speakers also noted the economic drawbacks of a less diverse group of individuals living in an areas like downtown Ann Arbor.

CSG recently created an affordable housing project in response to student concern about the high costs of off-campus housing. Public Policy junior Nadine Jawad, who spearheaded the initiative, said the town hall was an important launching point for further communication between students and city officials. About 25 individuals attended the event, the majority of which were students.

“We have to be allies and work together with the community, with the larger Washtenaw County, with the city, with the campus, and think (about) how we can unify our interests to benefit all,” Jawad said.

Ann Arbor City Councilmember Zachary Ackerman (D–Ward 3), who is a recent University graduate, and County Commissioner Yousef Rabhi, both on the panel, emphasized impacts of increasing housing costs, such as the exclusion of students of lower socioeconomic status.

“(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.”

Teresa Gillotti, Washtenaw County housing and infrastructure manager and another panelist, said 56 percent of tenants in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti — comprised of mostly students — pay 30 percent or more of their income on rent. Some students consider the high rent pricing in Ann Arbor unaffordable, which could be a reason why some students are choosing to commute, Gillotti said.

Rabhi echoed her point, saying housing downtown was out of reach for a growing number of residents.

“People are just not making enough to afford the housing in Ann Arbor,” he said.

Gillotti said the more mixed-income a community is, the better the economy will be, as there will be more people buying from a diverse range of Ann Arbor businesses.

Ackerman also discussed past city efforts to incentivize affordable housing, including a “premium” system where high-rises could have more stories if they met affordable housing or environmental safety qualifications. However, he noted high-rise companies rarely choose to build affordable housing.

Another issue raised at the town hall was the impact increased housing density, a popular suggestion for fixing housing issues, might have on crime in the city.  Mary Jo Callan, director of the Ginsberg Center, a University of Michigan organization focused around social change, said crime would not be a concern in increasing housing density, as research has yet to prove a link between lower housing costs and criminal activity.

“That’s just factually inaccurate,” Callan said.

Callan also noted that with nearly 9,000 of 43,000 students living in campus housing, the University — one of the biggest economic players in Ann Arbor and the region— actively contributes to congestion. While 3,500 jobs are created by the University, Callan said two-thirds of those individuals don’t contribute to the city’s economy fully because they don’t live in Ann Arbor but do use city transportation.

Gillotti said the University often views the housing problem in Ann Arbor as a transportation problem, highlighting the need for a rail system or better public transportation to downtown. She suggested students bring in data from other Big Ten schools on commuters to compare to the University, noting that people consistently commuting from work or school can cause negative economic effects on Ann Arbor.

“The most action at this University happens when students are involved,” she said.

Callan also said students can be a huge ally in the efforts to combat high costs, which Ackerman echoed, adding that during city elections in August, the median age of the voter is 61 years old.

“(Ackerman) is a true ally, but he is one of 11,” Callan said. “Politicians only have as much courage as we, voters, the community, have.”

After the event, Jawad said she thought the panel opened up to future possibilities on how to move forward with the affordable housing project.

“Hopefully we can use this to make tangible action items afterwards,” she said. “I think engaged conservations towards people like (Rahbi) is where the change is going to come from.”

LSA sophomore Tara Jarayam, an attendee, said she hopes to see more students and faculty participating in future discussions. Jarayam added she also hopes to see more tangible student solutions to some of the housing issues in the future.

“Housing is one of the most anxiety-inducing process for me right now,” Jarayam said. “The fact that we aren’t guaranteed housing after freshman year … it’s very stressful.”

LSA sophomore Nathan Wilson, a LSA student government representative who attended the event, said he feels like he has little control over the cost of his rent, citing an incident where his landlord raised his by $100.

“It’s almost impossible to not get taken advantage of,” he said. “Even if you are the most on-top-of-it person, there’s no way can you discuss your way into a reasonable lease anywhere around here.”