Faced with a changing city landscape and student anxiety about high off-campus housing costs, Central Student Government has begun exploring options for cooperation with city government to address the issue.
However, it remains unclear which specific policies CSG can realistically coordinate with city and county government officials that would alleviate off-campus housing costs, or even to what extent off-campus student rental costs have been changing.
CSG President David Schafer, an LSA senior, told the Board of Regents at their September meeting he hopes to start a dialogue between students and local officials on off-campus student housing.
"The issue of increasingly costly off-campus housing for students is an issue that I believe we’d be well-served to tackle together,” Schafer told the Regents, adding preliminary meetings with city and local officials have already taken place, including with Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor (D) and Washtenaw County Commissioner Andy LaBarre (D).
The median rate for rent in Ann Arbor has increased 14 percent to $1,075 per month from 2010 to 2015 — even as the amount of high-density housing has jumped by 32 percent — according to the U.S. Census Bureau. However, this data is for the entire city and may not be reflective of the cost of housing for students specifically, most of which are clustered downtown.
Nadine Jawad, CSG senior policy adviser and Public Policy senior, said CSG does not yet have concrete data on off-campus student housing costs or trends, noting they are conducting preliminary research to collect this data. She added, however, that the initiative began in response to numerous students approaching CSG with concerns pertaining to the cost of off-campus living.
“I strongly believe that when students come and talk with us, their concerns should be top priority,” she said. “We wanted students to have a better understanding of off-campus housing dynamics in Ann Arbor because a lot of students expressed that the current rental prices were an issue.”
A major hurdle for CSG’s initiative will be limits on the city of Ann Arbor’s ability to exert control on housing prices, which includes rental costs for students. State law bars municipalities from setting rent controls on private landlords, and while housing subsidies and incentives are possible, they cannot be made exclusive for a specific demographic, such as students.
Schafer acknowledged these challenges and that meaningful change may take well over a year to take effect. Nonetheless, he said he hopes to see greater student involvement in City Council decisions, especially ones about housing.
“I think students would be well served to know their innate powers as a state constituency,” said Schafer. “Making their voices heard is so important because when students come together, when students mobilize, when they make their voices heard — that can lead to tangible, positive results for the general constituency.”
CSG is planning to initiate public dialogue between students and officials at a panel Oct. 13 in the Union, with speakers from City Council, the University of Michigan and other officials. Executive members of the housing affordability initiative, such as Jawad, are aiming to start with events that will then lead to other projects for the year.
Jawad said CSG also plans to talk to about housing issues associated specifically with high rises going forward and has contacted Tower Plaza and Zaragon West to ask questions about density.
Ann Arbor resident Ken Clein — who chairs the city Planning Commission — said there is no “silver bullet” to remedy high costs of living, but listed several options that are often discussed by the Planning Commission and city government.
These options include incentives for developers to create more low-rent housing, increasing the amount of property available for residential development and allowing the construction of low-density accessory dwelling units on existing residential plots. Clein noted that these measures can only be applied to the city housing market as a whole, and cannot be specifically targeted at students.
The willingness of property developers to lower rents for students in response to external factors will also be crucial.
Craig Wack, public relations director at EdR housing, which manages several properties in Ann Arbor, said large student housing projects in college towns tend to compete based on proximity to other students and amenities, with price as only a secondary factor, especially because many students receive rent assistance from their parents.
"In the surveys we've had… the one thing that came back first and foremost is that students want to live where their friends live, they want to have that community," Wack said. "Price is probably number two, a number of our students are paying their own way, but there are a lot of students who get help from their parents."
LSA junior Ellen Guerra, who is living in an off-campus apartment for the first time, wrote in an email that she's found of the off-campus housing process frustrating.
“Figuring out student housing in Ann Arbor is outrageous: first, pricing is too high for what the homes offer. I know people who signed their lease 2 years in advance in order to secure a good home,” she wrote in an email to the Daily. “This makes finding housing extremely stressful if you don't have connections to the people in a house you want or don't have a set group of friends you want to live with.”
She added that pricing is often unpredictable, especially when utilities come into play.
“Finally, the prices are high and always become higher once you move in: I thought my place included all extra expenses but once I moved in I learned I needed to pay more for Internet, parking and electricity,” she wrote. “The idea of figuring out housing for next year stresses me out a lot and it's a full year away (un)til move in.”
LSA sophomore Elizabeth Szeles echoed Guerra's thoughts about off-campus housing.
“I think housing is expensive in general,” she said. “As a sophomore, I am thinking ‘let’s look at off-campus housing’ and I am doing that right now, and it’s still ridiculously expensive, and that’s with the meal plan included. I really wish there were more options.”
Szeles said she doesn’t know what to expect out of CSG’s plan to work with City Council, but added that she understands a project as big as one on the housing affordability might not be completed within her time at the University.