Stately fraternity and sorority houses such as Phi Delta Theta and Kappa Kappa Gamma have long been fixtures of the Hill Street and Washtenaw Avenue area. However, many of those involved with the Greek system on campus fear that last night’s City Council forum on the proposed expansion of the Washtenaw Hill Historic District could soon make it more expensive to live under Greek letters.
The council voted late last night to table the ordinance to allow further discussion and consideration of the ordinance, which led to three hours of debate among Ann Arbor residents.
If passed, the ordinance would have required residences in the historic district to make any external changes that are visible from the street historically consistent. This means repairing – rather than replacing – historic windows if possible and using historic roofing materials such as slate. The proposed expansion would increase the district from 21 properties to 176, including about 75 percent of the Greek houses on campus.
Alumni and current members of multiple fraternities and sororities showed up to express opposition to the expansion proposal. Joe Frattori, a member of the housing board for Phi Delta Theta, said fraternities do not qualify for the tax credits available to help private homeowners defray the cost of maintaining historic properties. He added that 23 percent of the properties in the expansion district are non-profit churches, cooperative houses, fraternities and sororities – none of which qualify for the tax credits.
Susan Smith Gray, Kappa Alpha Theta housing corporation president and treasurer, echoed Frattori’s fears. “This will require more money from us,” she said.
Greek Life Director Mary Beth Seiler said that she felt student behavior in Greek houses partly motivated the proposed expansion. “Putting these houses in a historic district will do nothing to affect behaviors,” she said.
Councilwoman Joan Lowenstein (D-2nd Ward) said the expansion was not intended to impose hardship on fraternities and sororities. “Without fraternities, there would be a shortage of student housing,” she said. “This is not meant to get rid of Greek houses at all.”
Ann Arbor resident Karen Coulter, who spent four years on the Washtenaw-Hill Historic District Study Commission, said she originally had fears about the affordability of maintaining a historic house, but that working on the committee allayed those fears. “I believe that hardship is a reason to be lenient on an external repair,” she said. “We worked hard on the study to focus on appearance” rather than materials. She added that materials such as slate frequently account for most of the cost of historic repairs, but that the committee allows homeowners to use like materials that look historically consistent.