Two successive years of very large freshman classes with the attendant pressure on being able to house both returning on-campus residents with contracts for the new academic year along with all those freshmen has generated some media attention and campus commentary that U-M and Ann Arbor have a student housing “shortage.” The reality is that while U-M residence halls have indeed been fully occupied, there is availability in on-campus apartments and the off-campus student housing market is experiencing a historically high vacancy level – approaching 10 percent for at least the last two years.
While there may be selective shortfalls in specific types of housing that students are interested in (e.g. unique, multi-occupant houses), students arriving last August without previously making housing arrangements had no difficulty in locating good, quality housing near both Central and North Campuses.
The University houses about 30 percent of the student body (undergraduate and graduate) in on-campus residence halls and apartments; this percentage has stayed consistent since the early 1970s. The availability of on-campus housing will not change substantially in the foreseeable future, even with the arrival of North Quad Residence Hall in September 2009, because some older residence halls will successively be closed for up to two years for major renewal and renovation. There is, however, an important new on-campus housing option available for the last two years for sophomore to senior undergraduates; University Housing now offers more than 400 one- and two-bedroom apartments in Northwood III as an alternative to residence halls. Additionally, single graduate students are now eligible to live in Northwood Community Apartments (formerly Family Housing). For the remaining nearly 28,000 University students, off-campus housing will remain a significant component of University student life. Here, too, there is some good news. With the advent last year of M-Ride – University community members can ride Ann Arbor buses for free – it became economically and practically more convenient for students to consider off-campus housing located at a greater distance away from Central Campus. A 24 percent increase in ridership since the start of the program suggests that some students have actively pursued this opportunity.
There are several long-term critical issues related to off-campus housing that require more sustained attention from all stakeholders – the City of Ann Arbor, the University, landlords, safety and security agencies and the students themselves – in order to bring about higher-quality student neighborhoods and improved town-gown relations related to off-campus students. An incomplete list of these issues includes:
Quality of student housing
Student rental properties in Ann Arbor and environs run the gamut from poorly maintained units with unrepaired code violations – and, in worst cases, without a current certificate of occupancy – to very well maintained units with highly responsive and responsible landlords and everything in between. Students should utilize the excellent online and print resources of the Off-Campus Housing Program to identify the most important questions to ask before signing any lease. They should also have their own checklist with regard to their expectations regarding appearance, upkeep, sanitary and safety conditions and aesthetics before they start their off-campus housing search and selection. The City Building Department is required to inspect every rental unit every two and a half years but is severely taxed to keep up with the volume of units across the City and two and a half years in any event is a long time between mandatory inspections. Students can file a complaint with the Building Department if they believe that their landlord is not satisfactorily completing repairs or is not resolving code violations (See www.off campus.housing.umich.edu/lt/inspection.cfm for specifics of filing a complaint), but the best thing to do is to carefully review the track record of a prospective landlord before signing on the dotted line.
Safety and security
The recently concluded fall term was marked by some disturbing events in off-campus housing, including three significant fires in predominantly student housing units, as well as crimes against both person and property involving students. The safety and security of University students living in off-campus properties must be everyone’s collective paramount concern and a matter for constant vigilance. Landlords must be held to the highest possible standard with respect to ensuring their properties meet or exceed all fire and life safety code requirements and should actively monitor that all fire safety equipment is properly maintained throughout the tenancy of student residents. For their part, students should carefully inspect their rental at move-in to be sure there are properly functioning smoke detectors and adequate egress in the event of a fire, and not take any action on their own that disables fire safety equipment.
Over the last decade, it has, discouragingly, become much too much the norm that many students become convinced that they must sign a binding lease for the following academic year as early as September and October. Students new to the University are making a commitment to live off-campus, often with other students they know for less than a couple of months, in neighborhoods they have little experience with, and without taking adequate time to review the terms and conditions of the legal agreement they are signing. They are not always able to knowledgeably assess the positive and negatives of their prospective house or apartment mates. Students make these commitments from the often misguided and inaccurate vantage point that “all the good housing will be gone” if they have not signed a lease by a certain point in the fall term. The fact that it is not easy to define the “villain” in this practice unquestionably leads some students into bad decisions with significant negative consequences. While there are some landlords who press prematurely for students to make decisions about next year’s leases, there are students (and sometimes parents) who want first crack at the “best” housing and prod landlords to finalize lease signing before they would otherwise choose to do. Mayor John Hieftje has proposed an ordinance, modeled after a similar ordinance enforced in Madison, Wisc., that would prohibit the signing of leases for the next academic year long enough to give students some breathing room between moving in and starting classes at the start of September.
The role of the University in off-campus housing
The University is certainly desirous of constructively working with students, the City and the private sector in maintaining and improving high-quality student neighborhoods. While there are some limitations as to how far the University can or should go to affect the activities of the private sector, we have a strong interest in the quality of off-campus environments because of the impact they have on town-gown relations at the broader level, and on the ability of University students to live in a setting that facilitates their academic success and personal growth.
The Division of Student Affairs provides support to students living off-campus in two significant areas: the Off-Campus Housing Program, part of the Housing Information Office, and Student Legal Services, which together provide direct assistance to many hundreds of University’s students annually. Their online off-campus listings, resources and other services are utilized by thousands of students.
Two years ago, the University Office of Government Relations, University Housing and Student Affairs began an initiative to bring together on a regular basis historically oppositional groups, or groups that worked hard to avoid face-to-face conversations with one another. The initiative – Campus Neighbors – involves representatives such as students, landlords and property managers, University administrators, city council members, City of Ann Arbor staff, neighborhood associations and off-campus group housing (ICC, Greek Life). Campus Neighbors has had some modest, but noteworthy accomplishments including developing improved move-in and move-out waste management and recycling in student neighborhoods; education and awareness outreach to off-campus students; and the first-ever mass e-mail communications to off-campus students with timely information related to living off-campus.
At the Off-Campus Housing Program, we see a wide continuum in terms of both student-tenants and landlords. It is critical to have in place serious consequences that discourage and extinguish negative conduct from both students and landlords, while at the same time rewarding students who are good tenants and citizens, and landlords who exercise principles of excellent property management. Over the last year, there seems to be increasing energy from the key stakeholders involved in off-campus housing to press for achievable improvements that will strengthen the quality of off-campus student neighborhoods, which in turn will be good for students, their surrounding neighbors, the city and the University.
By Dale Winling, Graduate Student, Architecture and Urban Planning
What city are you from? The answer to this question correlates pretty strongly with peoples’ feelings on the housing problem in Ann Arbor. Undergrads, grad students and young professionals who move to this city from Kalamazoo, Bloomington, Chicago, or any other Midwestern city or town blanch at the rents people are expected to pay in Tree Town. Arrivals from Boston or San Francisco think they’re getting a great deal for living in a cute downtown with amenities like museums and music venues within walking distance. Count me in the former camp; I comment on Ann Arbor is Overrated and curse under my breath every time I write a rent check that doubles what I was paying (with less space) as a student at Western Michigan University.
According to the 2000 census, in 1999 more than 45 percent of Ann Arbor renters paid more than 30 percent of their income for rent, the federal standard for affordable housing. In that same period, of course, homeowners and landlords saw double-digit appreciation on their houses.
Objective measures aside, there are political ramifications to the debate. The eternal town-gown conflict (in Ann Arbor and elsewhere) is exacerbated by, if not fueled by, the student housing issue. Longtime residents and historic preservationists see single-family residences and grand old mansions being turned into apartment houses predominantly occupied by students, and point the finger at the consumers rather than criticizing the economic structures that create the markets. A political opportunist, Ann Arbor mayor John Hieftje criticizes the University for not building more dormitories and votes for anti-student measures like residential parking permit programs. Students grow even more annoyed at the whole situation and the city of Ann Arbor.
How can the rampant rents be reined? Sensible urban planning enabled by students’ political participation. In simple economic terms, there is not enough housing for the demand. Students generally want to live near campus, which more or less means low-rise apartment buildings, houses, or converted apartment houses. The University is expanding almost without pause, meaning more housing consumers for a more or less finite number of units (keep in mind that the population of the city as a whole is slowly growing, too). If the housing market were functioning normally, real estate developers would be building new units to satisfy that demand. Ann Arbor, however, is not a normally functioning market. Developers who want to build new units in a number of price ranges are stymied and smacked down by preservationists and neighborhood associations. Even when they put together a proposal that makes economic sense, satisfies Ann Arbor’s values on affordable housing and combines retail with commercial and residential uses, people who are afraid of tall buildings flex their political muscle and drive off proposals that would increase the city’s housing supply. Next time you’re at Angelo’s Restaurant, take a look at the defunct gas station on Glen Street. Thanks to the Historic District Commission, that will remain an eyesore rather than a mixed-use ten-story building for the foreseeable future.
The city has to continue to develop new housing units, not just for students but as part of a broad effort to provide housing to the poor, the working class, students, young professionals, baby boomers and empty nesters. Market studies show people want to live downtown, people want to live in more affordable units, and people want to live in areas of higher density with a vibrant local economy and active street life. Main Street doesn’t have to be deserted Sunday through Thursday after 10 p.m. Given some simple urban design guidelines, new construction can satisfy demand for living downtown without sacrificing the streetscape many people love about downtown Ann Arbor.
In addition to developing new units downtown and near campus, the city can start developing satellite business and residential districts. Almost any other city of Ann Arbor’s size or larger has more than one node of activity. Because Tree Town had little industry in the 20th century, and in fact, only had a population of about 30,000 in 1930, we lack the real estate and neighborhood distribution of other cities. If we were to build some mixed-use neighborhoods at a distance from the downtown area, we could offer more than one option for those who want to live in an “urban” area. People should have more than just one choice of where to live if they want to be within walking distance of a grocery store or a coffee shop and bookstore. In addition to increasing desirable housing supply, having these options will also relieve some of the pressure on the campus-downtown area, particularly if it is served by bus (or is near the potential Detroit-Ann Arbor rail line). Just think