Over the past two months, neighbors living around the area of the proposed apartment site at 828 Greene St. have gathered at Ann Arbor Planning Commission meetings to protest the 36-bedroom building.
Some neighbors said they believed a building of that size would increase traffic in the neighborhood and make it impossible to park in a place with already limited parking availability. Others spoke of how important their homes are to them and how a large influx of students would ruin the tight-knit dynamics of the neighborhood.
On Nov. 30, the commission ruled against the builder’s request to develop the site. Like the neighbors who protested the plan, the main reason the commission rejected the proposal, saying that they believed the building was not well-suited for the area. Many neighbors considered this a victory in the fight to save their way of life.
According to city officials and many members of the community, the need to develop more affordable places to live in Ann Arbor like the apartment site at 828 Greene St. is a prominent and pressing need. But it is difficult to please everyone, when it comes to actually building new housing.
Remodeling a city of elites
Mayor John Hieftje has attributed the lack of affordable housing in Ann Arbor to a variety of things, the two most prominent being the popularity of the city and a shortage of available space in which to build.
“Lots of people want to live here. We have the lowest unemployment in the state, a vibrant university, high tech industries –— it’s a great place for people to be. Every community that’s as successful as Ann Arbor has this problem,” Hieftje said. “We’re also very constrained in that we can’t grow — the city limits are there and there’s not much room to develop in Ann Arbor anymore.”
Because of the popularity of the city and lack of space, some people say they believe Ann Arbor has reached a point where only the wealthy can afford housing.
“If we allow (Ann Arbor) to become a city of just very high housing values, it becomes a city of elites, and we begin to see that other voices, or voices of people who just happen to have a lower income, are left out of the community conversation,” Hieftje said. “So we may become a place — and we already are a place — where people beginning a career as a teacher can’t live here, a person beginning a career in law enforcement can’t live here.”
A variety of efforts are being made by different groups to bring more affordable housing to Ann Arbor.
The city has developed several requirements for contractors who want to build housing. For example, contractors requesting to build in Ann Arbor’s downtown must meet an “affordable housing quotient” — meaning that 15 percent of the units in their building must meet affordable housing criteria. In Ann Arbor this means that for housing to be considered affordable, the cost per month cannot exceed $989.
If a builder cannot meet that criteria, he is required to contribute $60,000 per unit to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Money in the fund is used to finance other low-income housing projects throughout the city.
A clash of housing views
While many neighborhood organizations in Ann Arbor acknowledge the need for affordable housing, they often disagree with the city government on what types of housing should be built and where these new structures should be located. Several homeowner associations say the Ann Arbor City Council has not always been adequately responsive to their concerns.
“We beat on the city’s doors for a number of years before they actually listened to us,” said Stephen Rapundalo, president of the Orchard Hills/Maplewood Homeowners Association in Ann Arbor.
Judith Marks, president of the West Liberty Homeowners Association, said she has become so disillusioned with the council that she believes talking to it about her concerns is not worthwhile.
“As far as affordable housing is concerned, I personally don’t think there’s any point in protesting because I think the city council has an agenda, and they’re not going to listen to what we say,” Marks said.
The mayor said he always tries to take the neighborhood’s concerns into consideration.
“I’ve never been an advocate of stuffing anything down a neighborhood’s throat and saying ‘You’re going to accept this, darn it.’ I don’t think we’ll ever do that. I think we continue to listen throughout the whole process, and we’ll always continue to listen to the neighborhood’s concerns,” Hieftje said.
Marks said another problem is that when affordable housing goes into a neighborhood it brings the values of all properties down. She added that when another developer is looking to build affordable housing, they choose the same location where the property values are lower. As a result, one area ends up getting a majority of affordable housing.
“What happens is that more and more affordable housing keeps coming, and the risk is that you could just create a ghetto of some sort,” Marks said.
Jean Carlberg, a member of the City Council and its planning commission, said the mentality that adding affordable housing to a neighborhood will decrease property value is unfounded because Ann Arbor is such a desirable place to live.
“It’s almost impossible to build anything that will lower the value of property in Ann Arbor,” Carlberg said.
According to the National Review of Real Estate Markets online report, the average house in the United States sold for $179,500 in 2001 . The 2001 average selling price in Ann Arbor was between $200,000 and $250,000.
Marks said while it’s not a problem for her, some of the people in her neighborhood are concerned about the problems they believe are associated with people of lower economic status who often move into affordable housing.
“They’re all afraid of crime, but I don’t know if that’s a reality,” Marks said. “It’s a different lifestyle — really poor people live differently than professors do. They have a lot of different stresses. It might be a culture gap that people are afraid of.”
While Marks acknowledges there is a need for more affordable housing in Ann Arbor, she believes that it should be balanced throughout the community.
“We’re not saying ‘Not in our backyard,’ but we’re saying let’s share it. In Burns Park the property values are quite high, so those people may be a little more snooty, and I think they should also share the burden. I think some affordable housing should be mixed into that area,” Marks said.
Rapundalo doesn’t agree. He protested against the city’s efforts to allow people in his neighborhood to add accessory dwelling units to their homes. An accessory dwelling unit is a room in a house that is set aside for the purpose of renting it to interested individuals.
“Everyone who bought a house here in the neighborhood bought it with the knowledge that this was zoned for single family dwellings,” Rapundalo said. “That’s the kind of neighborhood environment we wanted to live in, and if the city was going to allow anybody and everybody to erect accessory-dwelling units, that would not only change the character of the neighborhood, but also it would violate the zoning we bought into.”
Grinding through the solutions
Rapundalo said his solution to the problem is to stop trying to put more affordable housing in the neighborhoods and to focus mostly on creating more housing and more density in Ann Arbor’s downtown.
“(The City Council) needs to follow through on their commitment to increase the density downtown. I think that’s probably an easier option than trying to put large numbers of affordable housing units into neighborhoods,” Rapundalo said.
The council actually is trying to put more affordable housing downtown, but has also faced opposition to these efforts.
Part of the city’s plan to increase residential density in the downtown area is to increase the height of new buildings. Douglas Kelbaugh, dean of the University’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, said several different groups have raised concerns that taller buildings will not fit in with the character of the downtown and may cast undesirable shadows on other buildings.
Kelbaugh was a member of the Downtown Residential Task Force that made recommendations to the council on how to create more affordable housing downtown.
Hieftje said he believes the best way to solve the problems between the neighborhood organizations and the City Council is to communicate more.
“You have to work through each of the issues, and what we try to do is satisfy each of the concerns. In modern planning, a development shouldn’t just be pushed into someone’s neighborhood. You should work with that neighborhood to make the development the best it can be,” Hieftje said.