The next time a window is broken or roof is damaged at fraternity and sorority houses on Hill Street and Washtenaw Avenue, members could be paying a higher price for repairs if a proposed Ann Arbor ordinance is passed, which calls for the preservation of historical architecture in the neighborhood.
Members of the Washtenaw-Hill Historic District Study Committee are looking to expand the current historic district from 21 to 176 properties.
Seventy-five percent of the University’s Greek houses would fall into the historic district. Co-ops, apartment buildings and individual homes are included as well, Historic District Coordinator Heather Edwards said.
Under the proposed ordinance, properties in the historic district would have to conduct repairs in a way that maintains the historic architecture of the building, Historic District Study Committee Chair Ellen Ramsburgh said.
“You have to preserve as much as you can,” Ramsburgh said. “Changes must be appropriate to the style of a particular house.”
For example, roof repairs would have to be done with slate instead of asphalt if the roof was originally slate, the proposal says. The ordinance would also require the windows must be very deteriorated before the historical commission will approve replacing them.
Alum Betsy French, who is the treasurer for the Alpha Chi Omega Housing Corporation, said her sorority house would not be able to install more energy-efficient windows unless the sorority lets existing windows get run down.
Neighborhood resident Chandra Montgomery Nicol said many fraternity and sorority houses have slate roofs, which are more expensive to replace than more common asphalt roofs. French agreed, calling the price of slate “astronomical.”
“Slate roofs can last 100 years, but the houses that have them are pushing that limit now,” French said. She did not know of any similar-looking alternatives that could lower the cost.
Nicol said contractors have given estimates showing that historically accurate repairs or renovations can be 15 percent more expensive. She said residents do not have to use historical materials in renovations, as long as they use materials that look similar. The ordinance does not affect temporary changes like painting and only affects parts of the house visible from the street. Renovations like window or roof repair would be approved by Edwards or sent for further review by the Historic District Committee.
Greek Life Director Mary Beth Seiler said Greek housing organizations on campus are against the ordinance. “We are virtually all opposed to this,” she said, noting that 27 of the Greek organizations affected have written memos against the proposal.
Nicol said she has heard the ordinance could drive out Greek organizations. “A number of people have talked of reclaiming the property,” she said. “It would just make it more difficult for (Greek organizations) and landlords to finance these properties.”
Ramsburgh denied that historic districts are a means of deterring student renters, saying that other historic districts in Ann Arbor such as the Old Fourth Ward and the Old West Side have many student residents. “Any neighborhood that has a mix of lifestyles has its own set of dilemmas, but this doesn’t affect usage or behavior” in the property, she said.
Greek organizations with houses usually have an alumni board that runs the residence. French said the ordinance could be the last straw for some Greeks. “Fraternities are more likely to suffer. So many of them are teetering on the edge already,” she said. She added that if the fraternities are forced out of their houses, the most likely buyer of the property would be the University. The change in ownership would remove the properties from tax rolls and possibly lead to demolition to make way for University buildings.
Seiler said Greek houses try to keep costs in line with the expense of residence halls, but the ordinance could drive up rent to cover costly repairs. “I’m very concerned for the potential expense and red tape.”