For too long, the student and renter community has played a peripheral role in Ann Arbor politics. According to the 2000 census, 54 percent of Ann Arbor’s housing units are occupied by renters, yet they play virtually no role in local politics. Instead of treating this massive affront to democracy as a problem to combat, city leaders have been all too content with a status quo that excludes most of the city from meaningful political participation through ward-based gerrymandering.

Student and renter attempts at community organizing have been stymied in recent years. Whether by student apathy, the hostility of the city’s political elites or a lack of serious and motivated candidates for Ann Arbor City Council, efforts to involve a major part of the city in the local public life have sputtered. However, I believe a number of recent developments has shown that a group of students and renters has coalesced that will seriously contend for power in the city: Conditions are ripe for a perfect storm that could revolutionize Ann Arbor politics.

First, through the activism of a small group of local blogs, there has developed an online community interested in engaging in local issues. These blogs have included my site, (which I founded last summer), Ann Arbor is Overrated and others. ArborUpdate in particular has become a venue for voices that otherwise lack a platform.

Second, there’s been an unprecedented level of organizing in the student community at the neighborhood level. Students Dale Winling and Richard Murphy are working to found renter-oriented associations in their neighborhoods, and Winling is making plans to start a citywide membership organization for students and renters called the Ann Arbor Alliance.

Third, there has also been growing interest in engaging students in City Council politics by student groups like College Democrats and Students for PIRGIM. The debate over the Greenbelt engaged students in unprecedented levels in local politics, encouraged by a group of civic-minded faculty including professors Matt Lassiter and Greg Markus, who regularly encourage their students to take what they learn about progressive urban public policy out of the classroom

Recently, I have heard of perhaps the most encouraging sign yet: a serious student contender for City Council. Eugene Kang is a lifetime Ann Arbor resident who is running for City Council in Ward 2. Eugene told me recently his platform is to find solutions to the city’s budget crisis; address the city’s housing crisis by making more options available within the city and bringing an open-minded approach to density and development; and to expand the political process to include those who do not now participate, pointing out that Ann Arbor’s large Asian-American community is particularly disengaged. That’s an agenda I think both students and local residents can get behind, and Eugene said he’s been getting a positive response in his extensive canvassing. Eugene will face a former Republican candidate for mayor who has switched parties to run against him in a Democratic primary on August 2. Anyone registered to vote in Ward 2 should vote for Eugene in the primary and in the general election. (Ward 2 includes Mary Markley, Couzens, Alice Lloyd, Stockwell, the Linden Street area and all the neighborhoods northeast of Washtenaw Avenue. To register to vote or check your registration or polling location, call the city clerk at 734-994-2725).

Furthermore, the existing city politicians have done much to (inadvertently) fan student organizing in the past few years. The eminently reasonable and limited proposal introduced for accessory dwelling units in the city was smacked down by the City Council in 2002 (ironically, Eugene Kang’s primary rival was a vocal opponent of the ADU proposal in 2002). A draconian towing ordinance took many students unawares with large fines that were reduced after an uproar. Murmurs of a ban on couches on porches last summer sparked vocal participation in local politics by many who had not spoken up before.

No matter how perfectly aligned the conditions, the storm won’t strike without unprecedented energy fueling it. If they set their minds to it, students have both the political base and intellectual resources to be a potent political force that could fundamentally reshape the city’s political landscape. An atmosphere of complacency and pessimism about what is possible for the city hangs around city hall. Let’s imagine a city where tenants’ rights are a top priority; the planning commission and council aggressively pursue an agenda of dense, sustainable development; and new and radical ideas to provide affordable housing — such as subsidized housing and rent control — are earnestly explored. If they set their minds to it, students like Dale Winling and Eugene Kang — and their supporters — could begin to make this vision a reality.


Rob Goodspeed graduated from the University last year and now lives in Washington, D.C. He is a former member of the city’s cool cities task force and former Michigan Daily staffer.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.