About a year ago, a member of the Old Fourth Ward Association contacted members of the Ann Arbor city council. He wanted to discuss some house fires in neighborhoods near the University campus. Through that e-mail and subsequent discussions over the next several months, OFW members tried to make a specious connection between couches on porches and house fires. Thus was born the campaign to ban the porch couches that students love and homeowner associations hate.
The stakes were raised when couch opponents tried to push the ban through city council before students got back to school last fall. Fortunately, quick-witted students got wind of the proposed ban and started talking it up on their blogs and web sites. Students and other sensible community members debunked the myth of the fire hazard and stood up for the simple freedom to put comfortable furniture on one’s porch. For the time being, thanks to these students, you and I are safe to sit on our couches this summer eating Stucchi’s ice cream or sipping a beer after work. And in the process, these students exposed the campaign for what it was: an attempt by organized homeowners to push their values on a largely disorganized student-renter population within Ann Arbor.
The calculus of local politics is this: Nearly every segment of the city has homeowner and business groups to look after its interests. The Old West Side Association, the OFW and the State Street Business Association all lobby and organize within the city to promote their agendas. Students, however, have no organization to represent their sizable interests in Ann Arbor (Michigan Student Assembly being a campus-based organization). We don’t have much say on local issues; we don’t have much representation within city government; we don’t have much of a chance to set the agenda for Ann Arbor. This is despite students’ composing somewhere around a third of the city’s population — in fact, in some areas like the Old Fourth Ward (the neighborhood north of Huron Drive, actually now the city’s First Ward), students and renters are at least a whopping 90 percent of the neighborhood’s population.
This situation is not unique to Ann Arbor — in college towns across the state and the country, sizable student populations are at the mercy of neighborhood political machines. Ask your friends in East Lansing why they can’t have couches on their porches. Ask your friends at Ferris State about the padlock ordinance there, where three noise violations can get you kicked out of your house and makes the house uninhabitable for up to a year; or your friends at the University of Florida about the one there. Students in Ann Arbor are not alone in not having been organized to fight against these draconian measures when they are proposed. They have certainly not put themselves in a position to help shape the city agenda.
What is unique to Ann Arbor is that this is about to change. Recognizing the potential strength of the student vote and the raft of issues that affect students who live in the city, students are launching neighborhood associations of their own. By organizing students by geography, these new associations intend to overcome the transience of student renters. An advantage the homeowner associations have is that their members know each other from community activities: school open houses, church groups and gardening clubs. Students, on the other hand, often don’t know their neighbors and identify more with their campus, their programs or other groups unrelated to where they live. By getting students to identify with their neighborhoods and mitigating the year-to-year move-out cycle with a stable political structure, student neighborhood associations will force city politicians — who are elected by geographical wards — to respond to student issues. Only then will students be acknowledged as the enduring group with common interests that they are.
It is at that point that we can get beyond aesthetic battles and someone can address why nearly half the renters in Ann Arbor, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, pay more than thirty percent of their income for housing — exceeding federal standards for low- and middle-income renters. Or perhaps then someone will remedy the lax enforcement of the housing code and reprehensible lack of maintenance by absentee landlords, both of which contribute to blight in student neighborhoods. Or someone can explain why residential parking permits — which limit parking on public streets to immediate locals — are being pushed by homeowner associations and subsidized by the city. Join the first student neighborhood group, the New West Side Association, and see how you can help. And introduce yourself to your neighbor.
Winling is the founder of the New West Side Association. For more information, visit http://www.newwestside.org/.