Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Ann Arbor and the "Cool Cities Initiative": A City for Whom?

11. September 2004

by June Gin

Ann Arbor’s historic reputation as an enlightened and tolerant place, a “hip” and trendy city, will continue to attract new residents and urban growth in the next decade. As we, as a community, decide what Ann Arbor’s future is going to look like, two recent policy developments will shape the decisions we make in the next years. It is up to us to determine how our vision of tomorrow’s Ann Arbor will emerge. Will it continue to be a diverse, multi-cultural community where arts and ideas flourish? Or will it be transformed into a commodified playground for wealthy bored people?

The first is the recently passed “Measure B”, the mayor’s Greenbelt Initiative for Ann Arbor. Following the national trend of “Smart Growth”, Ann Arbor voters, by approving Measure B, indicated a desire for compact development, building downtown, and building “up” rather than “out”. We expressed our desire to break from traditional suburban design and limit urban sprawl in the interest of preserving open space. The city’s efforts to secure state designation and development grants under the “Cool Cities” Initiative shows a similar intent to strengthen downtown and make it more attractive.

The second is the Bush administration’s 2004 budget, which proposed cuts in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)‘s funding for Section 8 vouchers, which impacts 100,000 extremely low income families who will essentially lose their homes. Nationally, these compound the 64 percent cuts to HUD’s budget since 1978, and the loss of about 90,000 affordable housing units annually. While a growing number of developments refuse to accept Section 8 tenants, for local governments, this compounds an already inexorable and dire affordable housing crisis, underscored by the University’s recent decision to essentially eliminate affordable family housing by moving undergraduates into units designated for student families.

In Ann Arbor, deciding to grow “up” rather than “out” means that we, as city dwellers, want to concentrate life in a city center, to live with both the constraints and rewards that residents of other places like Manhattan and San Francisco have come to know. As such, we face a reality check, as certain as the law of gravity: space is limited. When certain things get built, other things are excluded. When space gets built out, the only way you can build is through demolition. Difficult choices must be made. If we build primarily high-end condominiums and lofts, trendy restaurants and cafes, and choose to exclude affordable housing, artist space, community space, and designated spaces to incubate local business and entrepreneurship, we make choices about where low and moderate-income people, artists, community and civic groups, and unique local businesses can go. Unfortunately, those places don’t include Ann Arbor.

For capitalism to flourish, you actually have to do some non-free market things. If we want an economy based on low-wage labor, which we need if we’re going to be able to go to trendy restaurants, we need to think about where we want these workers to live, particularly if we’re not going to pass a living wage ordinance. If we want children to have a chance to get good grades, to grow up in places where they can have home-cooked meals, to have parents present rather than working multiple jobs to pay the rent, if we want to build community on our values, whether they be around families or a broader definition of civic life, we need to ensure that people who work in Ann Arbor can live here. If we want to have an interesting arts district, we need to think about space for artists. If we want civil society where people care about community, we need to set aside space for community groups. And if we want to have something other than Starbucks, perhaps we need to think about local business incubators. And ultimately, we will have the Ann Arbor we want and love—a city where we and other people want to live. That’s what we need with the Cool Cities Initiative.

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote, “The ubiquitous principle is the need for cities for a most intricate and close-grained diversity of uses that give each other constant mutual support, both economically and socially.” A sustainable and socially just city economy is not one where we export our low-income housing need to adjacent cities by generating what other cities call a “jobs-housing” imbalance. To understand what a “jobs-housing” ratio means, one only needs to consider the conditions generated in California’s Silicon Valley and other technology corridors, where generating 17 jobs for every one housing unit during the early 1990s created a situation where laborers in San Francisco and San Jose were paying $100-$150 a month for floor space to sleep, 75 people, in a warehouse, with one bathroom and no cooking facilities. (When the city found out about it, they were evicted.) That scenario is not altogether foreign to Ann Arbor, where stories of five migrant workers being housed in two-bedroom apartments are not uncommon.

In Ann Arbor, one only needs to walk by the Blake Transit Center at 5 am on a weekday, watch the city’s low-wage workforce coming off the buses that bring them in from Ypsilanti and other low-rent centers nearby, and consider the race and class divide that separates these people from the population strolling down Main Street on a Friday afternoon. Is urban apartheid part of our “Cool Cities” vision for Ann Arbor?

If an unsustainable Ann Arbor isn’t enough of a problem, consider that courts around the country have suggested that such practices are unconstitutional. In 1984, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in the Mount Laurel case that suburbs must end their longstanding practice of indirect economic discrimination and construct their “fair share” of affordable housing for low and moderate income families, who were mostly families of color. This “fair share” housing standard has been implemented by state governments across the country. Even if it isn’t a requirement in Michigan, do we want Ann Arbor to be an innovative “Cool City” or do we want to drag our feet until civil rights attorneys file suit and force Michigan communities to build their fair share?

The affordable housing issue brings us to the second policy development. As federal funding for Section 8 declines, cities are recognizing that it can no longer rely on federal government funds to finance affordable housing. While city officials have told us time and again in public forum that they’re doing their best, those of us who have worked with those most affected by the city’s affordable housing crisis feel that Ann Arbor can do more. While officials are “doing their best”, consider these impacts on local workers:

According to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition’s 2003 statistics, a worker must earn $15.67 at a full-time 40 hour/week job to afford the fair market rent on a 2 bedroom apartment, a family-sized unit, in Ann Arbor. That’s a increase of 4 percent from the previous year. As a result, 46 percent of renters are unable to afford the fair market rent on a 2-bedroom apartment. Minimum wage workers, who earn $5.15 an hour, must work 122 hours a week to afford the median rent on a two-bedroom apartment. in Ann Arbor, resulting in 17-hour days even if one works seven days a week.

These figures clearly demonstrate a need for “workforce housing”, particularly in areas where demand for low/minimum wage labor is high. Ann Arbor, with its cafes, restaurants, and retail-based economy, is a city where land uses create a particular need for low/minimum wage labor, particularly if we are to develop this “cool city” image that most people envision without creating a living-wage requirement for employers.

While “workforce housing” is currently the popular parlance among affordable housing providers, there are still problems in adopting that term in policy discourse. The dominant debate at city halls nationwide is not whether housing should be affordable, but for whom—whether government should help middle-class residents buy houses or provide housing within the reach of working poor and homeless residents. While there is room for both policy approaches, the term “workforce housing” is a loaded term that links people’s right to shelter to their capitalist productivity. It is objectionable because people are not disposable objects that cities get to throw away when they are no longer producing goods of quantifiable monetary value. Our elderly and disabled residents are not simply worthless because they no longer produce goods and services valued in our local market economy. Veterans, some of whom live in Ann Arbor’s limited subsidized housing, are not to be exported from our community because we decide that those who can’t work after they have “fought for our freedom” don’t need to live in our privileged community. Lest we think that “workforce housing” is merely discourse, the term typically applies to policies that seek to provide housing targeted for those who earn anywhere from 90 to 120 percent of median income. Considering that the 2003 median income for a family of four in Ann Arbor was $77,700 a year, this bracket of those earning $69,930 to $93,240 a year for a family of four includes skilled professionals, but excludes those in more working-class service sector and clerical jobs, both of which are over-represented in Ann Arbor’s economic structure. (HUD’s statistics assume a nuclear family of four, with two wage-earners. With only one earner, conditions are worse.)

For those who fall through the cracks in Ann Arbor, the prospects for housing or policy change are not good. Recently, residents at the YMCA, the city’s single-room occupancy transitional housing facility for those unable to compete elsewhere in the housing market, went through a period of upheaval and uncertainty when the YMCA decided to stop operating its housing facility. After some discussion, the city decided to exercise its right of refusal and purchased the facility. There was some commitment to continue providing transitional housing to single individuals at the site, and recently, the city also decided to perform necessary renovations to the building. In a series of community meetings we held at the YMCA, residents told us the city gave them no opportunity to participate in deciding the future of their home. While it seemed to them that the city had good intentions, they felt uncertain, and worried about the loss of transitional housing in Ann Arbor. While they were not planning to live at the YMCA forever, they saw it as an important asset which gave them a chance to get on their feet, live in a city environment with social networks, good access to transportation, and most importantly, the knowledge that the same opportunities would be available to others.

As access to shelter becomes more tenuous, so too becomes the vibrancy of our civic life. Homeless shelters are increasingly less viable for those needing housing of the last resort, as draconian drug testing excludes those who need to self-medicate. The city has already banned panhandling, in a gesture of intolerance with a chilling effect on most street vendors and inhibiting the diversity of the sidewalk as a public space.

We can do something about it. Ann Arbor faces opportunities to employ the following policy actions to maintain the housing options necessary to sustain its diversity:

  1. Preserve the Affordable Housing Stock by Maintaining Transitional Housing: The YMCA has served as a source of transitional housing for low-income people who were ready to move into a semi-stable housing situation, but were not able or ready to live in private housing on their own. For veterans, people moving out of institutional housing, such as mental institutions or the prison system, women leaving abusive situations or shelters, new residents, people receiving General Assistance or Supplemental Security Income, or newly employed workers who have not saved enough for a security deposit, transitional housing is essential to reduce the homeless population and allow those who can move beyond the shelter to take that next step toward move stable living conditions. If Ann Arbor is truly serious about reducing its homeless population, it should make a commitment to providing transitional housing so those who want to stop being homeless have real options.

  2. Explore Eminent Domain to Provide Affordable Housing: Rather than making excuses about private developers’ reluctance to build affordable housing, city officials should explore options for obtaining space for affordable housing space within the city that can be sold, or otherwise provided, to affordable housing developers, or even private developers, for the express purpose of providing housing targeted to low-income residents. A concerted effort should be made to identify land that is not currently in use, and offer to buy parcels from the owners of vacant properties. A number of vacant spaces do exist in the city center, and if Ann Arbor is seriously planning to adhere to the greenbelt initiative and restrict sprawl, it needs a plan to house residents who work in town in the city center, rather than forcing them to commute.

  3. Establish More Systematic Mandates for Affordable Housing Set-Aside: Most developers understand that Ann Arbor would like affordable housing provisions in their developments. Yet, units are not always set aside for affordable housing in new developments, as the Eaton loft project in the Old West Side, which was approved with no affordable housing, amply illustrates. Rather than creating a political game where developers play to see what they can get away with, and the city creates an impression that planning and development are hyper-politicized, why not have a systematic process for determining how much affordable housing will be required from new development so that both developers and city planners have the same understanding of the requirements?

  4. Tie All Subsidies, Including Cool Cities Grant Money, to Community Benefits:
These community benefits include, of course, affordable housing, but can also include a unionized workforce, First Source hiring of local residents, community and non-profit space, a contribution to education or affordable housing funds, or anything else community residents feel they want in their community. Subsidies should not be free money for developers, even though they may claim that they cannot build without them. The negotiation of Community Benefits Agreements has worked in numerous communities, and any developer who refuses to sign a contract agreeing to return the subsidy money if it does not follow through on agreed community benefits should not be receiving a subsidy. And lest our proposal smack of socialism, we must remember that all of us, including the poor, pay for those subsidies—it’s our money.

Any bonds to pay for development should be loans that developers must repay. If the city needs to sell bonds or otherwise raise money to subsidize a development, the private developer, which is often a capital investor financed corporation, must be required to repay the money that the city has provided.

  1. Tie Zoning Decisions to Community Benefits: The single most powerful tool that cities have over development is their right, enshrined in legal precedent (_Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty_, 1926) to establish zoning rules. These rules dictate what can or can’t be built on a given site, in a given district. If a developer wants to build something other than what the zoning says, it must obtain a special permit. As Ann Arbor seeks to implement the provisions of the greenbelt initiative, the density of areas near the central downtown district will increase, and zoning changes will be called for to allow for more dense land uses. While numerous groups will demand that these zoning changes occur now so that projects can proceed without extensive review, the city should NOT increase the density zoning designations in these areas without some mechanism to demand that developers provide public benefits, such as affordable housing, in exchange for being able to build at higher density. The simple reason is that allowing developers to build at higher density by increasing the zoning designation (otherwise known as “upzoning” an area) essentially increases their profits. As the public, we experience costs (traffic, noise, crowding) associated with higher densities—that is the logic to restricting density through zoning. Before we relax those restrictions on density and give developers higher profits, we, the public have a right to demand something in return. Again, it is up to residents to decide what those public benefits should be, but developers should pay for the public goods, like affordable housing, that we need in Ann Arbor.

  2. Develop Clear Equitable Development Criteria: Since all of the aforementioned proposals will meet controversy, it is imperative that we establish criteria for “equitable development”. As Ann Arbor becomes a more popular place for development interests to invest, build, and speculate, we can protect the public interest by establishing a uniform set of criteria which we will use to evaluate all development projects. It only seems responsible that some of these criteria should heed the impacts that low-income residents will experience with this new development, and mitigate those impacts. We can ask tough questions: What will the new units cost? Who will get to live there? How many affordable units? What will the workforce look like? Who will work at these new jobs? What will they be paid? What rights will they have? As multi-national corporations like Pfizer arrive to take advantage of Ann Arbor’s highly educated workforce, what will they give back? How much will they contribute to the community’s affordable housing and education fund? Many of us love to complain about the impacts of global capital, but we forget that we are local citizens with the right to demand that corporations give back in exchange for the right to be in our communities. Some people worry that Ann Arbor will cease to be a “business-friendly” city. But in southeast Michigan, Ann Arbor, the home of the University of Michigan, will always be “business-friendly”. We can ask for a lot more back before that changes.

A final note. Contrary to popular belief, ordinary citizens cannot do this alone. Ann Arbor’s policy elites — you know who you are — I can’t sit down at a café or restaurant in this town without overhearing someone mention your names, can you? —must take some responsibility for making this vision a reality. Specifically, local affordable housing providers need to take a clear stance that they stand firmly behind local policies to augment the city’s affordable housing supply. It means nothing to be an “affordable housing provider” if one is only maintaining one’s current stock of affordable housing while opportunities and actual affordable units disappear, exacerbating the overall housing crisis. While some may read this as illicit “political” activity, those of us who have worked with the people who are affected by the affordable housing crisis feel that it is equally morally unacceptable to claim to be part of the solution while refusing to support the efforts of those seeking to address the crisis on a larger scale.

June Gin is a is a member of the VOICE coalition, an affordable housing advocacy group representing homeless Ann Arbor residents and citizens concerned about Ann Arbor’s housing crisis. She is a doctoral candidate in the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan. You can email her at jgin [at] All members of the Ann Arbor City Council and Planning Commission have received copies of this letter. Please feel free to refer to it when talking to any of them.

  1. Let’s be careful calling for the use of eminent domain to acquire land for housing developers. I have a feeling that Poletown v. Detroit would be mentioned in a heartbeat if the City discussed any such thing (oh look, I just said it).

    Fortunately, what June Gin discusses under the heading of eminent domain doesn’t necessarily involve eminent domain. It’s perfectly acceptable (legally speaking) for the City to purchase land from willing sellers to resell, more cheaply, to affordable housing developers. If it were a case of takings by the city, though, it’s possible the city would have to end up owning whatever housing was developed on the land.
       —Murph    Sep. 21 '04 - 05:28PM    #
  2. Er, sorry, it’s Wayne County v. Hathcock I’m thinking of, overruling Poletown v. Detroit.

    The upshot of this is that the Michigan Supreme Court has ruled that takings of land for the purpose of reselling to private developers violates the Michigan Constitution. Takings can only be used in instances of the public good, and the indirect public goods of job creation, workforce housing, etc, by private developers don’t count.
       —Murph    Sep. 21 '04 - 05:31PM    #
  3. From one Cool City resident to another- I enjoyed reading this article both because Marquette is facing similar “Cool City” concerns and also because I am hoping to move to Ann Arbor this fall to pursue an MSW degree at the University of Michigan. I think that the proposed solutions mentioned here are both reasonable and sustainable. I am currently working on a “Housing and the Homeless” presentation for my social policy class. This was a great read. I wish you the best of luck in gaining support and obtaining results!
       —Gwen of Marquette    Mar. 25 '05 - 01:05AM    #
  4. June, you’ve hit a home run – said everything I wanted to say on my website, mean everything I mean when I talk about affordable housing (although I do get into accessory dwelling units as well).

    My understanding is that currently ‘affordable’ housing is reserved for a family of four who earn 60% of the median income (which has dropped since I did calculations – it was just over $80,000 when I wanted to be a ‘big, bad developer’ of affordable housing), currently $46,620 (this was the standard used for Ashley Mews). Of course it’s ridiculous (in my opinion) to set a maximum income level for affordable housing so high; I would prefer 40% – or $31,080 for a family of four. That would mean that minimum wage for housing would be just about right for one wage-earner; but of course, jobs at $15 an hour are quite rare in town (I don’t make that much at my U job), so two wages – either two jobs for one person, or two people – are needed still.

    This is what Tom Gantert used when he broadly misquoted me in the Ann Arbor News this Sunday (although I can’t fault the thrust of his rearranged wordings).

    I wonder what’s happened to the idea of cities being run by people who a) have experience in the community (for real, not just on public boards) and b) know what they’re talking about? June for Mayor!

       —Pete Schermerhorn    Oct. 31 '06 - 04:29PM    #
  5. Peter,

    So your plan to create affordable housing in Ann Arbor, should you get elected, would be to increase the costs for developers to do business in Ann Arbor, and then push for the installation of a multi-million dollar downtown greenway?

    Do I have this right?

       —todd    Oct. 31 '06 - 08:35PM    #
  6. I am in need of low income and/or moderate housing in ann arbor because I have been offered a career there and am willing to relocate as a single unit. Please forward me any info. you have regarding this matter of immediate occupancy. I trust your judgement due to the fact that my mom & grandma were both members of the United Metodist Church. Any references are also appreciated. La avonne Pope 248-460-3660/248-330-4444 &

       —La Vonne F. Pope    Oct. 10 '07 - 11:37PM    #