Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Affordable Housing Focus Groups

28. July 2006 • Chuck Warpehoski
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Sometimes it seems like affordable housing is like the weather, everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it.

So on August 1st, there’s going to be another chance to talk about the issue, but hopefully in a way that supports action.

Washtenaw County/City of Ann Arbor Office of Community Development is conducting an Affordable Housing Needs Assessment from 6:30-8:30pm and the Library Learning Resource Center (LLRC) at 4134 Washtenaw. (full details on upcoming.org)

(Of course, good groups like Avalon Housing and Religious Action for Affordable Housing do work on affordable housing. And of course Exxon does it’s share to change the weather, but that’s another story).



  1. Thanks for posting this, Chuck. I know the city really wants residents to come to this event. They have not been having the greatest turnout, so maybe some publicity would help.

    I was talking with someone the other day who grew up in Ann Arbor, then moved away, and is now back. She is working at Trader Joe’s. When I asked her what she thinks about Ann Arbor, the Cathorpe plan and affordable housing, she said she thinks Ann Arbor is becoming a lot less friendly to those who don’t have money. In effect, there are less and less places for people to live who do not make a “professional’s” income.

    I would have to agree given what I have seen of the condos going up in downtown Ann Arbor thus far. How can we create affordable housing downtown as well as the housing needed to bring people to the downtown? Maybe this is the same population? Dunno, just a couple of questions flowing through my mind. As an advocate for both downtown development and affordable housing, I hope we can find ways to both create a great, pedestrian-friendly, earth-friendly, art-friendly downtown and a town that everyone can live in. Is this even possible?


       —Nancy Shore    Jul. 28 '06 - 06:34PM    #
  2. There are several issues here. First of all, what are we talking about when we say “affordable housing”? Avalon provides housing for those people who really have no income. The old Y and the Y replacement housing is housing for those with very low income (but it is not free). Most often when I hear people talk about needing more “affordable housing,” what they really mean is housing for people with more moderate incomes: people who could afford a $100,000-$250,000 house, but nothing more. These are really important points of clarification and are very different housing needs (and require different moral and monetary support from the community).

    Second, we need to figure out as a society/culture/county/city, what “housing” means. Is this the idea that everyone should be able to own a house or a condo? Or does adequate affordable housing include long-term (maybe lifetime) rentals? This is a very real question. In most big cities, lifetime rentals are a very acceptable way of living. I also know many people here in Ann Arbor who have rented for many decades and are happy with that situation. However, again, when I hear people talk about “affordable housing” here, it is always in the context of home ownership.

    Third, we need to get over the idea that building new units is the way to get affordable housing. The most efficient affordable housing is always going to be existing. What we have to do is find a way to keep units available, affordable, and liveable. I’ll use six houses (all structurally sound—not derelict) in my near-downtown neighborhood that have sold in the last two years for “reasonable prices”: $167,000, $188,000, $147,000, $210,000, $225,000 (duplex), and $185,000 (duplex). Of those, not a single one is owner-occupied. Three were sold as teardowns in order to build speculative (and expensive) 6-bedroom unit apartment buildings, and the rest were sold as rentals. In addition, there is one entire primarily empty apartment complex that is for sale. In the other apartment buildings in the area, average rent for a two-bedroom unit (including heat, water, and parking) is $850, but they have a hard time renting them. So how do we keep these more affordable units around, but make sure they are safe and updated. How do we keep speculative developments from reducing the available lower-priced housing stock (6-bedroom apartments in my neighborhood sit empty for years, but are still replacing actual affordable housing)? How do we keep affordable housing integral to most neighborhoods rather than create pockets of low-income housing out on the periphery? How do you stop or mitigate the “flipping” of houses in near-in neighborhoods? Paying lots of money to developers to build affordable units on expensive downtown land seems to be a poor way of providing or maintaining real affordable housing, but there are near-in neighborhoods that could still provide these opportunities.


       —Juliew    Jul. 28 '06 - 09:13PM    #
  3. Juliew wrote: “Third, we need to get over the idea that building new units is the way to get affordable housing.”

    What do you think of the potential of Accessory Dwelling Units to fit into this strategy of optimizing the use of existing housing stock as opposed to building from scratch?


       —HD    Jul. 28 '06 - 09:31PM    #
  4. I think Accessory Dwellings are a great idea and I live in a zoning that permits multi-family dwellings and has a few remaining duplexes. However, having just gone before the Zoning Board this week to protest the demolition of an existing house in order to build a two-unit, six-bedroom each unit, three parking spaces on a too-small non-conforming lot, I think there need to be some limits. The addition of a one or two-bedroom unit to an existing house, or creation of a two-unit duplex out of an existing house or the conversion of a garage to a two-bedroom living space is something that very few people actually disagree with (and used to be a norm in the near-in neighborhoods in the early 1900s). The problem comes when a landlord wants to put a four, five, or six-bedroom accessory dwelling in addition to an existing six-bedroom house in order to maximize their profit regardless of parking, sewer, noise, etc. considerations. I think the City needs to change their ordinances so the requirements are per bedroom rather than per unit and much of the problem will go away (currently, a six-bedroom unit has the same requirements for parking and sewer and water as a two-bedroom unit). However, the way the ordinances are written now, Accessory Dwelling Units could really do a lot of harm to some of the neighborhoods surrounding downtown and I can’t see that ban being lifted unless there are some protections included.


       —Juliew    Jul. 28 '06 - 09:54PM    #
  5. Re: scope / definition of “affordable housing”

    Since it sounds like this event is part of the County’s Needs Assessment, I believe they’re looking at a wide range, from 0% – 120% of Area Median Income. The original proposal was to examine the needs within each income slice and the supply within each price slice, and see what’s needed. Maybe at a certain income slice, 2-3 bedroom units are what’s needed and 6 bedroom units are what’s available; I think what they’re doing is meant to serve in part as market research this way, in hopes of encouraging new supply to target existing demand.

    So this process would fit what Juliew’s noting – people developing at the maximum the zoning will support and actually harming the overall market.

    I think.


       —Murph.    Jul. 28 '06 - 10:03PM    #
  6. Re: ADUs

    Juliew, I think that enabling ADUs would not have nearly the impact that you’re imagining / describing.

    The term ADU is not, in my experience, used to discuss a duplex – where both units may be a full and unrestricted housing unit under the Zoning. ADU ordinances typically have at least two common limitations put on them:

    * No more than (very low number) of residents in the ADU. Often 2. Sometimes “1, or 2-3 related”.

    * One of the units (either the principal, or the accessory) must be owner-occupied.

    The ordinance proposed for A2 a few years back I believe had both of these, and, in addition, required a minimum spacing in between – I seem to recall it would generally limit the supply to around one ADU per block, at maximum build-out. A very small number of new residents (or cars, or flushes, or whatever the relevant unit of measurement wants to be). There may have been other restrictions; I’m too lazy to dig it up.

    I think this is why people like me became so annoyed with the Mayor and City Council at the time. A very small number of residents freaked out that, all of a sudden, the floodgates would be opened, and everything would turn into a duplex full of students. The fears expressed were almost completely factually wrong – the proposal would have had a very limited impact by any measure – but the Mayor and Council backed down meekly in the face of misinformed protest, rather than correct the misinformation. It’s one thing to respect the fears of residents, but quite another to kowtow to bad information.

    (Of course, if I’ve got the story wrong, maybe somebody should provide the right information…)

    Ask Brandon about researching ADU ordinances for Ypsi’s planning department…

    And, since I notice an inclarity in my previous post, So this process would fit what Juliew’s noting – people developing at the maximum the zoning will support and actually harming the overall market. I meant that the County’s process would correct the certainly negative trend described.


       —Murph.    Jul. 28 '06 - 10:34PM    #
  7. Very, very worthwhile comments, juliew.


       —David Cahill    Jul. 28 '06 - 10:36PM    #
  8. The proposed ADU ordinance was so conservative it was unreal. Planning staff toned it down in multiple ways, including the space limitations (something like 800 sqft) and required distance between ADUs (500 ft IIRC). I read through all the written objections of citizens (though not the emails [David Cahill, want to use your FOIA powers for good?]) and it was all about the loss of neighborhood character, not the (extremely minor) risks of overburdening the city’s infrastructure. “We bought into a single-family neighborhood, and we want it to stay that way.”


       —Dale    Jul. 28 '06 - 10:46PM    #
  9. The term ADU is not, in my experience, used to discuss a duplex – where both units may be a full and unrestricted housing unit under the Zoning. ADU ordinances typically have at least two common limitations put on them:

    * No more than (very low number) of residents in the ADU. Often 2. Sometimes “1, or 2-3 related”.

    * One of the units (either the principal, or the accessory) must be owner-occupied.

    The ordinance proposed for A2 a few years back I believe had both of these, and, in addition, required a minimum spacing in between – I seem to recall it would generally limit the supply to around one ADU per block, at maximum build-out. A very small number of new residents (or cars, or flushes, or whatever the relevant unit of measurement wants to be).

    Ah, then yes, I support them absolutely. I do remember that there was a lot of misinformation about the ADUs at the time and if I recall correctly, contrary to what people believed, the areas of town that voted against them were actually the outlying areas of town, which were unlikely to be affected. While the OWS, OFW, etc. were OK with it, given the parameters.


       —Juliew    Jul. 28 '06 - 10:47PM    #
  10. Right – the OFW and some of the other close in ‘hoods, I believe, wouldn’t have even been affected. Since duplexes are already allowed there, an ADU ordinance would have been irrelevant. (I spoke with Chris Crockett about ADUs at one of the Calthorpe sessions, and she seemed quite happy with the idea, so, for emphasis, the OFW association is not at all to blame for this.)

    Also, my comment on a small impact, regardless of the unit of measurement, should include “increase in housing supply.” ADUs would be one small piece of a big puzzle, but if we can’t manage a small piece with very well-defined boundaries and extremely small negative impacts, what’s that say about hopes for the puzzle?


       —Murph.    Jul. 28 '06 - 11:14PM    #
  11. Thanks for mentioning this issue, Chuck. I see that Maryann Mahaffey who just died, see, e.g., Freep today, Maryann Mahaffey | 1925-2006: She spoke for those who needed a voice—Cancer claims ex-councilwoman, a politician for the people , mentions that Mahaffey did some good work for the poor and public housing.


       —David Boyle    Jul. 29 '06 - 02:27AM    #
  12. Great comments here on affordable housing. I’ve been pretty much in the dark on what seems to me to matter most on this topic. All I seem to hear about is either housing in brand new buildings (obviously not the cheapest way to get cheap housing) or housing for people who are disabled in various ways (the non-profits, the old Y, the shelter). But though important, this isn’t what I think of first when I think of how housing is gradually removing the working class from town.

    Getting affordable housing (the 100000-200000 type) through older housing stock, even if it doesn’t result in ownership with unlimited potential for capturing price increases, makes good sense to me. Can someone describe what Ann Arbor government is doing with older housing stock and affordable housing?


       —AK    Jul. 29 '06 - 02:30AM    #
  13. One reason Crockett had no problem with the ADU ordinance was that the OFW was specifically excluded from the implementation area (it would not have affected the whole city) because it was considered too dense already. KGS was on the planning commission at the time if I’m thinking straight and could speak more about this, I’m sure.


       —Dale    Jul. 29 '06 - 02:39AM    #
  14. I wouldn’t be too quick to criticize Chris Crockett about ADUs. That is, after all, the way she and her husband were able to originally buy their house: they lived in an ADU in the back of the house and rented out the main part until they saved enough money to live there themselves.

    Do any of you know if ADUs would require the same sort (or any) minimum lot size? I was surprised to see that R4B requires a lot size of 14,000 square feet and R4C requires a lot size of 8500 square feet to have a duplex (of any size). I’m pretty sure that there are many duplexes around that don’t have the required lot size. I’m guessing they just don’t ever register with the city as a duplex so unless someone rats on them, they do construction, or they register as a rental unit, they just fly under the radar.


       —Juliew    Jul. 29 '06 - 08:59PM    #
  15. Who was criticizing Crockett?

    The ADU ordinance could be written any way the city wants.


       —Dale    Jul. 29 '06 - 09:37PM    #
  16. #14: Many existing duplexes may be non-conforming structures – they were legal under a previous iteration of the zoning ordinance, but not under the current revision, so they’re fine to stay.

    Technically, a house -> duplex conversion would have to apply for a building permit before starting work, and a c/o after finishing, and have any rental portion inspected avery 2.5 years. So, if they’re flying under the radar, they’re breaking much more than just zoning law…


       —Murph.    Jul. 30 '06 - 12:39PM    #
  17. * No more than (very low number) of residents in the ADU. Often 2. Sometimes “1, or 2-3 related”.

    * One of the units (either the principal, or the accessory) must be owner-occupied.

    But could those have been enforced? My sense was that the incredible trouble the city had enforcing existing housing regulations (against a woman who was renting out multiple rooms in a single family neighborhood claiming they were all rented to ‘relatives’) made it pretty obvious that when it came down to it, the city would not have the means (even if it had the will) to enforce the proposed ADU ordinance restrictions.

    Here’s the basic problem with affordable housing downtown. The city doesn’t have the means to do it by creating enough below-market rate units to really make much of a dent. The only other way to do it is to create neighborhoods that are somehow ‘gentrification proof’—that people with means will not want to move into, improve, and bid up the price. Given that people are perfectly willing to build $500K+ houses on, say, North 4th next to the remaining few ‘shotgun shack’ style bungalows, I think that’s unlikely.


       —mw    Aug. 1 '06 - 01:52AM    #
  18. “My sense was that the incredible trouble the city had enforcing existing housing regulations (against a woman who was renting out multiple rooms in a single family neighborhood claiming they were all rented to ‘relatives’) made it pretty obvious that when it came down to it, the city would not have the means (even if it had the will) to enforce the proposed ADU ordinance restrictions.”

    How does the city end up in the business of determing who is and isn’t a relative, anyway?

    If a group of unrelated people want to live in the same house, who cares?


       —Bruce Fields    Aug. 1 '06 - 02:07AM    #
  19. Bruce,

    If a group of unrelated people want to live in the same house, who cares?

    They could be students! Or prostitutes! (Gosh, I don’t know which would be worse!) At least, that’s what my land use law textbook says motivated many maximum household size laws. I suspect additional reasons to include, “immigrants”, “we don’t care what they do – we just know they’re poor”, and, “why? hell, we don’t know why. we just copied our ordinance from somebody else.”

    Ann Arbor’s ordinance allows a maximum of 4 unrelated persons in a household (in some zoning districts, 6 – which is why Juliew is seeing 6-br apartments popping up in her ‘hood). It does include a clause that allows you to appeal the limit if you can demonstrate that you live and function as a household with some permanency, and not just to save money while you’re in school – A2 is happy to acknowledge non-traditional household arrangements…but they still don’t like poor people.

    mw’s cynicism about how well the City will be able to enforce the ADU restrictions seems misplaced – using an anecdotal example of an illegal boarding house would seem to indicate that not allowing ADUs won’t (doesn’t) prevent the problems involved.


       —Murph.    Aug. 1 '06 - 02:34AM    #
  20. ADU’s would impose minimal burden and certainly no unreasonable burden on the inspection department—unless you want to eliminate the rental market altogther. In fact, I’m confident there are illegal ADUs already around town (as would happen in any tight housing market). This is why Boulder, the mayor’s favorite example of where Ann Arbor should be in 10 years, legalized ADUs—to bring the black market ADUs under government supervision and make money off of regulating them (which they had been doing when neighbors complained, anyway).

    A unit is a unit; proponents of ADUs don’t have a PAC that gives thousands of dollars away every election cycle though, the way the apartment and landlord lobby does.


       —Dale    Aug. 1 '06 - 04:17AM    #
  21. Dale:
    I think you are wrong on one point. I have heard the mayor on the radio say at least twice that he does “NOT” want A2 to be like Boulder.


       —Dustin    Aug. 1 '06 - 04:25AM    #
  22. Are you sure that wasn’t Todd Leopold? What was the context? In literally every comparison I have ever heard him make, Boulder was exemplary.


       —Dale    Aug. 1 '06 - 04:56AM    #
  23. Dustin wrote: “I have heard the mayor on the radio say at least twice that he does “NOT” want A2 to be like Boulder.”

    But Dale said: “What was the context? In literally every comparison I have ever heard him make, Boulder was exemplary.”

    Over the past four months anyway, I’ve heard Mayor Hieftje cite Boulder as a negative example not in general, but in the specific context of very expensive home prices that require labor force to be imported daily (in person at a Crazy Wisdom Bookstore salon and at Citizen Improv at the Improv Inferno).

    During the International Downtowns Association Conference last year in Boulder, which was attended by a delegation from Ann Arbor that included DDA folks, State Street Area Association folks, and the Mayor, the news hit the local paper that the median home price in Boulder had topped .5 million dollars. That apparently made an impression on the Ann Arbor contingent.


       —HD    Aug. 1 '06 - 05:25AM    #
  24. HD basically heard what I did in a different forum. As I recall he rejected Boulder’s lack of diversity, saying it was like a “gated community” with the high housing prices imposed by the 4 (or was it 3) story height limit on top of a 50,000 acre no growth-park zone circling the city. Boulder is still listed by most as a top tier community, apparently even Google thinks so.


       —Dustin    Aug. 1 '06 - 11:46AM    #
  25. One issue which has not been discussed yet are Ann Arbor’s high property taxes relative to most of metro Detroit. These add a significant cost to already high cost of purchasing a home in Ann Arbor, especially for new home buyers, since the house is reassessed at the time of purchase.


       —tom    Aug. 1 '06 - 12:15PM    #
  26. Murph: mw’s cynicism about how well the City will be able to enforce the ADU restrictions seems misplaced – using an anecdotal example of an illegal boarding house would seem to indicate that not allowing ADUs won’t (doesn’t) prevent the problems involved.

    Not allowing ADUs minimizes the problem because, without the ordinance, the auxilliary units are not constructed in the first place. The problem with the woman and her many, many ‘relatives’ illustrated that even when the problem is rare and when it is quite obvious to observers that the regulations were being flouted (I had a friend who lived on her street), even then the city had a difficult time—it was just this one lady, and enforcement took a very long time.

    I’m not necessarily opposed to ADUs, but I think the idea that requirements would be effectively enforced is dubious. If we think ADUs would be beneficial with or without those restrictions, then we should go ahead. But if the difference between beneficial and harmful depends on enforcing those restrictions, then we’ve got a problem, I think.


       —mw    Aug. 1 '06 - 12:38PM    #
  27. But my point is that enforcement for an ADU is no different than from any other rental unit. It’s on the same minimum inspection schedule and then subject to complaint-initiated inspections. The inspectors just grab a different code book on the way out the door (until they have them memorized). There are certainly ongoing problems with existing rental housing, but that’s no reason not to build more rental housing. The difference in my opinion is, no one cares if there are code violations in their multi-family-zoned neighborhood (or that one over there), but right in the neighbor’s back yard is another issue altogether.


       —Dale    Aug. 1 '06 - 02:01PM    #
  28. I’m curious about a point that has come up in the ADU discussion in passing. Obviously, there are more and less dense parts of town. If ADUs are considered (by many residents) to have a negative impact on a neighborhood, it would make sense to have more of them in less dense places so as to equalize the “cost”. However, it’s a point to consider that the residents of less dense neighborhoods moved there with the expectation that the zoning and use would remain relatively constant. That’s part of the price they paid for their houses, if they own them. A zoning/use change “takes” from them.

    I can’t dismiss either argument out of hand. They’re contradictory in a policy sense, but both worth adressing. I’d like to know what others think are the best ways to do this?


       —AK    Aug. 1 '06 - 09:52PM    #
  29. AK – Obviously, no man is an island. This both means that,

    a) People can’t build willy-nilly whatever they want without concern for the spillover onto their neighbors, and,

    b) People can’t expect to have complete control over their surroundings in defiance of regional trends / events / needs.

    On the one hand, yes, people shop for neighborhoods looking for a particular character, and hope to hold onto that. (Of course, stating that too strongly assumes a free market in housing, which anybody who knows a whit about zoning would laugh at.) On the other hand, people need housing, and taking in boarders is a long-standing tradition that both helps provide affordable housing to people who need it, and helps the homeowner cover the mortgage/taxes/etc.

    Who’s to say that my desire to sit back and bask in the knowledge that every home in my sub contains one and only one nuclear family unit completely trumps your ability to pull in a little extra money to cover the mortgage?

    That’s a very long way of saying, “Yup, you’ve identified the potential conflict pretty well, there, and we’ve just got to figure out what the happiest middle ground is.”


       —Murph    Aug. 1 '06 - 10:25PM    #
  30. Also, I don’t think putting ADUs in the less dense parts of town is necessarily a question of “balance” or “fairness” to the more dense parts of town. As I see it, enabling ADUs in the higher-zoned areas wouldn’t have any effect at all. Why would somebody want to build an ADU, with all the restrictions that go along with it, if the zoning already allows them to build a duplex? If they enabled ADUs in the OFW, I predict that approximately 0 would get built. (There might be a few odd ones on lots that are too oddly shaped / small to have a full second unit, depending on the relative land area requirements of duplexes vs. ADUs in the zoning, or garage apartments accessory to houses that people are just too darned happy with to want to break up.)


       —Murph    Aug. 1 '06 - 10:29PM    #
  31. I see your point about ADUs likely frequency in dense parts of town that are that way due to zoning that allows duplexes. But consider that people who live in such places may feel their streets are at or even beyond what they consider the bursting point. Too much of whatever they don’t like – noise, cars on the street, buildings blocking sun or views, whatever. I can see an equity argument that says why make them put up with an additional way that density can be imposed on them, when – over there – is a neighborhood with much less density, no duplexes allowed, etc.

    If density is a public good that we want to promote, isn’t there a case to be made for evening out the costs that come along with it?

    Regarding your point about my assumption that retaining single family homes (or at least no ADUs) in a neighborhood trumps the desire to bring in extra money by renting out an ADU, I agree that there’s no moral high ground to be found. However, I think it’s an established fact of American life that this is the accepted order of priorities. People invest a lot of money in houses, and a lot of their identities and quality of life rides on them too. They feel strongly about shifts to what they perceive to be the negative side in terms of neighborhood. That’s why so many are willing to put up with fascistic neighborhood association rules that regulate things like paint color and fence materials in suburban subdivisions.

    So I think the prevailing community sentiment in most places of at least moderate prosperity will make “protecting” neighborhood housing type a higher priority than adding income through ADUs. If so, the conflict I originally posed is front and center. I’ve been hoping that people like you, better versed than me in planning and zoning matters, would tell me about the magic solution that makes ADUs possible but tends to (in a small way, as ADUs aren’t going to become even as prevalent as third family cars) level the playing field in terms of who deals with the added density they bring.


       —AK    Aug. 2 '06 - 01:16AM    #
  32. A magic solution is, alas, something that doesn’t exist for any planning issue. What I will say for you about ADUs is that they are probably the absolute lowest-impact piece of the puzzle. How many home owner-occupants these days will want to construct a unit onto their house? Even without the x-hundred feet between criterion, I think ADUs would be fairly sparse for this reason.

    As for “protecting” – investment is inherently conservative. People want to keep what they bought; they don’t want it swapped for something new.

    (That applies regardless of what it is that you’ve bought into: we bought a home in what is effetively Ypsi’s version of Arch St. or thereabouts – a tiny little street just off a major street in an almost wholly “student” neighborhood. And I’m a little miffed by the fact that some in the City want to downzone my neighborhood to R1 – Single Family. If I wanted R1, I would have bought there! I want to live in a neighborhood that can support a coffee shop and a diner and competing convenience stores and a bookstore and a mexican restaurant and a falafel place and all the other awesome things I have within a block of me. I don’t want to turn into a boring A2 yuppie bedroom neighborhood!)

    How do you get over people’s fear of change to advance the changes that you see as positive? Shit, I don’t know. Best I can tell is that you try to bring everybody to the table, hear everybody’s concerns, and try to get over the irrational American fear of consensus so that you can build some sort of agreement.


       —Murph.    Aug. 2 '06 - 03:23AM    #
  33. I’m glad this post generated some interesting discussion. If you’d like to hear one person’s feedback from the focus group (or would like to share your own) you can go to the SOS Blog: http://soscs.blogspot.com/2006/08/affordable-housing-group-feedback.html


       —Nancy Shore    Aug. 8 '06 - 07:55PM    #