Ann Arbor Area Community News
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 whomâ€”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:
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.
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 cafÃ© 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] umich.edu. 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.
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