Thursday, June 16, 2005

Affordable Ann Arbor

Since Murph got the ball rolling for a fairly serious and hopefully lengthy discussion of how to advance the cause (and reality) of broadly affordable housing in Ann Arbor, I'm obligated and eager to respond.

First off, for the newcomers, let me distinguish between the ideas of "affordable housing" and "broadly affordable housing." Affordable housing has generally been used to mean housing for the poor. The term affordable housing, employed by the federal government, means housing that costs 30 percent or less of a household income, whatever that might be. I say "broadly affordable housing" to encompass that idea -- a variety of housing types, of which one or more can be had for thirty percent or less of whatever level of income. Meaning there is decent, desirable, and affordable housing for the working poor, grad students, young professionals, middle class service workers, long-time residents, realtors, physicians, and retirees.

By "desirable," I mean meeting several, but probably not all, priorities that a particular resident wants. #1 on my personal list of priorities (after affordability) is proximity to urban amenities. I want to (and fortunately do) live close to campus, to the CBD, and to the AATA transit center. Others may want a yard, a large bedroom, or to have few or no roommates, which I have to skimp on -- that might be nice, but they're not important enough for me to live in one of the townships. Some goals like a big yard and urban proximity are almost diametrically opposed; unfortunately, Ann Arbor is too big a town to be able to fulfill such a priority. "Decent" should be pretty clear to everyone -- no structural, ventilation, heating/cooling, mold, insulation, etc. problems with the house.

In addition to Murph's list of tools for discussion, I suggest two of my own -- the development of neighborhood centers away from the CBD, and the creation of several development interests (featuring non-profit developers).

Neighborhood Centers -- It's a mite unfortunate that such a big university grew up in Ann Arbor, because the city has been too small to support it. That is the heart of the problem in Ann Arbor -- there wasn't enough stuff or people here a century ago to build or create businesses, etc., because it was a pretty sleepy little town. As a result of those small town roots, there is still a "small town" feel that some people like to talk about, even though the city is now more than 100,000 people. There are few tall buildings, the central business district is a couple blocks in size, and there are few major employers besides the University -- Pfizer and ProQuest are distant seconds. Because of this smallness, there really seems to be just one set of concentric rings from downtown. Things are most dense in the middle and become less so as you move farther away from it. There are no walkable satellite areas that spring up when the downtown is developed. Thus, all the amenities and walkable stuff is in one central area, meaning if people want walkability and access to amenities, they all want to live near the same place. If we developed neighborhood centers where there were restaurants, shopping and entertainment, say, a mile from Main and Washington, people would be happy living there, too, relieving some pressure on the near-downtown housing market. As it stands, Main St., State St., Kerrytown and South U. are too small and too near each other (I consider them really all part of the same central area) to diffuse the desire for downtown housing.

Varied development interests -- Ann Arbourites have frequently lamented the prominence of private development interests in preparing for the future of Ann Arbor. Pretty much every NIMBY obstruction employs the "developers want to bulldoze OUR TOWN and put up THEIR BUILDINGS" rhetoric. This is ridiculous for a number of reasons. First, developers have ALWAYS done the building in the history of American cities. The only notable exception was called urban renewal. Nearly every building in Ann Arbor (except most campus buildings and a handful of government ones) was built or enabled by a private developer, a speculator, or a small-time entrepreneur. This includes many of the houses -- that's why many legal descriptions for lots are in "Matthews' Annex no. 1" or something like that -- a developer bought the land, platted it, and graded the streets. Anyway, despite the need for private developers in Ann Arbor (now that the locals are gun-shy, we're recruiting out of town developers to do the deed; THAT'S irony), they shouldn't be the only game in town. We need to create non-profit development corporations to start developing the housing that the private market has been neglecting and that has stagnated over the last two decades of stifled growth and development. Let Shaffran Bros. build the condos for 450k a unit; one or two non-profits will take their affordable housing subsidies, along with other public funds and grants, and start planning and building its own units. I am SURE that, with a reduced profit motive and good planning, such a group could win public support and could have an impact on the housing market, all while creating greater density and a more sustainable city.

UPDATE: Next discussion post here.


Anonymous Brandon said...

Send your link to Eugene Kang. Murph and I have been saying this for years.

11:29 AM  
Anonymous KGS said...

I am SURE that, with a reduced profit motive and good planning, such a group could win public support and could have an impact on the housing market, all while creating greater density and a more sustainable city

See the big hullaballoo about the Carrot Way project to see just how far from the truth this is... unfortunately. I recall one man from the nearby (affluent) development threatening to sue the city if one of Those People robbed his house or did anything else. It was really nuts.

4:59 PM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

Yeah, I was a bit confident with that statement.

I emphasize the "broadly affordable" theme to try to reduce the stigma of "those people." One of the reasons Social Security enjoys such broad support is because it's not just for "those people," it's for everybody. I'd like to try that with housing. Though the neighborhoods are no friends of students, I think affordable housing targeted at low-income students from middle class backgrounds would be more palatable and could serve the traditionally needy, as well. Well, here's to giving it the old college try.

10:35 PM  
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10:27 AM  

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