Sunday, June 19, 2005

Affordable Housing -- Student Sector

Now that I've suggested the formation of a non-profit housing corporation as a means of developing an Affordable Ann Arbor, I ought to talk a bit about its implementation.

As far as I can tell, there are currently two housing non-profits in Ann Arbor, Avalon Housing and the Washtenaw Affordable Housing Corporation. Avalon Housing was formed with the needs of the mentally and physically disabled in mind, a mission they have maintained. WAHC is more difficult to figure out, as they don't seem to have a Web site, but several sources indicate that they emphasize families. These two organizations, according to the City of Ann Arbor's fall 2004 HUD report, are the main enduring beneficiaries of federal HOME funds from the federal government -- they own and operate housing. "HOME funds" is money from HUD that's allocated for affordable housing (rehabilitation of existing units, purchase of new units, building of others). Groups like Habitat for Humanity also sometimes get HOME funds from the city (which got a million dollars last year from HUD).

Because of this federal funding, the city has to put together a 5-year vision statement and a one-year action plan to let HUD know what they're going to do with their money. I have found this report on the city's Web site, which first details the assessed housing needs in Ann Arbor. What it details is that most aid is going to small and large families who rent. Much as I hate to decry aid to the working poor, the city is utterly neglecting the largest portion of its low income population. These are "other households" who rent. According to the city, there are 10,924 unrelated renter households making 80% or less of the Median Family Income of 71k. I think it's safe to put about 90% of students into this category -- less the people who are married and who live outside the city. The city, in the next 5 years, is not planning on developing or supporting a SINGLE unit for this sector of low income households, which, incidentally, make up 40.1% of the 27123 low-income renting households and 33.9% of all 32230 low income households (owner or renter) in the city. Please check these calculations using the city's own numbers because I wish I were wrong. Unfortunately, it is the city that is wrong in neglecting (totally abandoning?) this needy and significant segment of its population.

While I am most sensitive to the needs of low-income students, this group also includes recent graduates, people without college educations (the working poor), and even young professionals. This is actually a broad grouping of citizens whose housing needs are not being met and are not even being planned for. I urge you to read through the city's numbers, because more than 3/4 of this group is spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing, and a frightening portion is spending more than 50 percent.

So we can CLEARLY see there is an unmet need here. The next question is, what kind of resources are there? First off, there is the million dollars in HOME funds the city got last year (3 million the year before). Then there is the 1.7 million in Community Development Block Grants. Then there is the 600,000 of affordable housing subsidies the city extracts from developers. Then there is the 500,000 of residuals from unspent money the previous year. These numbers come from the city's 2004-2005 budget, by the way. All told, the city annually plans for 6 million dollars in revenue for affordable housing and community development, and will not support the development of even ONE UNIT for students and other unrelated low-income renters in the next five years. And I emphasize support, meaning not that the city builds housing, rather the city doesn't contribute even A PENNY towards securing a construction loan or a mortgage or land acquisition. [The words of Mayor John Hieftje ring particularly hollow when he blames the university for not providing housing for its students. How about providing some housing for your citizens, Mr. Mayor?]

So what can we do on this front? Clearly there is a problem of affordability when demand for residence in the city and county increases and there is no increase in housing supply in the city. This is the chief cause of the problem of unaffordability -- demand exceeds supply. This fear of turning into a real city must be overcome. Second, as Murph talked about, there needs to be a plan (or at least a concept) for providing for the poor, including both those who are poor by choice (students, artists, etc.) and those who are poor by force (disability, age, lack of education, etc.) in an integrated fashion that will provide access to amenities and services AND that will integrate these poor into the larger community. I cannot emphasize enough how the presence of young people can improve the quality of life for the elderly -- a neighbor to help shovel the snow, someone to bring them meals, or simply providing a different type of social interaction. This goes for students and the working poor in a neighborhood. Instead of setting up tutoring programs that match up college students and underprivileged grade school kids an hour a week, why not put them in the same neighborhood where they can have interactions all week long? And why not put them both near a bus line or two? Radical thinking, I know. As I said, one of my goals is to begin the process of developing a non-profit developer that will begin serving this largest and most under-served segment of the city's low income population.

UPDATE: I made an inquiry to the city for discussion or clarification of my analysis of their affordable housing plans; no response has yet been tendered.

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