I came down rather firmly on the side that Ann Arbor is overrated, and perhaps more accurately, is overpriced. When I made the statement that Ann Arbor was far more expensive than other comparable Michigan and Midwestern cities, someone actually asked -- somewhat accusatorily -- what city was comparable to Ann Arbor. I asked about the cost of living and the cost of housing in the city as well as asking what is becoming my trademark question on affordable housing. The mayor responded that these were good questions, but that the people of Ann Arbor decided they didn't want to support affordable housing, particularly for students. He then, once again, repeated the canard that the university was to blame for the lack of affordable housing for students in the city because the university hasn't built any dorms in 30 years.
I found this particularly frustrating; at this point in the discussion, I felt more informed about affordable housing in Ann Arbor, historical conditions and present priorities, than the mayor of the city. Let me state my opinion and semi-professional conclusion emphatically -- that the university has no responsibility to house its students except as it feels necessary to promote its educational mission. Of the 168 years since the University of Michigan came to Ann Arbor, it was building dorms for about 30 of those years -- the rest of the time, the private housing market in the city responded to demand. In 1938 and 1939, the WPA made grants to the university for West Quad, East Quad, and Stockwell Halls to provide employment relief during the Depression. In 1950, the federal government implemented a low-interest loan program to colleges and universities for providing student housing. Colleges begged for this aid for five years after the war, claiming (amid senators' and representatives' skepticism) that cities' private housing market could not meet the increased demand for housing that veterans created. This loan program then financed Bursley, Markley, and the Baits and Northwood complexes. Almost all of the university's housing capacity was created in a 30-year period with federal subsidy, and only in response to the city's inability to provide housing (not because it was viewed as a university responsibility). For the mayor and other locals to shirk this responsibility and to blame the university is enabled by ignorance and motivated by politics.
Back to the class. Hieftje moved us away from affordability, and some students suggested strategies for Ann Arbor to take in promoting walkability and quality of life. People asked about grocery stores, about satellite business districts, and about parks. Murph asked about regional cooperation with Ypsilanti. Brandon asked about zoning. The mayor, to my surprise, suggested (or repeated the suggestion) that poor people should not own homes in Ann Arbor. Rather, they should do what the other people in this city have done and live in Ypsilanti, buying a house they can afford there and building equity, moving to Ann Arbor twenty years later when they can finally afford it. I have no words for how offensive I find this idea. I read it a number of times in residents' anti-ADU letters while researching the city's aborted attempt at developing an ADU ordinance. Ann Arbor, which can barely claim the mantle of a liberal community anyway, might as well admit that it is a Republican member of President Bush's ownership society if it takes this idea seriously (and a number of people do). A student from Boulder unwittingly and forcefully contradicted the mayor by talking about his neighbor, who, at 65, lives in the house he was born in, across the street from his parents, having lived in Ann Arbor his whole life and having gone to Michigan. I'm not sure how he possibly accomplished that without building equity in an Ypsilanti home for twenty years, but he seems to have done it.
Having taken his share of the slings and arrows of a grad class tossing underhand softball questions, the mayor decided to puff a little air back into the slightly deflated balloon of Ann Arbor's reputation. First he offered a plaque with the outline of Michigan's peninsulae, adorned with a white wine glass (which he "dinged" with his finger for effect), an award Ann Arbor won for the region's best tasting water. He followed that with one won for bikability, one for his own good work, and, in his estimation, the most complete, objective, scientific evaluation of cities ever done, a Froemmer's guide that rated Ann Arbor as one of the top ten places in America to live. Before time expired on the class, the student from Boulder (a Stifler look-alike) suggested that the way to get walkability was to bring more wealth to Ann Arbor; wealthy tech professionals are the only ones who can make Ann Arbor a livable city. This is doubly odious to me, first in its repudiation of the efficacy of the working and middle classes; second in that Silicon Valley is the exact opposite of what we should be emulating. I've sat in traffic on the way to San Jose -- anyone who suggests Google millionaires are the key to good planning is an idiot. The mayor had had enough, and concluded that despite "what a couple people on a web site might say," Ann Arbor was not overrated.
As with my last report on a discussion with a local politico, keep in mind that I am an excitable, righteous advocate of students and renters.