Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Watered Down

Visiting a roommate's Public Policy class on Local Activism, I got to sit in on and participate in a discussion with Mayor Hieftje. Today's topic: Is Ann Arbor Overrated? From the outset, I was a mite underwhelmed by the class. It was at least a third urban planners and almost all the rest were policy students but no one seemed too eager to discuss policy or activism.

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Poor people shouldn't own homes in Ann Arbor? Fuck A2. The residents need to pull their heads out of their asses if they want to move on to being considered a progressive community from being just a "liberal" one.

And after following your link, it seems like Berkeley would be overrated as well but I don't see any BiO sites yet. Oh, and it's in California so I guess that makes a difference. Why not other cities like Royal Oak (MI), Toledo (OH), Kent (OH) on that list?

10:52 AM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

If I may clarify, the mayor did not use the words, "poor people should not own homes in Ann Arbor," which is why they weren't in quotes. His words were more like "not everyone should be able to afford a house in Ann Arbor." Despite his protestations that he was not a Republican, this actually puts him to the far right of the Bush administration on home ownership. (This suggestion may, like many of his others, have been prefaced with a comment like "some people suggest," allowing him to make an objectionable statement while still being able to deny it's his position.

A key difference between Ann Arbor and Berkeley is their geographic context; U of T doesn't put Toledo in the same category in my mind. RO isn't even on the map.

3:21 PM  
Blogger Brandon said...

I think he was saying that was an opinion of some Ann Arbor residents, not necessarily himself.

5:45 PM  
Blogger Brandon said...

One thing that does bother me is that most of the other students in that class seem completely disinterested and unopinionated about almost all of the topics ever at hand...

5:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So I'm in the class in question here, and I guess I find it pretty presumptuous of you to walk in for one class, survey the landscape as you see it, and report on it as some intellectually untouchable, superior being. Not in those exact words, of course, but referring to one student as both an idiot and a Stifler lookalike, accusing the lot of us of essentially drinking the mayor's Kool-aid by asking 'underhand softball questions' (which is redundant, by the way) - neither of these make your case very well...which is apparently that Ann Arbor is overrated. I think I got that from the subtle title of your blog.

Now, I don't want to make you out to be The Bad Guy and Mayor Hieftje to be The Good Guy here - far from. Mayor Hieftje has never taught before, so there are certainly some less-than-galvanizing aspects to his classes. Do you think that, given that we're nearing the end of the semester, we might be circling our wagons a bit in terms of conversation topics? The mayor's done a good job of bringing in a variety of guests to quiz on various city-related topics, and I've found many of those sessions to be engaging - students seem to ask thoughtful questions rather than those that merely prove a student's vast and impressive command of facts, and we actually talk about local government and the ways it interacts with its disparate bodies. Consider the breadth of subjects we've talked about: downtown development, greenbelts, density vs. sprawl (all related), environmentalism, the function and structure of City Council, local partisan elections, budget, millages, local history, town/gown relations, historic districts, bike paths - and there's likely just as many topics I haven't named that we've touched on, too.

Think, too, about this: none of us had an agenda coming into this class. I'm sure most of us wanted to hear from a professor who was not rooted in academia; in choosing Local Government, we sacrificed teaching polish for a few war stories. It's perhaps not our intention to grill him every time. Do you subject all of _your_ professors to their own personal inquisition in all of _your_ classes? You've found time to challenge Mayor Hieftje in a number of settings now, and I bet a lot of the work you do is done with care and passion. Now if you could do it without putting down others by trying to belittle them to boost yourself, I'd be much obliged.


11:29 PM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

Thanks for your comments, Josh. I'm not the author of Ann Arbor is Overrated. I am, however, nothing if not presumptuous, and I do grill and oppose my professors if I think they are slacking on the content of their courses.

Now, I appreciate the mayor's willingness to have guests, which I told him after class. I also appreciate the mayor's good humor and willingness to engage his critics, which I told him at Leopolds'. However, I think students (grad or undergrad) need to get be more involved in city politics and policy -- down to questioning the specific allocation of certain federal and city funds -- and the mayor needs to be out in front of controversial issues, rather than trailing behind them. That goes no matter what the forum.

[I might note that I know about half the class from other settings and I am familiar with the mayor from paying attention to local politics. Also, making comment on the obvious resemblance to Stifler is not an insult, merely stating the obvious. I did not specifically call anyone an idiot, only anyone who thought that having money meant knowledge and advocacy for good urban principles.]

5:58 PM  

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