These moves are possible signs that elected officials are actually beginning to address Ann Arbor’s affordable housing shortage, but the resolutions are not the be-all-end-all of the crisis.
A report on Washtenaw County housing released in 2015 found that Ann Arbor has to add 150 affordable rental units a year until 2035 to avoid catastrophic inequality. That is about 2,800 units in total. Ann Arbor City Council officially adopted these goals in 2015 but has only added 50 affordable units since, falling miserably short of the annual target.
The resolution passed in early November incentivizes affordable housing by amending downtown zoning laws. It was brought forth by Council member Zachary Ackerman. The incentive system is three-tiered. If 15% of the rental units in a new downtown apartment building are affordable, the developer will receive a 150% bonus in allowed floor area ratio. This increases to a 300% bonus if 20% are affordable, and to 500% if 30% of are affordable.
Allowed floor area ratio is the total area of the building compared to the total area of the land the building sits on. In downtown urban areas, the ratio cap set by the local government is crucial because taller buildings naturally have a much higher floor area ratio than one- or two- story structures. If a developer adds affordable units to its building, the City of Ann Arbor will allow the ratio to be increased, meaning a larger building.
This could prove vital in increasing the amount of affordable housing, as more and more developers are looking to construct residential high-rises in downtown Ann Arbor. For example, if a developer builds a highrise with 200 rental units and agrees to make 30% of them affordable, 60 affordable units will be added downtown. Hospital workers, public school teachers or service industry workers could afford to live in downtown Ann Arbor and walk to work, a pipedream for those not earning high wages.
Such action by the city council will not address the problem by itself. The solution will have to be multi-faceted. In addition to the zoning incentives, two affordable housing developments on city-owned downtown property were approved in late November. The two downtown developments, one on Catherine Street and the other on Ashley Street, could together yield up to 170 affordable rental units. At the same time, the council began multiple feasibility studies for affordable developments on nine other city-owned properties all across Ann Arbor.
If the nine developments are approved, up to 1,530 new affordable units could be built in the coming years. That would be a major step in getting close to the ambitious target of 2,800 affordable units by 2035. If the political will is there, it can be achieved, and approving the two downtown developments and zoning incentives must act as a springboard.
The next step the council should take is to update the city’s anti-discrimination laws. In 1978, the City of Ann Arbor added “source of income” to its non-discrimination laws. A Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher counts as income, making it illegal to take it into account when deciding on a tenant’s application, but the law should directly prohibit “voucher discrimination,” offering specific protection.
Other methods landlords use to keep voucher recipients out of their developments need to be addressed. The automatic rejection of applications with a past eviction or a criminal record, and application fees that exceed application processing costs, should both be banned. This would lay the foundation before council could begin exploring different ways of financially incentivizing landlords to accept more housing voucher recipients.
While the three successful resolutions are clearly positive, more action must be taken to make Ann Arbor more affordable for the working class people that work there. The Ann Arbor Metro area is the eighth most economically segregated metro area in the entire U.S. The city and its elected leaders must take the necessary action to properly address this unacceptable situation.