Council’s affordable housing efforts since the 2018 election
I would like to provide a little background on the Council’s affordable housing efforts since the 2018 election. I apologize for the length of this post.
In March 2019, a Council member announced that he was offering resolutions to explore the use of two city-owned properties (721 N. Main Street & 2000 S. Industrial) for affordable housing. Council Member Nelson and I had just recently met with staff, including our Fire Chief, to discuss potential uses of the fire station on Stadium Blvd. near Packard St. One possible use, although not staff’s preference, mentioned in that meeting was affordable housing. Upon hearing that two properties would be considered, CM Nelson and I discussed adding the 1510 E. Stadium site for consideration. After that site was added to the March 18 Council agenda, the sponsor of the first two resolutions pushed back on the idea of using the East Stadium site for affordable housing (the site was in his neighborhood). During deliberations on the fire station site, that Council Member offered an amendment to the resolution to expressly include the option of market rate sale of that site for the benefit of proceeds.
Both the 721 N. Main Street and 2000 S. Industrial sites had significant impairments for purposes of seeking federal funding. The 721 N. Main Street site was in a flood plain and close to a railroad track. The 2000 S. Industrial site was adjacent to a railroad track. The 1510 E. Stadium site had no impairment, was on a transit route and in close proximity to retail businesses. All three resolutions passed unanimously at the March 18, 2019 Council meeting.
In her blog comments written prior to the March 18 meeting, CM Nelson described behind the scenes discussion about taking a broader look at affordable housing on city-owned properties.
In that blog post, she briefly acknowledged how an effort to step back from considering just three properties would be politicized:
“It surprises me that we would not be looking at the whole list in a more comprehensive way, but I also realize that suggesting a step back for such an analysis would, at this point, probably prompt accusations of being obstructionist. (This is, unfortunately, where we are in the current political climate.)”
After the March 18 meeting, discussions about expanding the list of potential sites continued. Council members Nelson, Bannister and I sponsored a resolution to expand the list of potential sites for affordable housing from the initial three to ten and to provide $75,000 to fund staff’s review of those sites. This is where the nuance arises. It was well known that not all ten of the city-owned properties were suitable for affordable housing and that the City would be unable to proceed on all of the sites simultaneously. The resolution asked staff to make “recommendations on how the properties should be prioritized for consideration for of the development as affordable housing, address which properties would be best used and face the least obstacles to redevelopment, and provide a holistic approach to all identified properties”.
The resolution did not provide adequate funding to enable staff to do public outreach with properties owners in the immediate vicinity of each of the potential sites. For example, staff did not consult with merchants in Kerrytown or the farmers market about using the site at 4th Ave. and Catherine St. After the Council received staff’s recommendations, we heard significant concerns about the impact of removing the parking on those small, local businesses and farmers market merchants.
The job of a Council member is to weigh competing interests and make policy decisions that balance those interests. While it is easy to characterize a vote against proceeding with staff’s recommendations for the Kerrytown site as “anti-affordable housing”, it is not accurate. When Council sought staff recommendations, it was understood that not all of ten (now eleven) sites would be pursued. As a sponsor of the resolution, I feel qualified to describe our intent.
As we see the economic impact of the pandemic on our local businesses, we should be able to admit how fragile small, local businesses are. I attended a meeting of the Kerrytown District Association after the Council meeting where the resolution to proceed with planning for the project at 4th Ave. and Catherine St passed, 9-2. Merchants continued to express concern that removing that convenient, close, surface parking would threaten the survival of retailers in that area. Removing this site from consideration would not halt our affordable housing efforts. It would only place our focus on other sites. For example, using the former fire station site rather than the Kerrytown site would allow the City to provide housing without threatening business. I recognize that the fire station site is on the edge of the Burns Park neighborhood but I believe there is enough support in that area for the City’s affordable housing goals to overcome the resistance expressed by the Third Ward CMs.
It should be noted that while Council debates proceeding with the eleven properties, we are also having behind the scenes discussion about other sites. On Monday May 11, Council held a closed session to discuss the potential to acquire two other sites for affordable housing. One would protect and possibly expand current affordable units on one property. A second site would create a new potential site for city-owned affordable housing. Those sites cannot be revealed at this stage but represent the Council’s continuing interest in expanding our affordable housing.
As Elizabeth Nelson predicted in her March 17, 2019 blog post, any nuanced consideration of competing interests will “prompt accusations of being obstructionist.” I believe every member of Council wants to provide affordable housing. We are merely debating the best way to accomplish that goal.
In addition to support for using city-owned properties for affordable housing, I have supported efforts to get private developers to provide units of affordable housing or make contributions to the City’s affordable housing fund. I have advocated using Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning where possible to obtain units or funding (for example, Lowertown and the Garnet). I supported the change to our downtown zoning premiums to require affordable units or funding in exchange for greater building area or height. I worked with Council members Smith and Hayner to change our brownfield tax abatement policy so that developers may only capture future taxes as reimbursement for actual environmental cleanup or affordable housing. See Ann Arbor eyes affordable housing with new brownfield policy
In addition to supporting the use of our publicly owned properties and obtaining units and funding from private developers, I have supported making improvements to existing public housing. For example, I supported the renovation and energy efficiency improvements to our affordable housing on Broadway. I also supported the replacement of the affordable housing development on Henry between State and White (the previous buildings would have been more expensive to renovate than replace).
The City has a real need for affordable housing. In 2015, the Council adopted the goal of adding 140 units of affordable housing each year. In the years 2015 to 2019, the City added about 50 units, total. The composition of Council changed in November 2018 and the new Council is aggressively pursuing the development of affordable housing. I am proud to be part of that effort.