Less Talk, More Housing

Let’s simplify our planning process to encourage more equitable development

By Kirk Westphal, former Ann Arbor City Council Member and Planning Commissioner

If we are learning anything from our regional housing affordability crisis, it’s that we need more housing—a lot more. At the core of our crisis is the fact that the number of housing units being constructed in Ann Arbor is far less than the growth in jobs and residents in our community. More people chasing fewer housing units translates to higher rents, and Ann Arbor perpetuating one of the worst cases of regional economic segregation in the country. 

The good news is that Ann Arbor is stepping up to the challenge. In November 2020, Ann Arbor voters passed an affordable housing millage that will eventually provide housing and services for several thousand low- and very low-income residents—a truly transformative policy that is rare for cities of our size. The bad news is that housing subsidies address only a portion of our housing needs. (There is only so much money that local municipalities can request from residents; we need state- and federal-level policies and subsidies.) 

Pre-pandemic, 80,000+ people commuted into Ann Arbor on a given day. We know not all of them want to live in Ann Arbor, but tens of thousands of them do—if they only could afford it. Research definitively shows that more housing supply helps improve affordability for everyone. Like with climate change, there is no serious academic debate about this fact.

So how do we encourage more housing to be built? In my experience, I see three things city leadership can do: 

  1. Work with developers to build housing on city-owned land. This process is currently underway for some sites downtown. The city owns several surface parking lots downtown that can be replaced by housing. Many of the sites could have permanently affordable units included. Developing city-owned parcels provides more opportunities to create subsidized affordable units in ways private developers typically cannot accomplish.
  1. Amend zoning rules to make sure more land in the city will house more people. About 15 years ago, the city incentivized building more housing downtown, with good results. (This incentive has since been removed.) But future rules changes need to allow more diverse housing options, ranging from  small in-law apartments/accessory dwelling units to mid-rise or high-rise buildings along major arterial roads in the city. The Planning Commission is actively discussing plans for each of these. 
  1. Make the process for approving new buildings more efficient. For good reason, proposals for new buildings undergo a series of rigorous approval processes. Making this process more efficient saves time and money for both developers and the city. Better yet, this can actually lead to more housing being built. An approval process that will take 4 months instead of 8 months, for example, can lead to decreased costs for a developer, and therefore make the difference between having a financially viable project or a fanciful pipe dream. 

This last point is the focus of this discussion, because in Ann Arbor, it is widely acknowledged we make the process of getting projects approved needlessly expensive and divisive. There is no more extreme example of this than our custom of requiring developers to appear in front of City Council for a “vote” on so-called “by-right” projects—buildings that are explicitly allowed under our rules.

I put “vote” in quotes because by the time a typical project reaches City Council, it has already been deemed by city staff to meet all of our relevant codes for safety, water and sewer services, emergency access, etc. In addition, if a project meets the underlying requirements of our development code (height, setbacks, etc.), the project is “by-right,” as the developer has a legal right to build it, and the City Council must approve the project. 

But instead of granting the developers permission to move ahead with a project they are legally allowed to build, we have chosen instead to require them to seek approvals from two bodies: the Planning Commission and City Council. The vote at the Planning Commission becomes a “recommendation” to the City Council. One could reasonably argue that this step is superfluous itself because the Planning Commission doesn’t have the power to stop a by-right proposal by voting against it. (Occasionally, however, the Planning Commission negotiates beneficial changes to plans before they get to the City Council.) 

It’s the City Council vote that typically gets the most attention, even though it is undoubtedly the least effective time to advocate for or against a project. Again, the Council must approve a legally-allowable project when proposed. (Not doing so can lead to potentially devastating financial consequences; something we’ve flirted with in the past.) Because there’s a meeting and a vote, it sends a signal to constituents to start advocating for a different outcome, and Councilmembers have to respond. 

What often happened when I was on Council was that neighbors would get mixed messages from Councilmembers. Some Councilmembers (like me) would communicate the fact that we had to approve legal projects, while the Councilmembers who typically appealed to development-skeptical residents would tell them that the project could be stopped if they could just “get enough people to show up to the meeting.” While this is categorically untrue, the resentment this generates after Council approves the project is politically beneficial for the development-skeptical Councilmembers.

So why have a lengthy, unnecessarily politicized process where City Council takes a vote on a project that can’t legally be voted against, inflaming neighbors who ultimately get left feeling like the city isn’t “listening”? It’s simply tradition. 

I can’t trace back to when it started, but for obvious reasons, this process is politically very hard to get rid of. After all, it gives the appearance that the community is getting the final “say” in the fate of a development: they get to testify at a public hearing and lobby their representatives.. This then enables the facile argument that anyone who wants to do away with that step is “taking away” the community’s voice. (I don’t blame people for thinking this. The news headlines about new projects typically resemble something like, “City Council narrowly approves controversial development,” which perennially reinforces the myth that the City Council has some discretion and that their vote means something.) 

This topic was introduced in 2015, when the City Council asked the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to analyze our development process. From an Ann Arbor News article

Should the Ann Arbor City Council continue to review and have the final say over so-called by-right development proposals? That is, projects that have been determined to meet all of the city’s zoning requirements and are considered permitted uses. Or does having the city’s elected representatives deliberate and vote on such projects unnecessarily politicize and drag out the approval process? Representatives from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. suggested the latter during a special joint session of the City Council and Planning Commission this week, formally recommending that the city eliminate the ‘unnecessary step’ of the City Council voting on site plans that are permitted uses.

“If it’s a permitted use, it’s permitted,” said the MEDC’s Joe Meyers, noting site plan review and approval is supposed to be a technical process. “So bringing the politics into it sometimes makes it a little worse.”

While that conversation fizzled from lack of support, thankfully the Planning Commission is discussing this issue in earnest once again.  This is a worthwhile debate.  In my 12 years of appointed and elected service to Ann Arbor, I can’t think of any city process that manages to do so many bad things at the same time as our building approval process when it comes to:

  • wasting the public’s time, 
  • creating feelings of community powerlessness and cynicism about government,
  • preventing staff and City Council representatives from doing more meaningful work, 
  • putting the city in financial jeopardy through lawsuits, and
  • inflating the cost of home building.

It needs to stop. We need to do all we can to fight the inequities caused by high housing costs in Ann Arbor, including unnecessary delays in welcoming new residents here. When community members see things that they like or don’t like about buildings, we should spend time changing the rules to better match what we want in the future, rather than perpetuating a process that invites debate about things we cannot change.

Please write to the Planning Commission (planning@a2gov.org) and ask them to address these roadblocks to building more housing in our city. Then write to the City Council (citycouncil@a2gov.org) and ask them to take action to make it easier to build more housing in more parts of our city.