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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.

Support Housing Abundance: A Guide to the June 7, 2021 City Council Agenda

This post was written by Scott Trudeau. Scott is a former Ann Arbor City Planning Commissioner, and a current trustee of the Ann Arbor District Library. The views presented below are his own.

The housing affordability crisis is a complex problem and one that has no single solution. People and households vary across what they need, value, and can afford. To make forward progress, we need a diversity of approaches. The upcoming June 7th, 2021 City Council meeting agenda (the PDF agenda or the full details in Legistar) is chock-full of resolutions to help create housing abundance for a full spectrum of people who live, and want to live, in our city. If you’d like to voice your support for creating homes for more neighbors of all kinds, this is an excellent opportunity to let your City Council reps and the Mayor hear your voice.

This agenda includes:

  • two allocations of our recently passed affordable housing millage funds to support developments for low- and extremely low-income households
  • rules changes to make it easier for homeowners to build small “accessory” homes on their property (“Accessory Dwelling Units”)
  • a rezoning and site plan approval for a townhouse and apartment development (tucked into a corner of the UM Golf Course) which has some important implications for our climate goals

For details of the ways you can contact your City Council representatives, or to speak up in support at the meeting, skip to the end of this post.

Affordable Housing millage dollars for low- & extremely-low income subsidized housing

Listed under CA-26 and CA-29 on the agenda are two allocations of dollars from the recently passed affordable housing millage to support developments by the local housing-first supportive housing non-profit Avalon Housing.

CA-29 allocates ~$400,000 to support the development of the second phase of Avalon’s Hickory Way property on Maple Rd, which will add an additional 84 homes to this property which has a mix of income restricted units, many of which are set aside for extremely low-income residents, and all are capped to be affordable for households earning below 60% of Area Median Income (AMI). (See below for more information on how AMI and affordability works).

CA-26 allocates ~$1.1 million to support Avalon Housing’s portion of the Veridian development on a formerly County-owned property on Platt Rd. The Veridian development is an ambitious project incorporating sustainability features and market rate homes, but also integrated affordable and supportive housing units built and operated by Avalon.

The communities that Avalon serves with developments like these are the most vulnerable and in need of safe and healthy homes. These are excellent projects to begin using our affordable housing dollars to advance options for those who are most in need in our community.

Expanding our Accessory Dwelling Unit ordinance

Listed under B-1 (along with a public hearing at PH-1; public hearings explained below) is a resolution to update our Accessory Dwelling Unit (“ADU”) ordinance. ADUs are small secondary homes or apartments built on a property used as a “single family” (i.e., detached) home. They are currently permitted in limited circumstances. This update makes the ordinance more flexible by allowing detached small homes (which the current ordinance mostly prohibits); allowing homeowners who have single-family homes in a zone that technically allows for apartment buildings (but often does not actually permit more than one home on a property) to add an ADU instead; and eliminates the requirement that the property owner live in one of the two units. These updates have been through multiple rounds of public engagement and other processes over the last few years and align well with the AARP’s ADU ordinance recommendations.

By making these small homes more viable for more residents to construct, we can increase the diversity of housing options across the City and create more opportunities for households to adapt their circumstances without being forced to sell and move from a property.

Valhalla: New, Sustainable Market-Rate and Affordable Homes

The final leg of the three-legged housing stool on this agenda are approvals for the Valhalla development planned at the corner of South Main & Ann Arbor-Saline Rd near Scio Church. The proposal includes 454 homes in a mix of apartment buildings and townhomes on approximately 10 acres that currently contains six detached homes tucked into a corner of the UM Golf Course.


While only 15 of the homes will be rent-locked to be affordable for incomes under 60% AMI (see AMI notes below), the rest of the 400+ homes still provide a much needed option for people who would happily live in an apartment or townhouse very close to downtown and campus instead of living much further away. Without dense, centrally-located housing like this, we force people seeking housing to drive up prices in more affordable neighborhoods and accelerate displacement elsewhere. Concentrating new residents who find homes like this desirable, we keep the pressure off for people who prefer other options.

Also, because of the affordable housing millage, this new development will contribute tens of thousands of dollars a year in additional funds to our affordable housing fund, helping support and sustain projects like the Avalon developments presented in this same agenda. Over the life of the millage, this one site will likely contribute well over $1 million in property taxes exclusively for subsidizing affordable housing.

In addition to the housing benefits, this development includes a substantial amount of solar energy generation and will be entirely electric, with no fossil fuel gas connection to provide heat or cooking fuel for any of the units. As we necessarily transition to renewable energy sources, demonstrations of this all-electric technology’s viability and desirability will be an asset in helping us to make this shift and meet our carbon neutrality goals as a city.

Other Housing Highlights

Two other notable housing-related items on the agenda are C-1 and C-3.

C-1 would update an ordinance which prohibits landlords from forcing lease renewal decisions on tenants until after 240 days (~8 months) of a 9 month or longer lease. This term is currently set at 90 days. 

C-3 would create a new zoning district to encourage mixed-use redevelopment of properties that currently are strictly commercial (offices, strip malls), to create more housing along our bus corridors in places that are already well-served with shopping and other amenities.

C-1 and C-3 are both in “first reading” which means there will be no public hearing at this meeting. If passed, they will come back to a future meeting for final vote with a public hearing. This agenda is already packed, so hopefully we will revisit these again when they come back around.

How to Contact Council & the Mayor

When items like these come up, it is rare for Council to hear from people who support (or are indifferent to) the changes, while people motivated to try to stop a change are far more likely to voice concerns. Recently, for example, postcards (which are expensive!) were sent to community members urging them to protest the Valhalla development at its final approval.

If you are supportive of these efforts, even a short email (“I support X resolution”) goes a long way to show you are engaged and paying attention, so please do contact your reps in whatever ways you feel most effective. 

There are multiple ways to contact the City Council and the Mayor to show your support for these resolutions. The easiest way to email the entire Council and Mayor is to send a message to CityCouncil@a2gov.org. Alternatively, you can find individual Council Member contact information on the Council web page.

Even better is to speak at a public hearing or at public comment time before a meeting. When an item on the agenda has a corresponding public hearing (on this agenda PH-1 is the hearing for the ADU ordinance and PH-2 and PH-3 are for Valhalla), you simply need to call in (or line up for the mic when meetings are back in Council Chambers) when that hearing comes up on the agenda, and you will have three minutes to address the topic under discussion. When items do not have a dedicated public hearing (like the “consent agenda” items for affordable housing millage funds), there is not a dedicated time to speak to these items. However, if you want to try to get a speaking spot for one of these items, you can call the City Clerk’s office at 734.794.6140 at 8am on the day of the meeting to request one of 10 speaking spots before the main part of the meeting begins (the process for this is outlined here).

More About AMI & “Affordability”

When we talk about subsidized affordable housing in Ann Arbor, the most common way policy makers determine “what is affordable and for whom” is using a calculation based on Area Median Income and household size. The percentages around AMI can be hard to understand. 

Rather than try to explain the math, the first two tables in this document concretely show the 2020 numbers for Washtenaw County both in terms of what an AMI for a given household size would be for different AMI percentages, and what the housing expense caps are for those groups. For example, a 2-person household at 30% AMI would make less than $25,000/year and could not have housing expenses set higher than $610/month. A 4-person household at 60% AMI would make less than $61,000/year and could not have housing expenses set higher than $1,523/month.

recap of summer reads on housing diversity and affordability

It’s been a busy and challenging summer. So perhaps you missed a few recent articles about how zoning affects housing affordability? We’ve got you covered. Here are a few thought-provoking pieces of writing from the past few months.

Deng, et al., “Op-Ed: For climate and Affordability, Reform Zoning,” Michigan Daily, June 19, 2020.
Penned by a group of University of Michigan faculty, this hyper-local editorial explicitly connects affordability and climate justice, and offers a vision for how Ann Arbor can achieve both its economic and environmental equity goals.

Jamie Fogel and Zachary Ackerman, “Opinion: Restrictive zoning laws perpetuate neighborhood segregation,” Detroit News, July 15, 2020.
Ann Arbor’s own Fogel (a PhD student) and Ackerman (city council member) describe how restrictive zoning has contributed to racial segregation nationally and in “reliably liberal” Ann Arbor.

Emily Hamilton, “Want More Housing? Ending Single-Family Zoning Won’t Do It,” Bloomberg CityLab, July 29, 2020.
Hamilton—a research fellow at the libertarian-leaning Mercatus Center think tank—points out that merely ending single-family zoning might not be enough to truly increase the supply of affordable housing.