Monday, June 1, 2020

Ann Arbor for the many, not the few

Ann Arbor should eliminate exclusionary zoning. By exclusionary zoning I mean residential zoning that prohibits duplexes, triplexes, quads, and accessory dwelling units (ADUs). Also, I am including large setbacks and parking minimums in my definition of exclusionary zoning. There are two primary reasons I think Ann Arbor should abandon exclusionary zoning. The first reason is because exclusionary zoning is bad for equity. Exclusionary zoning is a policy born out of the desire for racial segregation. There is ample evidence that exclusionary zoning continues to perpetuate racial and economic segregation today. The second reason I support an end to exclusionary zoning is because it increases our CO2 emissions.

I am going to go into more detail below about the equity and CO2 emissions issues but before I do I want to talk about something important. We are in the midst of a housing crisis. There are two parts to this housing crisis. There is a lack of housing generally in cities with strong job markets like Ann Arbor, and there is also a lack of affordable housing. Here I am going to use the term affordable housing as an umbrella term for housing that is subsidized to cost below market rate, or housing that is subsidized to be affordable for people making less than the area median income, or AMI. Ending exclusionary zoning is not a panacea for our housing crisis. Nevertheless, it is an important part of making the city more affordable. There is a lot of research that shows more market rate housing does help to prevent displacement of vulnerable people (Zuck and Chapple 2016, Mast 2019). So while we must change zoning laws to allow significantly more market rate housing, policy experts agree that more market rate construction alone won’t be sufficient to ensure housing for individuals and families who make below the area median income. Housing insecure people in Ann Arbor are suffering right now and we cannot rely solely on new market rate construction to stabilize the housing prices. An important part of ensuring housing for all residents in Ann Arbor is increasing the amount of money dedicated to affordable housing in the city’s budget. We will not fix Ann Arbor’s affordable housing crisis with zoning alone, but we also can’t fix any of our housing issues if we don’t address zoning.

Exclusionary zoning leads to inequitable outcomes

Exclusionary zoning has its origins in the early 1900s. At the start of the 20th century, racial housing covenants would prevent properties from ever being sold to someone from a specified minority. These covenants were used to exclude African Americans and other minorities from ever living in new developments. When racial housing covenants were struck down in Shelley v. Kraemer, exclusionary zoning (large lot requirements, banning multi-family units) became a way for municipalities to keep “undesirables” out of wealthy areas (Hirt 2013). Many scholars trace exclusionary zoning back to a desire to perpetuate de facto racial housing segregation. Though, Fischel 2004 argues that the desire for class segregation was the primary cause for exclusionary zoning with racial segregation a second order effect. Regardless, the origins of exclusive zoning are not noble.

We can look beyond the origins of exclusionary zoning and look at its impacts today. Exclusionary zoning causes income segregation and increases interjurisdictional inequity (Rothwell and Massey 2010). A study in the Greater Boston Area found that restricting multi-family housing disproportionately excluded black and hispanic households (Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston n.d.). In Ann Arbor, 70% of residential land excludes multi-family housing. There is also a large amount of the remaining land that requires massive amounts of parking spaces (think of the shopping centers and drive-throughs around town); this in turn prevents multifamily housing. Is it any wonder our metro area is the 8th most economically segregated in the country? Abandoning exclusionary zoning will not fix this alone, but it does play an important piece (in addition to increased dedicated funding for affordable housing). New market-rate housing tends to put downward price pressure on units in the immediate vicinity (Mast 2019). Preventing duplexes, triplexes, quads, and ADUs in most of Ann Arbor greatly reduces the ability to develop new housing in the city, which keeps housing prices high. Ann Arbor has not built much housing in recent decades (Tobias 2019, Point2Homes n.d.). This, in addition to the strong job market, is one of the reasons we have soaring rents and home prices.

Exclusionary Zoning and Carbon Emissions

Another reason to end exclusionary zoning is to reduce CO2 emissions from commuting. On an average, pre-COVID workday, about 80,000 people commute into Ann Arbor for work. The average distance they travel is about 20 miles and their primary method of transportation is driving. Allowing more of the people who work in Ann Arbor to live in Ann Arbor will greatly reduce these emissions. Work by Gately et. al (2015) looked at on-road CO2 emissions in cities across the US from 1980 to 2010. Their work suggests a city like Ann Arbor could double in population while not seeing a net increase in total on-road CO2 emissions. This is due to a precipitous decrease in per capita on-road CO2 emissions as more people live in cities. Gudipudi et al. (2016) looked beyond on-road emissions and found that increasing population density in cities also reduced residential and commercial building energy use, though the magnitude of this effect was lower than that of the on-road emission reduction.

Other benefits of inclusive zoning

There are other benefits of inclusive zoning. One is more municipal revenue. New construction increases property values. In Michigan, property taxes can only increase at the rate of inflation except when there are property sales or new construction. Allowing the construction of new duplexes, triplexes, and ADUs would increase property tax revenue. The city should commit a large portion of new property tax revenue from new residential construction to the Affordable Housing Fund. This money can be leveraged many times over with state and federal funds to build more affordable dwellings. Beyond bringing in new property tax revenue, having more people sharing the cost of city infrastructure reduces their per capita costs. For example, if you allowed more people who commute into the city live here instead—whether by renting rooms in existing homes or permitting apartment buildings where you see mostly parking lots around town—the cost of “serving” them as residents is negligible but they all then pay into the costs of our roads, sewers, and water systems.

Cars are not just a source of CO2 emissions. They are also a major source of air pollution and water pollution in urban areas. More housing in the city means that the residents living in that housing will not only drive less to work and other needs, they are also much more likely to use active or public transportation themselves. . Less pollution is good. Fewer vehicle miles traveled also makes Ann Arbor safer for other right-of-way users: pedestrians, cyclists, and scooter users.


Ann Arbor should adopt an inclusive zoning code that allows for duplexes, triplexes, and ADUs in all residentially zoned areas. This will play an important role in helping the city to become more equitable. It will also help the city to reduce its CO2 emissions.

Work Cited

Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston, n.d.. Historical shift from explicit to implicit policies affecting housing segregation in Eastern Massachusetts.

Fischel, W., 2004. An Economic History of Zoning and a Cure for its Exclusionary Effects. Urban Studies, 41(2), 317-340. Retrieved May 29, 2020, from

Gately, C.K., Hutyra, L.R. and Wing, I.S., 2015. Cities, traffic, and CO2: A multidecadal assessment of trends, drivers, and scaling relationships. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(16), pp.4999-5004.

Gudipudi, R., Fluschnik, T., Ros, A.G.C., Walther, C. and Kropp, J.P., 2016. City density and CO2 efficiency. Energy Policy, 91, pp.352-361.

Hirt, S., 2013. Home, sweet home: American residential zoning in comparative perspective. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 33(3), pp.292-309.

Mast, E., 2019. The effect of new market-rate housing construction on the low-income housing market. Upjohn Institute WP, pp.19-307., n.d.. Ann Arbor Population and Demographics.

Rothwell, J. T., and Massey, D. S., 2010. Density zoning and class segregation in US metropolitan areas. Social science quarterly, 91(5), 1123-1143.

Tobias, R., 2019. The Boomtown Fallacy. Tree Downtown.

Zuk, M. and Chapple, K., 2016. Housing production, filtering and displacement: Untangling the relationships.


  1. I disagree, there are three homes in my neighborhood less then 15 feet from the curb, young families have moved in. They are constantly in the streets, telling people driving safely going about their business to slow down. Of course they are bothered by street traffic, what did they expect?

    1. Slowing cars down to a speed where people feel comfortable enjoying public space is a *feature* of putting homes closer to the street. Kudos to those parents for trying to improve the neighborhood. Too bad it's an uphill fight against infrastructure and norms that prioritize cars over people.

  2. There are many, many people that will continue to choose to commute, will never choose to live in Ann Arbor. So while a small portion of those commuters you mention above would choose to live here, commuter traffic will always be present.

    1. There have been surveys done on this! Depending on how hard a line you want to draw around the response, the number is somewhere between 30-50% of commuters would live in town if they could afford it. That'd be 25-35,000 commuters (and assuming household sizes of an average of 2 people that'd be 50-70k new residents).

  3. This is a thorough and well written summary of the YIMBY library of articles and talking points that we have read over the past couple/few years on various social media platforms. The assumptions, assertions, and applications to Ann Arbor's current and future real estate market are not correct though, as has been discussed when these materials and arguments have been individually raised. (I am a 28 year real estate professional developer, broker, renovator, and landlord of affordable, moderate and luxury housing.)

    1. i don’t trust professional real estate developers. we have one of those in the white house.

    2. I've lived here for 51 years. We're not going to have Ann Arbor over developed by over-excited Developers. Just because Ann Arbor is growing it's still Progressive and I understand that. But we'll do it on our terms not yours... We have lots of clever ways to block these overzealous or over developing Ann Arbor trust me we'll do it our way...

  4. Jack Eaton's "Affordable Housing Strategy", articulated during his 2018 mayoral run, is still up on his website:

    Under "Zoning", he writes:

    "the City could seek changes in zoning law that would allow our zoning code to follow a model similar to Montreal, Canada. There, a large number of low and mid-rise buildings provide density but at much less cost because smaller buildings are much less expensive to build. Montreal has kept housing prices much lower than other urbanized areas of the U.S. and Canada."

    This seems in line with what's described in this post. "Mid-rise" buildings are probably even larger than what's called for above.

    Eaton remains on council where he can still advocate for this part of his platform. Has he made progress in that direction? And where in Ann Arbor does he seek to encourage the construction of low- and mid-rise multifamily housing?

    He also advocates in that platform for more cooperative housing and the creation of a community land trust, both excellent ideas.

    What has he done since 2018 to advance these proposals? And what will he do now to take advantage of the community support for more inclusive zoning?

    1. Interestingly, Eaton tried to remove inclusive zoning from the A2Zero plan from the council meeting last night.

    2. Because it doesn't belong in the Climate Plan. It belongs in the Master Plan.

    3. Why doesn't the land use element belong in the climate action plan?

    4. if eaton’s voting record doesn’t match his campaign platform, does that mean he is lying?

    5. This is quite possibly THE most pedantic argument that could be made Tom. The reality is that the climate plan and the master plan, including the inclusive zoning provisions, should ALL be in the master plan. Such a cop-out.

    6. Agreed John. These maneuvers and Tom's rhetoric merely serve to unnecessarily delay, whether or not that is *intentional*

      The outcome is clear: delay is valued over progress on climate action and housing