Monday, November 21, 2022

Guest article: New Council, Who Dis? A Policy Wishlist

Ann Arbor City Hall via Google Maps

Editor's note: This is a guest opinion by Jessica A.S. Letaw. If you're interested in sharing an opinion, reach out to or drop us a DM on twitter.


Shortly after getting involved in local politics, I started writing up a policy wishlist every two years after the City Council primaries. It was a way of casting a vision for what I hoped would happen in the next two years; as time has gone on, it’s also become a way for me to celebrate what’s been completed or is under way, as well as the chance to lay to rest ideas whose moment has passed. This year, for the first time, I’ve decided to share this wishlist publicly; thanks, Ben and Damn Arbor, for the opportunity and the platform. 

What follows is mostly a housing mini-manifesto, because that’s my area of interest and expertise. I care about expanding community accessibility through housing affordability, so that’s what I spend the most time on. I’m talking mostly about policy, although there are some areas of community process managed by staff that I’ll note. I finish up with some extras at the end to help round out the cities I live in - Ann Arbor now, and the Ann Arbor I hope to live in someday: affordable and accessible, deeply integrated with its student and renter neighbors, holding an expansive collective understanding of safety and belonging.

While this wishlist represents my opinions alone (and none of the organizations and groups with which I am affiliated), I work hard to listen to groups and people all over our community, especially those who struggle to get the attention of folks with power and influence and experience barriers to accessing the resources they need. What I hope to see in our city is, in other words, a collage of hopes I’ve heard.


I don’t need to spend any time explaining why we need to talk about housing, right? We all know already about that whole 8th most economically segregated community in the country thing? We know that since that 2015 report recommended the City of Ann Arbor add 2800 affordable housing units over the next 20 years, we’ve barely been able to add 100? We know that even though no formal redlining map exists for the city of Ann Arbor the private sector found ways to enforce neighborhood racial segregation well into the second half of the 20th century? We know about our high local incomes ($118,000), high median home prices ($484,000), low rental home availability (less than 3%), and that all this makes our community economically gated and segregated?

We can just work on our problems and not debate whether we have them, right?


The goal of this entire section is asking us to find ways, via policy, to increase affordability and expand access to housing in the city of Ann Arbor. Its structure follows the one in Jenny Schuetz’s Fixer-Upper, a housing-policy book she describes as “practical ideas to provide affordable housing to more Americans.”  What I really appreciate about Fixer-Upper as a playbook is that it considers how federal, state, and local policy systems interlock to create some really detrimental housing outcomes in terms of affordability and accessibility, which is necessary because of the complexity of how American housing is governed and funded.  We only have control over certain aspects of that policy here at the city level; but as our city administrator has put state and federal lobbying on the table for our community, I’m going to lift up some of those fixes as well for our lobbyists to consider as they move Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County’s interests forward.  

1. We need to know more about why we have the problems we do

We don’t need to just measure the problems we have now; we need to do a thoughtful, informed audit of our city’s housing history and how we have been implicit in private and public practices of residential segregation.

1A. We need to actually do the study on the racialized origins of single-family zoning that City Council budgeted for

That involves commissioning an historian or experienced urban history consultant to review city documents comprehensively and produce a report on their findings.  It also involves staff and electeds using that report to do community education, raising our collective literacy about our city’s complicity in racialized housing practices. This will root future policy more firmly in justice.

1B. We need to make sure our new Director of Organizational Equity, Laura Orta, has a front seat at housing conversations

We need to make sure that housing and justice are always considered in tandem, that one is never an afterthought of the other.  Our community and electeds need to rely on, and be in dialogue with, the professional staff managing this work.

2. We need to know where we’re going

As much as we need that 2015 report (and as frequently as I refer to it [at least once a week], it is not a comprehensive review of our community’s housing needs.  

2A. Council needs to commission a comprehensive housing needs analysis and develop a strategic plan around it

We need to evaluate housing at at least four levels of affordability (0-30% AMI, 30-60% AMI, 60-80% AMI, and 80% AMI-up).  We need to evaluate how much of each is needed in each ward to have income-diverse neighborhoods all over the city, including for families of all sizes.  And we need this plan to acknowledge that it’s going to take at least - but every minute of - 10 to 20 years to achieve these goals.

Wanna see examples? There’s so much to pull from in documents like Vancouver’s Housing Strategy, Maine Housing’s Strategic Plan, Washington D.C.’s Housing Framework for Equity and Growth (blue ribbon title, btw), and the Bay Area’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation

This plan, which should be a component of the new comprehensive land use plan, needs to get our development process to the point where we know in advance of each new proposed housing development whether or not it helps us reach our community goals.  

It should also result, eventually, in dedicated general-fund funding specific to the development and maintenance of new housing and supportive services that is not politically vulnerable to millages and general votes.  The current affordable housing millage, if passed, will be in effect for 20 years; we should have a municipal plan and planned budget changes in place well in advance of the end of that period.  Planning for growth and its contribution to an expanded tax base will help offset the millage’s dollars when it expires in 18 years, but we need to plan for it now.

Housing is regional infrastructure; we know that Ypsi, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Toledo, Lansing, and Jackson housing systems all affect each other - but we’re not even attending to the interactions of local housing systems. City and University staff should form a temporary task force, along the lines of the Presidential Commission on Carbon Neutrality, to co-create a mid/long-term housing plan. We don’t have to expect our local universities to change their policies; but we can be institutions with leaders that intentionally acknowledge, and plan for, our student neighbors.

2B. Citywide comprehensive land use plan

The state of Michigan requires cities to update their Master Plans every five years.  Ann Arbor's last substantive update of our zoning map was in 1998 (or 2009 if you want to be generous in defining "update".  If you don’t, you can observe that Ypsilanti has updated theirs twice in the time Ann Arbor has spent considering taking up a new master plan process.)  We've had two major recessions, a dot com boom and bust, our University neighbor expand by almost 20,000 faculty/staff/students, the rise of micromobilty as a transportation mode, and a pandemic since the last land use plan update.  It is beyond urgent; every single development is a pain point because our zoning is so woefully out of date, and our guiding land use plan reflects neither current economic realities nor our community's celebration of justice, equity, and inclusivity. 

3. Increase the quantity and diversity of housing; reduce housing costs

3A. Legalize rowhouses, duplexes, apartment buildings

Learn from U professors who have taught about this for years which incremental developments are easiest to get funding for.  If we want small local developers, we need to understand which financial tools are most accessible for them and what that looks like from a zoning perspective.

We can also take some lessons on how to do this attractively and efficiently from the Michigan Municipal League.  They recently published “Pattern Book Homes for 21st Century Michigan,” nearly-complete duplex and fourplex construction plan sets. They may be freely reproduced, offer recognizable Michigan architectural traditions with current building codes and accessibility considerations, and are designed to fit on typical neighborhood-sized lots.

3B. Make housing development process simpler and more transparent 

Small developers are the ones most likely to stay away from the copy-paste model of design; they’re the ones most likely to feed their resources back into the community; they’re the ones who can keep us weird, resilient, and deeply connected to the people in all of our communities.  It would be great if we could prioritize small developers in our process and reverse-engineer everything, from permits to certificates of occupancy, from that standpoint.  An argument that our community consistently has is whether what we do benefits developers; what we’re not great at is understanding that that designation has a lot of nuance behind it. Small local developers gave us the York courtyard.  Small local developers gave us the HOMES brewery and campus.  Let’s make it easier for them to thrive.

To that end…

3C. Convert the Design Review Board into a body more focused on measurable and positive outcomes.  

Right now, our DRB is essentially a community arbitration on new buildings in the downtown.  In the meetings I have attended, it has given small sections of Ann Arbor the "feeling" of process while adding time, expense - therefore, additional unaffordability - to the final project.  

What if, instead of community input on developments, we use developments to give input on our processes?  

A productive template for this evolution is Portland’s Development Advisory Review Committee.  Like the Ann Arbor DRB, it’s an advisory commission comprised of community volunteers, and like the DRB, those volunteers are largely building-industry professionals.  Where they diverge: the DRB “advises developers on how a project can meet the spirit and intent of the Ann Arbor Downtown Design Guidelines”, where the DRAC oversees “the outcome of policies, budgets, regulations, and procedures that affect development review processes.”  Did you hear that?  Instead of arbitrating the spirit of a single document in a single part of the city, this group of volunteers with expertise would contribute to more measurably beneficial outcomes. And what if we fold “affordability” into how they evaluate developments, too?

Can we be this bold?  Can we pivot from performative to transformative community contributions?  I think we can.  I believe in us, Ann Arbor.

3D. Reduce the affordable housing requirements on development.

They have had a chilling effect on development, reducing the total amount of housing created because most developers can’t make the below-market-rate numbers pencil out.  Affordable housing should be a premium incentive for developers, not a mandate, as the market doesn't support it.  If we are doing a better job as a city providing public housing, we can be more effective in the BMR (below-market-rate) housing or PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes) expectations we’re placing on developers.  

4. Shrink household carbon footprints; reduce financial exposure to high-climate-risk places

4A. Allow more housing near job centers and public transit, especially downtown.

TC1 is done (sort of, except for the fact that we have to battle tooth and nail for every implementation; if only it had been adopted citywide instead of crawling corridor by corridor), but we need to incentivize residential development downtown.  Part of the reason our downtown businesses struggle to flourish and we’re coming back more slowly from the pandemic than we might otherwise do is that we’ve over-invested in office space and underinvested in homes. It’s time to rebalance that.

“No, we don’t!  There are plenty of tall apartment buildings downtown!”

Not a single new one that isn’t supposed to be for students, friends.  Not one single one.

4B. Improve access to noncar transportation

AAATA just passed an ambitious millage based on their most ambitious plan, all of which was based on what they heard that we, the community, wanted.  How are we using our policy and process tools to help boost what they’re doing?

5. Improve access to decent-quality, stable housing

5A. “Revise building codes and zoning that restrict low-cost rental housing” 

I think it’s time for staff to do an audit on our city’s affordability. Maybe a year long. Potentially hire a consultant. Then come back with policy and process recommendations on how we can proactively address this.  Should maybe be a 3/5/10 year plan.

6. State and federal lobbying

…read Jenny’s book, she is the expert, not me! But a quick summary of her suggestions: 

6A. Improve financial security for lower-income households; reduce the racial wealth gap

6B. Invest in efficient, climate-friendly community infrastructure (this means we need to get MDOT to reflect CDC, EPA, EGLE, and other recommendations in its work); improve services to low-income communities; (specifically at the state level) allow local governments fiscal flexibility 

6C. Improve regional housing and labor market outcomes

Not Housing

7. Commit to a citywide bike lane network

The city's progress on bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure is so painfully incremental as to feel apologetic. In the meantime, car behavior remains largely unchanged, while cyclists and pedestrians wait years for modest upgrades to fractured infrastructure.  Let’s use our Vision Zero goals, updated Moving Together transportation plan, and the A2Zero carbon neutrality framework to build a plan, a budget, and a timeline for when a citywide bike network will be complete.

8. Expand our understanding and funding of public safety beyond the police department

I have lost track of where the police contract ended up after the BLM protests and the work of the Independent Community Police OverSight Commission (ICPOC).  I know that the police budget has increased since George Floyd’s murder, from $29.8M at the time of his death to $31.4M this year. I also know that the Coalition to Reenvision Our Safety, CROS, emerged in 2021 in response to the City passing a resolution exploring the possibility of implementing an unarmed crisis response program locally.  

I plan to learn more about and support recommendations ICPOC and CROS make regarding the Ann Arbor Police Department’s labor contract and budget. In the meantime, I support implementing the 5 recommendations made by 8 Can't Wait that Ann Arbor has yet to pass, as well as eliminating no-knock and quick-knock warrants. (Rest in peace and power, Aura Rosser.)

Long-term, I would love to see Ann Arbor on the forefront of redefining public safety much more broadly than within the police department. Why are we spending so much more on policing than areas like housing, mental health support, or public pre-K programs when we know it's these and other investments that head off safety concerns to begin with?  

9. Rethink equitable engagement

Journalist Jerusalem Demsas covers American housing, paying particular attention to the challenges of affordability and vulnerable communities.  She has brought the question of whether community engagement is fulfilling its ambitions in the Atlantic not once this year, but twice. “Although many Americans associate small-government activism with Republicans, the American left embraced participatory democracy in the 1960s. The leftist group Students for a Democratic Society” [first organized in Ann Arbor, and whose first president was local activist Alan Haber] “outlined this commitment in the Port Huron Statement: ‘As a social system we seek the establishment of a democracy of individual participation.’” 

On housing, “Community Input Is Bad, Actually” places the responsibility for our country’s housing shortage squarely on the shoulders of our cities’ community engagement practices: “Deference to community input is a big part of why the U.S. is suffering from a nearly 3.8-million-home shortage and has failed to build sufficient mass transit, and why renewable energy is lacking in even the most progressive states.”

On infrastructure, “Not Everyone Should Have a Say” argues that local decision-making about regional infrastructure and global issues aggregates up to the most adverse impacts, regardless of our individual values:  “[M]any people within the environmentalist movement are undermining the nation’s emissions goals in the name of localism and community input.”  

Our City urgently needs to reconsider “public” and “community” and “engagement”, have the courage to try experiments and pilots, and be willing to let them be uncomfortable and emergent and weird, all in the service of seeking both more inclusive conversations and more just outcomes.

10. Enfranchise young, student, and renter voters

I long for the City of Ann Arbor to partner with the University of Michigan and Washtenaw Community College on a communications campaign around election primaries in even years; in other words, the ones where all local elections are effectively decided.  UM in the last couple of elections has done an amazing job raising the profile of general elections; but the primaries go entirely uncommented, and I grieve every election cycle.  I know that a lot of students go away during the summer, but A) there are fewer students - not none; B) and remember how we have no-reason absentee voting now? 

This Brookings Institution article by Anika Singh Lemar is a mini-manifesto on how Ann Arbor could act more decisively on behalf of renters and, more broadly, bring local laws in line with our community's values. Ann Arbor would set a meaningful example to other cities, of any size, to examine what Lemar refers to as “zoning creep” and how we as a city and a City could enact and embody a more comprehensive focus on student and renter enfranchisement.  Renters Commission, City Council, and staff: I hope this is a partnership and a campaign you’ll explore!

Bonus: that Prop A thing

I can’t think of a better place to put this issue than at the end of a long and wordy road.

First of all, if you’re not sure what I mean by Prop A or the Library Lot, read Dan Adams’ article. It’s clear, accessible, and well researched.

He notes 5 potential ways forward, including the two I’ll focus on, “amend” and “repeal”.  What I think:

I campaigned hard against Prop A when it was on the ballot in 2018.  Dan says: “Proposal A has been an unmitigated policy disaster for our community.”  I couldn’t agree more.  While I think amending Prop A is more politically feasible, I am strongly in favor of repealing Prop A.

Choosing amendment over repeal is an abdication of our responsibility as citizens and as a community.  It is preposterous to have a City Charter amendment that constrains a single plot of land, let alone a city block.  We are doing our descendants and future Ann Arbor a ludicrous disservice by prioritizing short-term political certainty over long-term responsible governance.

I think City Council should be responsible for putting this on the ballot, and I think we as constituents are responsible for advocating with them to do so.  From constituent coffee hours and CM newsletters to public comment times, let’s help Council understand that we as a community feel urgently that Prop A is actively harming our community, that we support them putting it on the ballot, and that we’ll commit to making sure that the vote to repeal is successful.


That was a lot!  So…what happens next?

City Councilmembers and staff, if you’re reading this, I hope you talk to our city’s agencies and community support networks to determine what they need from you in these areas in the short, middle, and long terms.  

Friends and neighbors who find any of these ideas juicy, let’s talk to each other about what we’d like to move forward; talk to our vulnerable neighbors about the challenges they’re experiencing, and what they need to be safe and thriving; and talk to our councilmembers about how to instigate the change we need, and continue the good work we’re already doing (ahem, unarmed engagement, affordable housing, and transit corridors).  

If you live in the city and you are vulnerable - if your rent is too high; if you’re not sure how you’re going to pay all your bills; if your commute is too long; if you’re in an unsafe domestic situation; if you’re struggling with your mental or physical health - please remember that you are deserving of safety, security, dignity, and not just surviving, but thriving.  When you’re on the ropes, imagination is the hardest tool to access, and the surest key to helping you find hope, or at the very least, possibility.  Try to think about the life you want and the community you want to live in, and cast that vision with the folks around you.  

My Ann Arbor AF cohost and I say all the time “get informed and get involved - it’s your city”.  I believe this, but I also know that “getting involved” isn’t just emailing your city councilmembers or volunteering for your neighborhood nonprofit; it’s having honest conversations with the people you live and work close to.  So have a neighborhood dinner, some opinions hors d'oeuvres, a politics potluck.  Break bread; be thoughtful; connect more deeply to folks you know and the folks you don’t.  Let’s find each other, build power, and make change together.


  1. Nice article, A2 does need a good housing plan, just "build-more-apartments"-but-mostly-in-downtown doesn't really solve the housing crisis, those apartments are "luxury" housing that doesn't help everyone, even with sufficient supply of those housing, its price tag will still be relatively "luxurious" in comparison to other sites, that it only brings down the price for the most expensive housing, the highest percentile. Downtown first almost became "luxury first" in A2.

    On the topic of our painfully slow bike infrastructure improvement, I will add that we might need some kind of updated non-motorized transportation network master plan (last one was published at 2013) (and/or A2 road design guideline) that focus on building out an integrated biking and walking network as well as planning out their funding sources instead of "we can build bike protected intersection somewhere" in the transportation plan.

    I live by beakers street, it is labeled as a "major (bike) route" on the transportation plan, the road got resurfaced this year but the bike lane is only a narrow one-lane gutter, no new toys suggested by the transportation plan (man even a Zicla Zebra would be helpful) got implemented but only some flexible stop sign at intersections for peds, such a lost of opportunity, we can see clearly the implementation of transportation plan is IMO mostly focused on slowing down cars (which is good, but not good enough). Seems like the city is lacking in strategic planning on how to build our biking network, I know DDA did one with SmithGroup, the city needs to make one too.

    Just some thoughts on what the plan should include:
    This plan should provide a better integrated framework with the new AAATA 2045 plan, enhancing bicycle & walking connectivity at bus stops.
    This plan should classify roads with which types of bike route it should be, and provide a design guideline for all of them by type. E.g. A neighborhood bike route must have advisory bike lanes with speed bumps; A local bike route must have a bike lane with flex poles; A major bike route must have curb protected/ bollards protected bike lanes that are wider. So that we can stop arguing about what bike lane should be implemented and cut down the design cost, I think this would better stream-flow public engagement too.
    This plan should also give a more comprehensive framework for sidewalk gap filling that is better than what we currently have, so that people is able to walk to their bus stops and/or grocery shops. We have very limited capacity on building new sidewalks (right now we are on track to filling all the sidewalk gaps in a century at a rate about 1.5 miles/yr), so lets fill them strategically.

    We are in some of the best times a city can be, where huge development interest is focused and lots of funds are sent to our city. We are also in some of the worst times a city can be, where we want to shift some of our focus from one transportation mode to another, and we need to finance a lot of initial investments that cost a fortune. I hope A2 is able to figure things out efficiently and effectively.

    Thanks for the article, Jessica.

  2. Like most things in life, SFH has pros and cons. Much has been discussed about the cons, which do exist. I see little about the pros, which also exist. For some of us, it is simply a much preferred way to live. More peaceful, more sunlight, more in touch with nature, more calming. Better mental health. Many of us scrimped and saved for years, and are glad we did, and thus were able to achieve our goal of an enjoyable way of living our lives.