Monday, May 6, 2024

Endorsement: vote for the progressive choice, DesiraƩ Simmons, in Ypsilanti's Ward 3 Recall.


There is an election in Ward 3 tomorrow. Click here for more information on voting in the City of Ypsilanti. 

There is a recall election tomorrow in Ypsilanti's Ward 3. I strongly endorse the incumbent candidate, Democrat DesiraĆ© Simmons. In her time on council, Simmons has been a strong advocate for new housing, and making Ypsilanti a more equitable community. 

The recall against Simmons, and her opponent Rod Johnson, have largely been funded by landlords, out of town business interests, in town business interests, and a dark-money PAC. Please read Ruth Cassidy's well researched article on the finances behind Johnson and the recall. Here's an exerpt:

Newly-posted paperwork of “Ypsilanti Forward” reveals its donors. The recall campaign group is funded almost entirely by landlords who do not reside in the city of Ypsilanti. 92% of the recall campaign dollars came from donors who do not reside in Ward 3. 89% of the recall campaign donors are landlords and 79% of recall campaign dollars came from landlords. The only recall-funder who appears to be registered in Ward 3 is Linda French, who owns Sidetracks and other properties in Ypsilanti. 

Linda French’s nephew and owner of Aubree’s, Andrew French, is another notable donor to the recall. He is also a donor to Republican causes; his donor contributions reveal donations to WINRED, Republican Nikki Haley, and the conservative-leaning Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, of which he serves as president and director. He resides in Ann Arbor.

Other Republican donors who also donated to the recall campaign include Mitch Jerden of Plymouth, Rick Fischer Jr. of Brighton, and Bob Barnes of Ann Arbor. Despite landlords Barnes of Barnes & Barnes and Fischer Jr. using their business addresses on their donation receipts, their registered home addresses are actually in Ann Arbor and Brighton, respectively. Fischer owns a Honda dealership in Ypsilanti and was the business owner who inflated the cost of a property the city sought to purchase in order to connect the Border to Border trail.

Johnson seems like a nice guy, by all accounts. He has a long history in Ypsilanti. That said, I just don't think it is wise to elect someone who represents the will of the landlord class. In this election, there is clearly a progressive choice (Simmons) and a conservative choice (Johnson). Here I mean conservative in the sense of supporting established hierarchies. 

To reiterate, if you are in Ypsi's Ward 3, I think you should vote for Councilmember Simmons. She is clearly the progressive choice. You should also make sure your friends and neighbors vote. Remember, we have same-day voter registration now. If you want to, you can stop reading here. 

This next section is going to get a little speculative. You've been warned. 

Some may say that race between Simmons and Johnson represent a clash between two competing visions for Ypsilanti. They might suggest that Johnson represents the vision of ex-mayor Farmer, the architect of the Water Street debacle. Indeed, Farmer is one of Johnsons donors and one of his fiercest supporters online. This article from Mark Maynard in 2006, as well as the comments give a decent glimpse of ex-Mayor Farmer's philosophy. 1996-2006 was Farmer's term as mayor; beyond Water Street, her signature initiatives were the West Cross neighborhood plan (circa 2003 or 04?)This resulted in the downzoning of everything between the river and campus. It covered something like 800 parcels, including a few hundred that it rendered non-conforming by unit count, and that was the point. Some might say ex-Mayor Farmer and her faction are dedicated to (a) reducing rental properties, (b) increasing property values, and (c) decreasing tax rates. All of that helps the bigger landlords who see their monopoly position strengthening as smaller landlords exit, while increasing the value of their assets (which they can refi to acquire more property) and decreasing their operating costs. Wins all around. The Simmons faction wants (a) more housing, (b) strong renter protections, and (c) increased tax base going to fund strong public services (vs) tax cuts. And the landlords and business owners are less excited about this. 

Indeed, you can see many of the complaints against Simmons are centered around her support for two housing developments (one of which, 220 N Park, she was not even on council when it was approved). It is unsurprising that landlords are against competition, the benefit from housing scarcity. I think the city is much better though when we make sure that anyone who wants to can live here with dignity. 

Ann Arbor City Council Preview: May 6, 2024


Gentle readers, it's #a2Council night in Ann Arbor. Here's the agenda, and who boy, it's a big one. 

The evening kicks off with a stacked, 26-item consent agenda. The first 4 items are all street closures. CA-1 is for the Bicentennial Birthday Celebration. CA-2 is for Top of the Park. CA-3 is for the YMCA Community Block Party. And CA-4 is for Sonic Lunch. There is also CA-12 which is a special assessment for closing the Stone School sidewalk gap. 

There are nine (9) public hearings on the docket this evening! PH-1/B-1 is the second reading of changing the way the city assess traffic associated with large building projects. This change will replace standard traffic studies (which, tend to favor automobile traffic over all other modes of transportation) with more holistic multimodal transportation impact analyses. This is good. 

PH-2/B-2 along with DS-1, later in the agenda, are for the 711 Church Street PUD and development agreement. This is for a 17 story apartment building across the street from a Umich dorm and the Forest Street Parking Structure. It's kitty-corner from a block of high-rise apartment buildings. 

A rendering of the proposed 711 Church Street

This area should clearly be D1, unfortunately it is not yet so this project has to come up as a PUD. This proposal was also turned down by Planning Commission. I still think council should pass it. Ann Arbor is in the midst of a housing crisis, and in need of tens of thousands of new units. This project will provide much needed housing. It will also make a sizable (~$6M) contribution to the affordable hosing fund. If you are so inclined, I'd recommend calling into this public hearing and sharing your thoughts with council. 

PH-4/B-3, PH-5/B-4, PH-6/B-5, PH-7, and PH-8 are all on changes to fees. Specifically, they are on water rates, stormwater rates, sewer rates, public services area fees, and community service area fees, respectively. Incase someone calls in to complain about the 4-tiered water rate system, send them this article from the Damn Arbor Vault. 

Finally we get to PH-9, a hearing on the resolution to adopt the city budget and property tax millage rates for the 2025 fiscal year. 

There is one ordinance first reading tonight. C-1 is for the 732 Packard PUD. This is for a 14-story apartment between Packard and State. I think this project is good too, under the assumption that housing abundance is good. I am disappointed that the owner of the Domino's building on that corner held out and is preventing the construction of a Flatiron building here. 

A rendering of 732 Packard

On to the resolutions. DS-2 is a resolution authorize a summary publication of the Multimodal Transportation Impact Analysis. DC-1 is a resolution to determine a ballot question for a charter amendment for the creation of a sustainable energy utility (SEU). This is pretty exciting. 

That's it, gentle reader. What items are you most excited for? Hopefully we will see you there. The CTN stream starts at 7 pm. Make sure you follow the action on the #a2Council hashtag or on 

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Legalize Cottage Courts


2 and 4 Marshall Court are located on lots that are 26' by 66' or 1,716 sqft. 

Last year, U of M purchased the properties on Marshall Court to build a new dorm. People lamented the loss of this quaint cottage court and rightfully so. Cottage courts are a good use of Ann Arbor's precious urban land. 

Ann Arbor has several notable cottage courts: Beakes,  Bucholz, and Braun, to name a few. They feature cute houses on small lots. You would be hard pressed to find someone who objects to these, unfortunately, under Ann Arbor's current zoning, cottage courts are illegal to build. The smallest residential lot size permitted is 4,000 sqft in R1E. Most of Ann Arbor's single family residential area is zoned R1B or R1C with 10,000 sqft and 7,200 sqft minimum lot sizes, respectively. And don't even get me started on the obscene R1A where lots have to be at least 20,000 sqft. To put that in perspective, you could fit approximately 1.25 Bran Courts on the smallest legal R1A lot. That's room for 10 homes where you can legally only build one!

Braun Court is about 16,000 sqft. You could fit Braun Court and 2 more similar lots on the smallest legal R1A lot. 

Ann Arbor should legalize Cottage Courts. Specifically, Ann Arbor should make a text change to its residential zoning ordinance to make the minimum lot size for all R1 (and R2) lots 1,400 sqft. Furthermore the city should get rid of lot width minima, set minimum front setback to 6 ft. Side setbacks should be 3 ft or 0 ft if the adjoining property owner agrees. Rear setbacks should be a minimum of 10 ft. Finally, maximum lot height should be set to 45 ft for all of these lots. Why 45 ft? Because you get the lowest cost per sqft with three story buildings. Here's my proposal in chart form: 

Proposals for new R1 lot size requirements. Original table here

The great thing about making this as a text change, is that it would not require any revision of the comprehensive land use plan. The city can (and should) do this quickly. The city could do this quickly, in as few as 2 city council meetings, spaced 6 weeks apart. 

Why should the city do this? Ann Arbor is in a housing crisis. The city is short tends of thousands of homes. Allowing people to split residential lots to build new homes is one way the city can allow people to build more housing. Allowing the changes I'm proposing in the chart above will also help reduce the cost of new housing. First, this will help reduce the cost of building new housing by decreasing the amount of land one needs to own in order to own a house. Gyourko and McCulloch (2023) found that on average, allowing smaller residential lots reduced home costs by about $30,000. Also, allowing 3 story houses in all R1 zones, by right, will also help decrease the cost of building new homes. 3 story homes are a sweet spot with construction costs being lower than both 2 and 4 story homes per square footage (Eriksen 2021). Finally by allowing gentle urban density, we can allow more people to live in Ann Arbor as opposed to new greenfield developments in the hinterlands, which benefits the environment. 

The great thing about these changes is that if you currently own a large lot and like it, you can keep your large lot. Nobody is requiring you to change anything. This will just allow people who want to the ability to build on smaller lots. The current residential zoning essentially requires people to have huge lawns, which is fine for people who want that, but not everyone does. Ann Arbor should not force people to have large lots against their will. Requiring large lots has real negative consequences to Ann Arbor residents. For example, at the March 27 Zoning Board of Appeals meeting, a resident who lives in a 19,937 sqft R1B zoned property asked for a variance so that he could split his lot. He had to come to the ZBA because his lot is 63 sqft too small to allow a lot split for R1B. Shockingly, the ZBA denied this variance. If Ann Arbor allowed smaller lots, splits would be by right and not subject to the whim of ZBA committee members. 

In conclusion, I just think we should allow people to build handsome three-flats on small lots in any residential part of Ann Arbor. 

Hyde Park Three Flat by Phil at Wonder City Studio

Addendum: Ann Arbor should do something similar for setbacks in the R4X districts. This would allow things like City Place to be replaced with better projects. 

Addendum 2: Ypsi City should do something similar with setback reform, etc. But I think Ypsi is already better w/r/t allowing small residential lots than Ann Arbor.