What challenges have students faced with housing in Ann Arbor?
December 11, 2019
The Rent Is Too Damn High; Blame U-M Administration
Joel Batterman is a PhD student in urban and regional planning, focusing on regional planning, politics and inequality in metro Detroit. He grew up in Ann Arbor and serves on the Climate & Housing Committee of the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO).
The rent in Ann Arbor is too damn high, and in large part, the University of Michigan is to blame.
For most students at Michigan, housing is the second-biggest cost after tuition itself, and the cost of housing in Ann Arbor has skyrocketed. Ann Arbor is by far the most expensive urban rental market in Michigan, and it’s not getting any cheaper. From 2018 to 2019, rents in the city increased a staggering 16%; several apartment listing websites show the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment
is now nearly $1000 per month.It’s no wonder, then, that a growing number of U-M students (not to mention staff) are living outside the city of Ann Arbor, in Ypsilanti and even further afield. For students who don’t have family wealth at their disposal, the burdens of a long bus ride or a frantic search for parking still pale in comparison to the cost of merely having a place to sleep in one of Michigan’s priciest cities. It’s likely this is contributing to a growing segregation of students by class: those with money live “steps from campus,” as advertised by the new luxury high-rises, while those without may live in another city entirely.
The housing crunch in Ann Arbor is part of a national phenomenon that has prompted calls for rent control in many states and spurred growing discussion of housing policy by the Democratic presidential candidates. But Ann Arbor is also distinct in that its housing crisis is largely the result of a single institution: the University of Michigan.
U-M is by far the biggest institution in Washtenaw County. It employs more people than the next ten biggest employers combined, and that’s not even including most students. Over the past two decades, U-M has also chosen to significantly expand its enrollment and its workforce, while doing nothing to address the demand for housing. Meanwhile, Ann Arbor City Council has vetoed one proposal after another to build more housing, especially outside the downtown area.
In effect, this has created a housing pressure cooker in Ann Arbor. With a lid on housing supply, and ever-increasing demand, you don’t need to be an economist to figure out what’s happened to rents: they’re superheated enough to burn through many students’ wallets.
You might think the University administration would have recognized the problem, but you’d be wrong. U-M has built just two new dorms in the past thirty years: North Quad and Munger. Together, these dorms only added about a thousand new beds. Since 2010, meanwhile, U-M’s added six times as many students. It doesn’t help, of course, that University administration has also ratcheted up the cost of on-campus housing.
The University’s obdurate refusal to take action on housing is especially galling in light of the fact that it’s uniquely positioned to fix the crisis. Even if the City of Ann Arbor were to loosen restrictions on housing development, there’s no guarantee that new housing would be affordable. The University has the money to both build and subsidize thousands of units of new housing for students and staff alike. As a state institution, it’s also exempt from the stringent zoning laws that ban the construction of new apartments across most of the city’s land area.
Every time I travel to the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning on North Campus, I pass dozens of acres of vacant University land that’s doing little more than warehousing Ann Arbor’s deer population. While we certainly shouldn’t pave over every green space on campus, it’s ultimately far more sustainable to provide more close-in housing, easily accessible by foot, bike and bus, than it is to force countless students and employees to make daily trips from many miles away.
I’ve been told that not too many years ago, a senior U-M administrator, when asked about the housing crunch, would simply point to the University’s mission statement and say, “Do you see housing in there?”
We might well respond by pointing to President Schlissel’s historic residence on South University. Constructed in 1840, it is the oldest surviving building on the U-M campus. Why, when the University provides a spacious home to an executive compensated at more than $850,000 per year, does it feel no obligation to shelter students who can’t claim such an income?
Alternatively, we might point to the multiple new parking structures that U-M has built over the last two decades, providing about 3,000 new parking spaces at a cost of more than $100 million. I’ve searched the University’s mission statement and found nothing about parking. Why, then, has housing vehicles been a higher priority than housing people?
The time for excuses is long past. The University needs to make up for lost time and make a commitment to build thousands of units of new affordable housing. U-M created the crisis, and only U-M can solve it.
My Scholarship Story
College. Is. Expensive. This phrase is one of the most obvious statements that any college student will see. It is also an acknowledgment that for many, including myself, this mammoth expense led to stress and anxiety during the application process and a heavy consideration of the financial aid award I received. Therefore, when I was informed that the University of Michigan had awarded me a merit-based scholarship, which included tuition, housing, and a stipend, I dropped my other acceptances and jumped at the chance.
Two years in, and I have come to realize the magnitude of the gift I received a couple of winters past. College is becoming one of the most expensive endeavors any individual can take on during their lifetime. Beyond the ever-increasing cost of tuition, any student will have to cover room and board if they live in the dorms, or rent, groceries, and cooking supplies, if they live off campus. Club dues, travel to and from home, and the occasional dinner out further hit the already struggling pocketbook of most college students.
While the reassurance of covered tuition is something for which I am immensely grateful, not having to worry about the many extraneous expenses enumerated above has been the most impactful. Realistically, such expenses will run the average college student anywhere between fifteen and twenty thousand dollars each school year. Not having to worry about or consider where this significant chunk of change will come from has not only been an enormous relief, but also has benefitted other aspects of my student experience. For example, in a world of unpaid/underpaid internships, I have been able to look into and use scholarship money on a greater breadth of career-advancing opportunities during the off months, instead of focusing my saved resources on paying for groceries or utilities.
In another regard, my scholarship has benefitted my mental well-being. With a renewed focus on mental health on college campuses across the United States, it should come as no surprise that many students still face an undue amount of anxiety and stress about their mounting student debt, and how exactly they will afford the expenses that accompany tuition. Relieved of this thought, I am able to examine opportunities with more clarity, focusing on their educational value and relevance to my career. Avoiding this stressor soundly affords me the clarity of mind that all students should be able to focus on their studies and manage a well-rounded lifestyle.
Lastly, by bringing up my scholarship story, I do not mean to ignore the fact that a student’s years in undergrad can be useful in developing important life skills that include learning how to properly manage money. Blindly handing out scholarships or eliminating costs for every expense across the board is not a practical solution to the affordability of college. However, I have ironically learned from my past two years at this university that there is a difference between having to pinch pennies and worrying about not having enough money to purchase essential class supplies. The former can be beneficial to developing a healthy respect for a dollar, which even I have learned, while the latter is an unfortunate reality for many students that our system must work to resolve.
As is certainly clear, my story is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to affording university. Unfortunately, many students are still prevented from truly reaping the rewards that a university experience can offer. While, practically speaking, I accept that it would be impossible to cover these costs for all students, we must provide greater consideration to covering these expenses outside of tuition for those who demonstrate the need. With the University of Michigan taking steps in the right direction in their roll out of programs like the “Go Blue Guarantee” in recent years, it must continue striving to help students, particularly those in the middle class, in responsibly affording this expensive, but critical endeavor.
Hypocrisy in the University
"Laura is the president of Affordable Michigan, a student organization focused on advocating for affordability on campus. As a low-income student, Laura is passionate about making the U-M college experience positive and accessible to all, regardless of socioeconomic background."
When I was accepted into the University of Michigan, my first thought was one many low-income students have: how am I going to pay for that? U-M was my dream school. Between paying tuition, buying school supplies (including a laptop, something no one in my family owned), and having to go a few weeks without a paycheck from moving and then finding a new job, I knew I was taking a financial risk saying ‘yes’ to a U-M education. What I had not considered at 17, though, was just how expensive Ann Arbor is for parts of life unrelated to school, specifically housing.
Something like 95 percent of incoming freshman live on-campus their first year. With housing and a meal plan automatically billed to your student account at the same time as tuition, it’s pretty easy to not think about it. Cue moving to off-campus housing after the first year; suddenly it’s constant stress. Ann Arbor was recently ranked as having the second fastest-growing rent among college towns across the nation. Add paying absurdly high rent and the poor quality of many off-campus student houses and apartments and you get a lot of frustration from students (CSG’s Housing Management Survey showed that 80% of students found the off-campus housing search frustrating). The few that are lucky enough to have cars on campus also have the added cost of finding and paying for parking. Very quickly, housing can start to cost you more than tuition.
At first, it was easy to brush off my parents’ reactions to the spaces I lived in throughout undergrad. This place is filthy. They think two stacked mattresses is a bed? How many of you are sharing that bathroom? I just figured that’s how all college kids lived. And while the friends’ apartments I’ve visited at Eastern and Western Michigan universities have all been of good quality, I’m sure a lot of college kids do live in crappy apartments. But take the low quality living space and subpar landlord experience and then double, or triple(!), the rent? That is what so many U-M students face, yet the administration doesn’t bat an eye. In fact, U-M has only been exacerbating the problem. Enrollment numbers have increased year after year, but U-M hasn’t added any on-campus housing options for undergraduates since 2010, where they only added 450 beds in North Quad. Students are essentially forced to live off-campus after their freshman year, which means year after year more students are populating the surrounding areas. This has continued to drive rent prices up for everyone in Ann Arbor, and contributed to the complacency of many off-campus housing landlords. Knowing most students sign a one-year lease and that they are desperate for housing somewhere near campus, many landlords charge ridiculously high rents considering the low quality of living and put minimal effort into the upkeep of the house. U-M is aware of student unhappiness (remember the CSG Housing Survey?) with off-campus housing and is very aware of the rising rent prices, yet there is silence on the idea of adding more on-campus housing.
There is a clear desire for more on-campus housing. Lots of students apply but get rejected from living in the residence halls and living communities due to limited space. As a graduate student, I jumped at the chance to live in Northwood on North Campus, as the two-bedroom two-person graduate apartments only run $626/month (furnished, no a/c, cheapest option) and quickly learned from my friends that I was one of the lucky ones; they all applied, but there were no rooms. U-M has been blatantly ignoring the population of students requesting - begging - for (affordable) on-campus housing, many of whom are low-income students.
The current housing crisis in Ann Arbor is largely U-M’s responsibility. With the Go Blue Guarantee and other tuition-assistance programs, the university acts as the ‘savior’ of low-income students all the while actively driving up rent costs that spark a chain reaction. U-M’s silent stance on the housing crisis paints a clear picture: students from high-SES backgrounds are the majority and priority.
There are a number of circumstances and issues making it difficult to find affordable, reliable living spaces in Ann Arbor, but I think many of them stem from the conflict of interests between students and permanent residents.
Some landowners in Ann Arbor, whom I refer to as NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard), exercise control over their neighborhoods in a variety of ways, and usually to their advantage. One strategy that they use is artificially lowering the occupancy of certain houses in their area. With fewer potential residents, rent costs for that house will rise and, eventually, increase surrounding property values.
While this benefits the landowners by increasing property value and the city by driving up real estate taxes, it imposes new financial constraints on a student population that is preoccupied with finishing school and getting on with their lives.
However, this conflict is only the tip of the iceberg. It speaks to a larger tension, not just between student and resident, but between the university and the city itself. The city benefits from more real estate and higher property values, but the university is exempt from taxes. Along with the common disdain for students, this dispute fuels much of the animus that residents hold for the school, even though it brings remarkable amounts of capital, prestige, and development to Ann Arbor. Without the university, that simply wouldn’t be the case.
These permanent residents hold the power in the city government. Their influence is strongly felt because they, unlike the students, don’t move on after completing a degree or master's program. They stick around and weigh in. In some cases, the little influence that students do have is used against their own interests, and I can think of no finer example than the park that was recently approved by the city.
Months ago, Ann Arbor residents released a ballot initiative to win favor for the park, and they often turned to students who didn’t have a complete perspective on the issue. They framed the park as some kind of beautification project that would improve the standard of living and give people yet another piece of grass on which to play frisbee. They did not invite students to consider alternative uses for the land, such as the development of housing and public services that could benefit them. I have nothing against parks, but I question whether building another one is truly aligned with student interests.
Within this environment, where the odds are already against the students, we find a myriad of issues that stem from the conflict of interests I mentioned earlier. When housing is exclusive and scarce, for example, landlords are able to wield more power. In Ann Arbor, they are lawfully-permitted to sign leases upwards of ten months in advance.
This is an extremely predatory arrangement. Incoming renters are forced to start their search early or risk not having a place to live. If they miss that small, deceptive deadline, they’re dead in the water. Current renters, similarly, can be forced into exploitative contracts. If their lease lasts a year, but they have to sign ten months in advance, they have to renew their lease after two months. Renewing a year-long lease is a big decision, and an especially difficult one if they've had little time to get familiar with the landlord. The last thing any student wants, and believe me when I say it, is confinement to a year-long, exploitative contract with a landlord who doesn’t have the decency to fix their appliances, keep the utilities running, or show just a hint of respect.
When you have a housing environment that already exploits and restricts the students, there is little to prevent landowners and real estate companies from behaving like slumlords, charging high rent in exchange for ‘acceptable’ housing and less-than-satisfactory service. I doubt my housemates and I were the only students to grapple with a broken dryer, exposed, live wires, and a freezing house last winter.
This is a reality faced by students, exacerbated by local circumstances, and there will come a time when the issue of housing will have to be addressed. Otherwise, it will only get worse. I recommend new restrictions on signing leases in advance, and—for the students’ sake—raising awareness of city government and the proposals which affect all of Ann Arbor- not just its permanent residents. It’s a tall order, but all of these conditions affect each other. When some circumstances are changed or improved, others follow. Positive effects will be felt in different areas. The challenge lies in energizing those changes in the first place.