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Ann Arbor on track for some 1,600 new housing units this year

Ann Arbor housing project under construction
Josh Hakala
Ann Arbor housing project under construction

AA Affordable housing long interview

Cathy Shafran: This is 89 one WEMU FM. I'm Cathy Shafran. Well, it seems like we're hearing a lot about new housing developments in Ann Arbor on a regular basis these days. There's a push, the city says, to create more housing and, in particular, more affordable housing. There's actually a tally of some 30 housing-related projects in some form of building stages or discussion this year. So, how much more housing space will that mean for Ann Arbor? And how is the city doing on its goal toward affordable housing? We posed those questions today to Brett Lenart, planning manager of City of Ann Arbor. Brett, thanks so much for joining us.

Ann Arbor planning manager Brett Lenart.
Doug Coombe
Concentrate Media
Ann Arbor planning manager Brett Lenart.

Brett Lenart: My pleasure. Happy to talk.

Cathy Shafran: So, in advance of our discussion today, I did ask if you could put together the numbers for me. So, we're looking at them together perhaps for the first time. When you look at the overview for new housing in the city or, let's say, this year, within a year, according to your data, what are we looking at in terms of total new housing units available?

Brett Lenart: Probably the most reliable number is we have about 1500 units of housing under construction and apartments. We have another approximately 200 units of housing that's programmed as for sale products. And then we have about 30,000 square feet of commercial and another 360 or so hotel rooms. These are projects that have been approved over many recent years, and those totals reflect projects that are actually under construction currently.

Cathy Shafran:Those totals, I think, it looked like 1400 or so apartment units, 194 condos. Of that total, how much of that is affordable housing?

Brett Lenart: So, 98 units in those projects, 98 units of affordable housing are being proposed.

Cathy Shafran: Okay. So, I'm seeing 98 out of that we're talking closer to 1600.

Brett Lenart: Yeah, we got a total of 1620. About 6% of all of the homes will be designated as affordable housing units, which means that their income-restricted to family households who are at or below, depending on the development, either 60% or 80% of the area median income.

Cathy Shafran: And so, when you look at 6%, are we reaching the goals that the city has set out for itself?

Brett Lenart: By no means. The city has set a goal of 140 units be developed each year since 2015. And based on the Washtenaw County Affordable Housing Dashboard that they track for all communities, we have had a net increase of 195 units since that time. So, affordable housing units are challenging. And in this high value market, while we're optimistic that the 98 units are obviously a big boost to that number, by no means are we meeting the plan of 140 units per year.

Cathy Shafran: We're continuing our conversation on 89 one WEMU with Brett Lenart, planning manager of the City of Ann Arbor. Let's look at the...the plans are approved, but not under construction yet. And let's do the same math, if we could, on that.

Brett Lenart: So, for that, we are talking 65 units out of a total of around 1300 or so. That is 5% of proposed units that are approved, but not yet under construction.

Cathy Shafran: And, again, the same question. If we're looking forward, then, currently, we see that we're at 6%, and we see what's ahead is 5% affordable housing. What do we say to ourselves as we look toward the future? Does it something that future planners should be looking at and city officials should be discussing?

Brett Lenart: Undoubtedly. That happens in a couple of different ways. You know, first of all, when we're talking about these, you know, this is a snapshot in time, both the plans approved and plans that are developed and are under construction. Keep in mind, those represent multiple years. You know, some of those projects--it's not always a very neat and tidy plans that are approved in year one, and they start construction in year two, and they are completed in year three or four. Nonetheless, these snapshots are good benchmarks about how we're meeting those goals. Obviously, they're lower with a targeted of 140 units. In the event that both of these were completed over the next coming, you know, two years, we would be well below that. And so, some of the ways that we--policymakers and the city--can think about this is there's a variety of ways. One is to look at the overall development activity that's happening. Recently, the city has created new transit supportive zoning districts, RTC-1 corridor, and that's an example of an opportunity where increasing the overall scope and volume and supply of housing, looking to add housing, particularly in areas that might have a really vital retail community or very vital office community, and to add additional housing to support or augment those types of land uses. That's a way that we can just move the needle on affordability in the city very incrementally, but by providing more supply and more choices to residents in the city. The other thing we can do is think about other tools and assets that we have. Specifically, the city has been looking at a series of surface parking lots that it owns and pursuing a strategy to consider those sites and how they might be used to further the goals of affordable housing. When we have some control and say over the land asset in those cases, and you'll see the evidence of some of those projects on this overall table over the 350 south 5th and the 121 pathways. So, there's a lot of ways that the city can look at hopefully improving those trends in a better direction to provide more affordable housing.

Cathy Shafran: Do you think there's a chance you might take these numbers that we've just put together to them and say, "Hey, we need to do a better job?"

Brett Lenart: I don't think that needs to be said. I think our city council and our planning commission and city staff are all very laser-focused on the importance of building an inclusive and equitable community. Everybody would like to see those goals exceeded, not falling short of. I think that that urgency is already there.

Cathy Shafran: Are there ways for enforcement when they approve projects in the future?

Brett Lenart: But the city does not have the ability to go to you or any other property owner and say, "I know you have this housing unit. We want you to cap your rent to 75% or 50% or 25% what the market will bear in order to provide an affordable housing unit." We don't have that power. Even if the city decided that was a policy goal and it desired, it doesn't have the legal authority to do that. And so, the levers that it has are resources that could come through land. It could also come through the recently adopted affordable housing millage. The voters of the city of Ann Arbor share a policy direction that affordable housing is a critical issue for the city and have provided now via the affordable housing millage financial resources to help bolster and advance those numbers. And then, it could also be a consideration of process. Are there other ways that we are getting in the way? Are we adding requirements and expectations that drive affordability? We can't mandate it, but we can incentivize. At times, we can negotiate when we are bringing resources to it, such as land or maybe economic development incentives. But the short answer is it is often and almost always part of our conversations, but it is just that it's a conversation that that we don't have the ability to just mandate it.

Cathy Shafran: Then it seems like the effort's being made, but there's still more work to do?

Brett Lenart: Absolutely. I think that, over the coming years, as we look at our comprehensive plan process, it's going to be a great opportunity for us to have some community conversations about what are the additional levers, what are the additional evidence that we should be thinking creatively about to bolster those numbers, because it's clearly to find that equitable, mixed-income cities tend to thrive better and as important aspirations for how the city evolves, that it doesn't become an exclusive place, but rather a more inclusive place.

Cathy Shafran: Thanks so much, Brent Lenart, planning manager with the City of Ann Arbor. Thank you for joining us today.

Brett Lenart: Thank you for the time.

Cathy Shafran: I'm Cathy Shafran. This is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti and online at WEMU dot org.

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Cathy Shafran was WEMU's afternoon news anchor and local host during WEMU's broadcast of NPR's All Things Considered.
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