A mock-up for green, affordable housing

Proposition C for Affordability and Sustainability

Guest Editorial by Jonathan Levine

Jonathan Levine
Jonathan Levine,
Professor of Urban and Regional Planning
at the University of Michigan

This November 3, Ann Arbor residents will vote on Proposition C to establish a 20-year, 1-mill tax to support affordable housing development.  Once passed, the measure will support progress in the interrelated realms of affordability and environmental sustainability.

The housing-affordability dimension is the most obvious.  The measure will support the development of housing affordable to households earning up to 60 percent of the median income for the area:  truck drivers, food prep supervisors, medical assistants, home health aides, childcare workers, and more.  The “essential workers” who are so visibly thanked in the yard signs that sprouted in Ann Arbor yards during the pandemic are overrepresented in this population.  Though the estimated 1,500 homes that will be developed with funds collected from this millage will not satisfy the entire need for affordable housing in our region, they represent the most significant expansion of affordable housing in our town of about 50,000 homes in 40 years.

The location of this housing in Ann Arbor, the regional commuting hub, is an affordability force multiplier.  While housing is the largest single item in most household’s budgets, at about 16 percent of total expenditures, transportation is second.  Affordability is not just a function of the rents that a household pays, but also its transportation expenses, which are closely tied to location.  For example, a household living in downtown Ann Arbor faces annual transportation costs of about $8,000, compared to $11,000 in Ann Arbor as a whole and $15,000 in Ypsilanti Township.

Part of this difference stems from shorter car trips:  a household in downtown Ann Arbor will drive just over half as much as one in Ypsilanti Township.  The other piece of the transportation-affordability puzzle is non-automotive travel, and Ann Arbor offers its residents good alternatives to driving alone to work, with 42 percent walking, using transit, carpooling, cycling, or using other commute alternatives.  This means that the 1,500 households who will live in Ann Arbor because of the passage of Proposition C will have the opportunity to lower their transportation expenditures together with their housing costs.

The environmental-sustainability benefits of Proposition C emerge largely from the travel advantages of an Ann Arbor location. Shorter travel distances and greater reliance on alternatives to the car also mean reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.  Housing unaffordability has the effect of pushing households from the relatively low-carbon zone that is Ann Arbor into locales where their environmental impact is likely to be higher.  This is particularly important because Ann Arbor is a commuting magnet; increased affordability would allow some share of the 83,000 daily in-commuters to Ann Arbor to reduce their commute by choosing homes here.  While the commute will never be eliminated, the affordable housing that the millage will enable should be one cut of many.

In the longer term, Proposition C should be an element of a broader set of affordability-and-sustainability policies, based both on market-rate and below-market-rate development, to alleviate our housing shortage.  These would include reforms of zoning practices that reserve a large majority of our residential territory for exclusive use by single-family-home residents.  Fortunately, the reforms that can provide these benefits have been pioneered elsewhere. For example, Minneapolis and Oregon have allowed small multi-family homes in formerly single-family zones without altering height, yard space or other size and design requirements. The San Francisco Bay Area is experimenting with transit-oriented development along rapid bus corridors. Buffalo, Hartford and other locales have eliminated parking requirements from their zoning codes to allow high-value land to prioritize residential, commercial or institutional uses over car storage. Austin has relaxed certain height, density and parking restrictions for development that contains enough affordable units, and Cambridge now allows up to four-story affordable apartments in single-family neighborhoods.

While the specifics of reforms that are right for Ann Arbor remain to be determined, effective and equitable policies in housing and transportation both open up the development market to a broader diversity of housing types and provide for subsidized affordable housing.  Proposition C is a necessary element in this broader portfolio of reforms.

Jonathan Levine is a Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Michigan.

(Title is given for identification purposes only and does not indicate university support for or endorsement of the views advocated here.)