Full Speed Ahead
Two years ago, I wrote a post describing a vision for the future of Ann Arbor. It’s two years later, election season, and time to check in on our progress.
To save you from reading my previous post, my point was effectively that Ann Arbor has a housing shortage and we need to do something about it. On this point, I honestly think there is broad consensus in our community—I have heard very few people express the belief that it’s easy to find good housing at a reasonable price. I asked you to vote for those who would most effectively work to solve our housing problem… and you did! We’re in far better hands now than we were two years ago. But we’re just getting started. It takes time to build housing and to see the positive effects of policy changes, and while we’ve made progress and started applying force in the right direction, there are still many roadblocks to overcome—from simple inertia to active opposition and, of course, increasing construction costs. I am asking you to say “yes, and” to what we’ve accomplished over the last two years, and to vote for good governance and a better future for the city. Please vote to reelect Mayor Taylor, and vote for Cynthia Harrison (Ward 1), Chris Watson (Ward 2), Ayesha Ghazi Edwin (Ward 3), Dharma Akmon (Ward 4), or Jenn Cornell (Ward 5).
I know there’s been turnover recently at city hall, some of which I discuss in my post about conspiracy theories popular in certain corners of town. While it may be your natural instinct to blame incumbents, I absolutely believe that Mayor Taylor in particular has been a stabilizing force during these tumultuous times. When there were credible allegations of a toxic work environment at city hall, Taylor ordered an investigation. When that investigation revealed that there was, in fact, a problem, Taylor and the progressives on council acted to solve the problem, despite extreme vitriol and attacks from the conservative faction—from the same folks who had hired this city administrator after firing the previous one without cause and without public explanation.
City employees asked for help. Mayor Taylor had their backs. Punishing him for doing the right thing is absolutely not the message that we want to send. We should reelect him and show city employees that we, too, have their backs. We should also decline to reelect the conservatives—Bannister, Nelson, and Ramlawi in this election—who spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying to save a flawed city administrator from accountability after creating the problem in the first place. In the end, Mayor Taylor and the progressives were able to hire a great city administrator in Milton Dohoney, and I am confident the city is in good hands.
There was another investigation of allegations raised by an employee, which, in the end, exonerated the person accused of wrongdoing. However, the investigator reported that Nelson and Ramlawi interfered in that investigation1 by revealing information from a closed session of council, while the investigation was in progress. This would likely be a fireable offense at work, and is not something that we should tolerate from our elected officials:
I was also troubled to learn during the course of this investigation that two members of City Council [later revealed to be Nelson and Ramlawi, by their admission] reached out to and met with Mr. Guajardo soon after he filed his complaint against Mr. Fournier. During that meeting, Council members disclosed to Mr. Guajardo some of what transpired in a closed-session Council meeting the evening prior—specifically, discussions related to legal advice being given to Council by the City Attorney’s office regarding whether John Fournier should be placed on administrative leave during the pendency of the investigation. Not only did Council members potentially disclose privileged and confidential communications from the closed session with this communication, but they did so to an employee whose complaint against another high-level City employee was the subject of a pending outside investigation.
Unlike the conservative faction, Mayor Taylor and the progressives have acquitted themselves well throughout these difficult times. In each alleged instance, they immediately ordered an independent investigation, treated the complainants with respect, saw the investigation through, and acted on the results. This is what I expect and demand from our elected officials.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a lot of work left to do, in many areas. Housing costs are still rising, and while that’s certainly not a problem unique to Ann Arbor, we must do our part to help. Ann Arbor is not actually growing that fast, and the housing we have built hasn’t kept up with the rising demand due to additional students and jobs. Eighty thousand2 people commute into the city every day—burning gas and increasing traffic—many of them because they can’t find affordable housing in town. Anne Bannister suggested recently that we might ask the University to send jobs and students to the Flint campus, instead of allowing for more friends and neighbors to live in Ann Arbor. We should live up to our reputation as a welcoming community, not put up a sign that says “Ann Arbor is full”.
In order to house more people, we need a holistic approach. Only building subsidized housing for low-income folks won’t work, as many folks won’t qualify for subsidized housing but still need an affordable place to live. We must build housing of all types, and enough of each kind that housing demand doesn’t force people out of their homes due to rising rent. We’re also nearly out of undeveloped land, so the only way we can add more housing within the city is to increase density. But it doesn’t have to be scary! We can use gentle density to house more neighbors in our existing neighborhoods without making “skyscrapers” everywhere, and we can build apartments and condos in areas that are appropriate for those sorts of developments. “Yes, and.” Dharma Akmon discusses this a bit in this interview and I think it’s spot on. This is the kind of thinking we need on council: work collaboratively to come up with the best solutions, don’t just point out problems and block progress. All of the progressive candidates recognize that housing is one of our most important issues, and I’m confident that all of them will work creatively to solve the crisis.
Council and the community recognizes that market-rate housing will not work for everyone. Luckily council has made a ton of progress on subsidized, guaranteed-affordable housing in the last couple years. There are now five projects that include subsidized housing in various stages to be constructed on city lots. We should break ground on some of them soon, as their designs near completion. They will guarantee affordable rent to income restricted individuals and families that make under a certain percentile of the Area Median Income. City-owned properties are the only way we can do rent control in Ann Arbor, as the State prohibits us imposing rent control on private landlords. This must be part of our housing strategy, and it is.
But just as market-rate housing won’t work for everyone, it must also be part of the solution to the housing crisis. Nearly everyone reading this lives in market-rate housing, and there is no way that is going to change in the near future. Most middle-class families won’t qualify for housing subsidies, but they still need to be able to afford a place to live. Plus, thousands of high income people move into Ann Arbor every year; we can either allow new apartments and condos to be built for them, or else they will just buy up the housing stock that’s already here—there is no legal way to prevent it. The evidence shows that building new housing, even when it’s relatively expensive, stabilizes nearby prices.
One way to address housing affordability that I’m particularly excited about is the new TC-1 zoning that the Mayor and the progressive majority have recently started applying to parts of the city. It will allow us to build more walkable mixed-use buildings along transit corridors like down by Briarwood, out on West Stadium, and maybe Plymouth, Washtenaw, and Packard/Platt one day. The idea is to turn a bunch of strip malls, drive-thrus, and offices with huge asphalt parking lots into walkable stores and homes for people. I live near York and Anthony’s off of Packard, and I really like living in a place where I can walk to a few places like that. I would love more, and I would love if more people could live nearby as well. The mixed-use nature of TC-1 means that many folks will be able to avoid using a car in a car heavy area of the city, which will reduce traffic and help us meet our climate goals in addition to providing much-needed housing. Win-win.
The city has been working on TC-1 for at least 5 years (over a decade if you count from when it was mentioned in our last comprehensive land use plan) but it was delayed via a vote by the previous council that had Bannister, Nelson, and Ramlawi in the majority. I am excited that we’re finally applying this zoning to parts of town, and I’m concerned that if we elect Bannister in particular, her veto pen will slam on the brakes and we’ll end up falling even further behind on something pretty exciting. As of my writing this, three of her five endorsements listed on her campaign website are people thanking her for blocking housing projects. In fact, Bannister’s claim to fame is blocking the construction of housing on top of an underground parking structure in order to build a park. Four years later, it remains a surface parking lot. We should instead choose candidates that will use every avenue to solve our housing problem.
A friend of mine is fond of saying “budgets are a moral document”. Ann Arbor can claim to be the most enlightened, welcoming, liberal city in the world, but if we’re unwilling to expend any resources on our values, it’s all worthless talk. Thankfully, we’ve actually been able to commit some resources to address climate change, workers’ rights, equity, and the like, despite attempts by the conservative faction to underfund or water down these initiatives. Our A2Zero carbon neutrality plan is good, and while the plan was successfully weakened during the previous conservative-controlled council of 2018-2020, we’ve made good progress towards achieving the remaining goals. In keeping with a pre-election promise, Taylor used his veto pen multiple times to prevent climate funding from being reallocated to other projects by the conservative faction. We need to commit to climate action, and the Taylor has shown that commitment. Jenn Cornell is a volunteer for A2Zero and a board member of the Ecology Center, and her expertise in those areas will be a great asset on council.
We’ve also made progress (including ever-critical funding) towards having an unarmed responder program that can respond to people in crisis without having the police show up with a gun. Several other cities have seen success with programs like this, providing better service to people in crisis, and relieving the police from having to respond to situations that are better served by mental health professionals. Cynthia Harrison is currently on the Independent Police Oversight Commission, and Ayesha Ghazi Edwin is chair of the Human Rights Commission, and their expertise and experience will be invaluable to have on council as we develop this program.
Voters also recently overwhelmingly passed a charter amendment to allow us to choose contractors based on holistic value instead of mandating the city to choose lowest bidder. Lowest bidder policies have lead to shoddy work, often by allowing non-union shops from far away to come in and undercut higher-quality union labor. We can also make sure bidders are treating their employees well, and have good safety and quality records. In the long run, choosing higher-quality contractors should save us money. Mayor Taylor has been a champion of these changes, while Ramlawi in particular seems only concerned with the price tag of the project, regardless of whether there are serious issues with the lowest bidder. Last month he almost blew up a $4M road contract in order to posture about his fiscal conservatism, and eventually angrily took off his mask, held his nose and voted yes after Taylor pointed out that a “no” vote would have delayed that project for an entire year. At that point even the lowest bidder would have cost more, due to rising construction costs. The voters clearly want us to choose better contractors. It’s good for the workers, and it’s good for the city. Let’s elect folks who will uphold the will of the voters.
43,000 people died in traffic crashes in the US last year. We kill or severely injure around two dozen people every year in Ann Arbor. That is absolutely unacceptable, and it’s avoidable. I want to be able to ride my bike, walk, and, yes, drive around town without being worried that I’m going to be hit by a two-ton machine. In order for that to happen, and for us to meet our Vision Zero goals of no severe injuries or deaths on our roadways, we need to be aggressive about making safety improvements. All of those traffic deaths are a policy choice, and we know how to fix it! There’s nothing unique about Ann Arbor that doesn’t apply to every other city that has successfully reduced traffic violence. We need people on council who will actually vote for safety, instead of merely saying that they are “safety advocates” but voting against common sense safety improvements.
Ten years ago, as a motorist, I used to hate a lot of the safety improvements that the city was making. “They’ll slow me down! Traffic is already bad!” Well, after seeing several successful road diets—remember when Packard was four lanes near downtown??—I’ve learned my lesson. I love them, even (maybe especially) as a driver. I hate driving on four-lane roads without turn lanes, dodging turning drivers who often don’t signal. It’s stressful and dangerous. The numbers prove this: crashes are reduced up to 50%, speeding is way down, and there is a negligible effect on travel times. I’ll take that any day.
During the 2018-2020 conservative control of council, CMs Ramlawi, Bannister, and Nelson passed a resolution to make safety-increasing road configurations require extra process and approval by council. This is the exact opposite to the approach that we should take: we should have to instead justify, with data, why we should not be improving safety by default, with every project. Instead, the conservative councilmembers structurally prioritized the status quo over the safety of road users. Then, after passing this resolution, they voted against specific projects that would have decreased speeding and improved safety in the vicinity of King Elementary and Greenhills, among others. If we cannot support safe roads next to two schools, what are we even doing here?
There are 144 miles of roads with missing sidewalks in the city. By (good!) council policy, we’ve committed to closing those sidewalk gaps, but it will take time. The prioritization algorithm that the city uses to determine the next project is sometimes imperfect, but it favors sidewalks near schools, parks, and other places where pedestrian access is particularly important. The bottom line is that, barring a policy change that I would strongly oppose, it’s not a matter of if a sidewalk will be constructed, but when. Prioritization discussions are reasonable before a project is ready to go, but blocking a viable sidewalk project is not.
Mayor Taylor and the progressives have all consistently supported these valuable sidewalk projects, whereas Bannister and the conservatives have carved out exceptions and crumbled at the first sign of a complaint from a nearby homeowner. In 2019, during the conservative majority, they voted against installing sidewalks to an elementary school, and turned down a $400k grant in the process.
Bannister is proud of resisting change, despite the high cost to safety and the housing crisis. In her own words, from an MLive interview:
“During my time on council, I saw a lot of unhappy neighborhoods where people were having to hire lawyers and put their lives on hold to protect the community and try and make sure that we collectively did the right thing,” Bannister said, referring to instances when neighbors opposed new development or paying for new neighborhood sidewalks.
We need leaders who are committed to ensuring our kids have a safe way to get to school. Keeping kids from having to walk in the street is the bare minimum, and yet we have candidates who are unwilling to do even that. We can do better.
On August 2nd, we have the opportunity to drive home our demand for a brighter future for Ann Arbor. We took the first step two years ago, and we’re better for it. Mayor Taylor and the rest of the progressives led us through a global pandemic, cleaned up the mess in City Hall, and have put us in a great place to accelerate our commitment to good governance and sustainable progressive change. Let’s say “yes, and” again. Please vote to reelect Mayor Taylor, and vote for Cynthia Harrison (Ward 1), Chris Watson (Ward 2), Ayesha Ghazi Edwin (Ward 3), Dharma Akmon (Ward 4), and Jenn Cornell (Ward 5). Full speed ahead.