Posted by & filed under daily life.

no one:
me: “Here’s a pile of data for the last decade on population and housing…”

We are not in a building boom here in Washtenaw County.

chart of population, population change, number of housing units, annual growth in housing units, and percentage of new housing units that are single-family housing

Notes on sources:

  • population figures 2009-2017 are ACS 5-year estimates (B01003, “total population”)
  • # housing units 2009-2017 are ACS 5-year estimates (B25001)
  • # new housing units (all years) are Census Building Permits Survey
  • population figures 2007-2008 are ACS 3-year estimates (B01003, “total population”)
  • population figures 2005-2006 are ACS (B01003, “total population”)
  • # housing units 2007-2008 are ACS 3-year estimates (B25001)
  • # housing units for 2008 and 2009 had markedly higher margins of error than other years, likely a result of the 2008 financial crisis
  • # housing units 2005-2006 are ACS (B25001)

Posted by & filed under daily life.

Two recent tweets from mgoblog sent me down a Census data rabbit hole this weekend:

Ann Arbor’s MSA (which is Washtenaw County) had 514 new housing starts last year for a population of 350k, which is about 25% worse than than the lowest number on this graph. 397 were single family homes. https://t.co/6PCI69s472 https://t.co/PRHmCAN5LW— mgoblog (@mgoblog) March 8, 2019

Michigan alone added ~1500 jobs last year. Where are all these people supposed to live? https://t.co/ePHd2IkIUY— mgoblog (@mgoblog) March 8, 2019

My first thought? “I did not know the University of Michigan’s HR unit had a public-facing Tableau dashboard. Cool!” But then of course I wanted to look at these numbers in more detail.

From 2014 to 2017, the population of the Ann Arbor MSA (which is Washtenaw county as a whole) grew by 2.86%. Over the same period, the U-M workforce on the Ann Arbor* campus grew by 7.05%. But the number of housing units in the Ann Arbor MSA from 2014 to 2017? Total number of housing units only increased by just 1.04% from 2014 to 2017.

Ann Arbor and its surrounding communities are growing, but we aren’t building enough housing to keep up with that growth.

Now let’s look at those housing unit numbers a bit closer…

Chart of population and housing statistics for 2014-2017. Number of housing units added is not keeping pace with population growth, and the majority of new housing units permitted are single family.

Not only are we not building enough housing to keep up with our (rather anemic, to be honest) population growth, the vast majority of new units added are single-family housing. In 2016, 100% of housing permits issued in an MSA with over 350,000 people were for single-family homes. This is astounding.

Why is the rent too damn high? Because we aren’t building enough housing, and the housing we are building is out of reach for many of our current and future neighbors.

Of course, it’s more complicated than just the number of people who live here and the number of housing permits issued every year. Housing in Ann Arbor is expensive for many reasons. In the long term, communities used exclusionary zoning (hello, racism!) to discriminate against communities of color (particularly African Americans), resulting in a city that is zoned overwhelmingly for single-family homes. In the short term, we could blame the pronounced slow-down in new construction after the 2008 financial crisis. We could talk about funding for local school districts, schools of choice, the Headlee Amendment and Michigan’s 1994 Prop A, etc. The appeal of living in a vibrant college town! The burgeoning tech industry! And so much more. Like I said, it’s complicated.

These numbers don’t explain the whole picture, but they do give us a starting point for a conversation. I hope you’ll take this conversation further, and reach out to our city council and mayor. Ask them what they think about housing affordability in Ann Arbor and our neighboring communities. Ask them how they think we can move forward.

*Notes on methodology and sources:
Population figures are from the US Census, ACS 5-year estimates (B01003, “total population”). Total housing unit counts are from the US Census, ACS 5-year estimates (B25001). Counts for new housing units and types are from the
US Census, Building Permits Survey. UM headcount data is from UM HR Records & Information Services. I used only Ann Arbor and Medical School headcounts because Health System facilities are located all over southeast Michigan, and therefore some of those employees will likely live and work outside of the Ann Arbor MSA.


Posted by & filed under daily life.

The Ann Arbor Observer provides a window into a particular subset of local life. I have fond childhood memories of reading occasional copies of the Observer brought up north by visiting family. And now as a long-time resident, I eagerly dig in when it arrives.

The “Marketplace Changes” column rarely disappoints, offering up endearing (and sometimes downright Portlandia-esque) vignettes about local businesses. This month’s edition features “The Retail Retreat Continues,” an overview of three downtown businesses closing up shop. I won’t mention the name of the business I’m about to discuss or its owners, because I don’t want to make this about them. To be clear, I’m not taking issue with them or their decision to close. Rather, I’d like to question a fairly common sentiment they express during the course of explaining why they have chosen to close their retail location on the 200 block of South Fourth Avenue.

In an interview with Observer columnist Sabine Bickford, the owners cite a number of reasons for the closure, including the challenge of a long-running construction project across the street, the popularity of shopping online instead of visiting brick-and-mortar retailers, and nearby brick-and-mortar competition. It’s the next sentence that caused me to put down my coffee and frown. Here it is in full:

“Add declining interest in [their signature product], and the one-two punch of a long winter with sparse parking for their older customers, and the [owners] felt the store wasn’t sustainable anymore.”

Let me get this straight… part of the reason you’re closing the store is some of your customers didn’t have enough parking nearby? Your store is less than 200 feet from a parking structure with 281 spaces, and less than 500 feet from another parking structure with 984 spaces. There are over one thousand parking spaces within shouting distance of your storefront, and that’s a “sparse” amount of parking? What amount of parking would be enough?

I’ve heard many townies (and out-of-townies) say something similar about parking downtown—-that there’s not nearly enough of it. And yet those same people often want to keep downtown funky and vibrant. I have two problems with this argument. First, it’s not true. We don’t have a dire shortage of parking downtown. And second, if you want to keep downtown fun and functional, you can’t fill it with an endless sea of parking.

[For those wondering about the state of downtown parking, check out a 2015 report commissioned by the DDA. Its findings indicate we could use more parking in the long term, but we’re not in a crisis, and we can make better choices about the parking we have now.]

So the next time you hear someone say there’s not enough parking downtown, or some other version of this car-centric canard, do us all a favor and (gently) push back. It does us no favors to let this attitude persist. And looking ahead to this August’s city council and mayoral primary elections, it could actually be harmful. How? Allowing spurious claims like “downtown businesses are closing because we don’t have enough parking” to flourish affects decision-making about so much more—including housing availability and affordability as well as development and use patterns in near-downtown neighborhoods.

How can we get beyond these head-in-the-sand arguments? Let’s ask FOR THINGS instead of being averse to change, and look for evidence rather than relying on NIMBY folk wisdom. For example, talk to your city council reps about the numerous surface parking lots downtown. What would you like to see in those spaces instead of cars? Let’s continue to ask AAATA for (and be willing to fund) better evening and weekend bus service. Work downtown? Ask your employer about getting a go!pass. Finally, let’s support denser development (with lower parking minimums!) downtown so that more people can afford to live, work, eat, and shop in the heart of our community.

Stop complaining about parking. Start asking for better options.

Posted by & filed under books.

“The tyranny of the quantifiable is partly the failure of language and discourse to describe more complex, subtle, and fluid phenomena, as well as the failure of those who shape opinions and make decisions to understand and value these slipperier things. It is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to value what cannot be named or described, and so the task of naming and describing is an essential one in any revolt against the status quo of capitalism and consumerism. Ultimately the destruction of the Earth is due in part, perhaps in a large part, to a failure of the imagination or to its eclipse by systems of accounting that can’t count what matters. The revolt against this destruction is a revolt of the imagination, in favor of subtleties, of pleasures money can’t buy and corporations can’t command, of being producers rather than consumers of meaning, of the slow, the meandering, the digressive, the exploratory, the numinous, the uncertain.”

— Rebecca Solnit, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable,” from Men Explain Things to Me (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014)

Posted by & filed under daily life.

An empty chicken coop.The first rule of Chicken Club is everything wants to eat your chickens.

If you’re going to have animals, you need to be prepared for them to die. Sometimes prematurely. Last night something opened the coop, climbed in, and killed our chickens. The timing and the carnage point to maybe a raccoon or an opossum as the culprit, but we’ll never know for sure. There are so many things that will kill and eat a chicken, even in an urban backyard. Chickens are tasty and rather defenseless, and your neighborhood is full of potential predators.

This has definitely been a learning experience, and we’ll take some time to think about it before we try again.