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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.— mgoblog (@mgoblog) March 8, 2019

Michigan alone added ~1500 jobs last year. Where are all these people supposed to live?— 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.

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