Michigan’s primary election is Tuesday, August 4. Primary elections narrow the field of candidates prior to the general election and determine the party nominee of certain offices. Michigan primary elections are “open primaries,” meaning voters choose privately which party to vote under, regardless of registered affiliation. Here at Groundcover, we believe poverty is political and systemic change is necessary. Educated voter participation in the primary election is a crucial activity of electoral politics — in our political reality, this is one way to bring about housing justice in our community. In July, I sat down to talk to some of the 13 Ann Arbor City Council candidates about their platforms on affordable housing, housing justice and homelessness.
Candidate highlight information is only based on personal interview correspondence with Lindsay Calka, Groundcover’s layout editor and summer intern. All Ann Arbor City Council candidates were offered an interview opportunity. Candidates not included: Jane Lumm and Linh Song (Ward Two), Evan Redmond (Ward Three).
Ward One — Anne Bannister and Lisa Disch
Anne Bannister is the Ward One incumbent, elected to the City Council in 2017. She has served on the Environmental Commission, the Natural Features subcommittee, the Housing and Human Services Advisory Board, and the City/County Corrections Advisory Board.
Lisa Disch is a professor of political theory and political science at the University of Michigan, and has lived in the first ward since moving to Ann Arbor in 2008.
LC: There is a strong network of aid in the county. However, many of the resources accessed by housing-insecure individuals are provided by local churches or other community organizations. What obligation do you understand local government to have in providing these resources/services?
AB: Our challenges are about to increase greatly as the economic fallout of the pandemic starts to hit. The ability of the local government to replace these services with ones funded by the City is becoming greatly hampered. We will need every organization and every individual to prioritize help for those living unsheltered, if we are all to get through this as a community. We all want to make sure that the most vulnerable people in our City receive the most support we can offer, no matter which office, agency, group or organization it comes from. To be honest I don’t see City Council, or any governmental body in Washtenaw County, being able to stabilize or solve homelessness unless it is somewhere in the long-term future, after many systemic changes have taken place throughout our state and nation.
LD: I understand that in terms of local government responsibility, Washtenaw County bears the lion’s share of the burden in funding and providing services. I felt it was important and right that Ann Arbor appropriate funds from its community development budget to support sheltering the homeless during the COVID-19 emergency, but if and when that emergency passes, the homeless emergency will still be with us. I feel the City will still have a responsibility to participate in addressing it. Although service provision is primarily a County responsibility, one important thing that Council can do is work more boldly to revise City zoning codes to provide more housing supply.
LC: How has your seat on the Housing and Human Services Advisory Board affected your understanding of how to address homelessness in our city?
AB: Being a member of the Housing and Human Services Advisory Board is a wonderful experience. I have been gratified to learn about all the many different organizations in the City, the County and at the state level that coordinate their communications and their work to support the unsheltered community as well as other sections of the population in need. We have monthly presentations by our coordinated funders (CoFu) such as St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, Ann Arbor Community Center, the United Way and others. We then are able to recommend how funds can be distributed, and also recommend policy actions to both the City and the County. I see change coming from a number of different directions, and everyone has not only good intentions but high levels of understanding and skills to make change a reality.
LC: How do you see your relationship to U-M affecting your ability to address the negative effects they have had on affordability in AA?
LD: I have been really excited to see faculty, student and staff constituencies, plus the graduate student (GEO) and lecturer (LEO) unions advocating on campus around the issues of affordable housing and the right to be housed. These groups are calling for U-M to be a better citizen of the city and participate in finding solutions to the city’s housing shortage. I have taken part in those activities and I believe that I can be a bridge between those constituencies and members of Council who want to establish a productive collaboration between U-M and the City to create the diversity of housing opportunities that we need if we want Ann Arbor to be economically and culturally diverse, as well.
Ward Three — Tony Brown and Travis Radina
Tony Brown has worked closely alongside local government through a career in media, and currently works in public radio at WDET. He is a longtime resident of Ann Arbor.
Travis Radina is current President of the Jim Toy Community Center and is Ann Arbor’s LGBTQ+ liaison. He has participated in various public service and political roles throughout the state of Michigan.
LC: What is your theory of change when it comes to addressing homelessness in our city?
TB: No trickle-down; it has to come from the bottom to the top. These politicians need to stop throwing around the term “affordable housing.” We’re building high rises with the people’s money and calling it “affordable housing.” They need a true plan for what’s affordable and what’s low-income. Then we can set up zoning laws to achieve some equity. Start building true co-ops for poor people. Start defining what’s rich and poor, what is affordable housing, and what is low-income. It makes no sense for people to be walking the streets. If we are who we say we are, we shouldn’t have these issues. We build $50 million courts we don’t need; we build bike lanes that we don’t need. The second thing is to empower people. We have a cycle of renters; we are a big rent town. It has to, first, be affordable for people to live in this place, and then we can start empowering people to buy their own homes. I’m talking about our poor people. There are so many other things that living in Ann Arbor doesn’t lend itself to for poor people.
TR: While public-private partnerships have created a strong network of aid and resources, Council needs to more seriously invest in affordable housing and a reliable transit network that is safe and accessible for everyone — whether they are walking, cycling, driving or utilizing public transportation. Council needs to continue to creatively address some of the other root causes of homelessness: unemployment, a cycle of poverty, substance abuse and addiction, mental illness and the lack of adequate healthcare. All of these issues are likely to be exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. That is why we should be exploring the viability of additional services and solutions, like Overdose Prevention Centers, and fundamentally changing our approach to policing and public safety to focus funding on public services proven to reduce interactions with law enforcement, rather than on traditional, punitive policing. We should revisit and/or repeal local laws that have a known racial bias — like trespass, which is overwhelmingly used to cite members of our homeless community, which in turn is disproportionately comprised of people of color — and to reimagine local policing to include more social workers, mental health professionals, and unarmed public safety officers who are connecting residents to the services they need and helping to deescalate conflict.
What are your thoughts on Council’s COVID-19 response in sheltering individuals experiencing homelessness? How do you predict the transition from emergency sheltering to more permanent solutions will play out financially for the city?
TB: No municipality at any level was ready. But our city’s most vulnerable people need to be protected and taken care of at all costs. This means more than just a place to stay. A lot of people are dealing with a lot more; we need to do more. We need to think outside the box with the homeless population. A person who doesn’t have a home or healthcare or a bath, we need to look out for them. It’s all hands on deck. Are we moving them into assisted living? We have to put this population over the park. It can’t be business as usual.
How do you envision Council’s pandemic response to unsheltered individuals needing to change over the coming months?
TR: The current pandemic has made Council even less accessible to the homeless population — at a time when the voices of the housing-insecure are critically important to finding viable long-term solutions to our housing crisis. I recently had an extensive conversation with a community member who is housing-insecure and expressed his frustration with a seeming inability to access remote/video Council Meetings during the pandemic. He doesn’t have reliable access to the internet and therefore is excluded from participation. The unfortunate reality is that it already takes a certain amount of privilege to participate in civic engagement. That is something we need to acknowledge, because the challenges many of us are facing now, for the first time, are challenges that others face every day when trying to interact with their government.
Ward Four — Jack Eaton, Jen Eyer, and Mozhgan Savabieasfahani
Jack Eaton is the incumbent for the fourth ward, elected to City Council in 2013. He has spent a majority of his career in law representing labor unions and is an active participant in both the Ann Arbor and Michigan Democratic Parties.
Jen Eyer, while working as a journalist and editor for MLive and The Ann Arbor News for 16 years, has been involved in the Ann Arbor community in a wide variety of leadership roles. In 2016, she was unanimously chosen to fill a seat on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners.
Mozhgan Savabieasfahani is an award-winning environmental toxicologist and human rights activist. She is currently a researcher and Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan.
LC: What do you think is the biggest contributor to Ann Arbor’s housing crisis? How do you plan to address this?
JEaton: Across the spectrum, our affordability problem is a crisis for people in most income brackets. So first, there are some of us on Council who are trying to use the tools in our zoning code to obtain affordable units or funding from developers. We have a lot of development happening in town. If these developments include just a handful of affordable units, it helps a little bit, but it’s not the way we find ourselves out of the crisis. When a developer contributes money to our housing fund, then we can leverage that with other sources and build our own affordable units. That affordability will not expire if it’s owned by the city. The proposed millage is also a great opportunity to fund this.
JEyer: Ann Arbor is a highly desirable place to live and work. Over the past few decades, the number of jobs has grown by tens of thousands but the number of new housing units has not kept pace. This lack of housing supply coupled with high demand has driven up prices so much that many people who work here are unable to find housing they can afford. More than 84,000 people now commute into Ann Arbor every weekday, increasing traffic, causing wear and tear on our roads, and releasing harmful carbon dioxide emissions. And the wealthiest would-be home buyers get into bidding wars over the few houses available, causing gentrification of our neighborhoods. Therefore, increasing the supply of market-rate housing will help stabilize prices and fight gentrification, but that isn’t enough to address the crisis. We also need to use public dollars to add affordable housing units in the city. I will: protect the stable, multi-year source of funding for affordable housing from the type of potential cuts supported by the incumbent, propose setting aside a portion of taxes from new developments as additional revenue for the affordable housing fund, move forward on the city’s proposed affordable housing sites, and support feasible affordable housing proposals from private developers.
MS: I will demand a resolution committing City Council to (1) the abolition of single-family zoning, as Minneapolis has already done; (2) the construction of good quality public housing, so that every minimum-wage worker in Ann Arbor can actually live in Ann Arbor; (3) telling Congress to repeal the Faircloth Amendment, which has eagerly illegalized public housing; and (4) providing enough funding for the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County to eliminate homelessness.
I would favor using the affordable housing millage to construct 1,500 units of affordable public housing. Over time, the rent on those units could yield substantial revenue to the City. Development should be by and for the public, not the private developers’ benefit. The private developers have had their fun.
LC: How would you articulate the intersection of racial justice and housing justice?
JEaton: Our history of racism has placed a greater challenge on minorities. Minority communities are so much more often disadvantaged economically. They don’t have access to well-paying jobs, adequate healthcare. It prevents them from participating in the housing market, the job market. I’m proud that for the past five years I’ve been working hard to make sure we have a fully empowered, fully independent police oversight commission. I believe the country’s long racial history has manifested in policing practices and I’ve been proud to advocate for the oversight committee. Police shouldn’t oversee themselves. I’ve been working with my colleagues to improve this commission.
JEyer: Where a person lives, where a child grows up, has a huge impact on their economic opportunities, their health, and their quality of life. Ann Arbor is the eighth most socioeconomically segregated metro area in the U.S, and studies show that racial segregation closely mirrors socioeconomic segregation. This is directly due to the housing policies of our local governments over the past decades. It’s not enough to say that blatantly racist housing policies are a thing of the past. Decades of structural racism have brought us to this point, and the current lack of housing supply continues to exacerbate this socioeconomic and racial segregation. As a council member, I will actively work to reduce segregation and open up opportunities that will lead to a stronger, more diverse community.
MS: It is private development which the city has favored for at least 20 years that has brought us to this point where we see the impacts: no affordable housing and segregated towns. One way to break that cycle would be to insist on public housing and to make sure the University makes good on its promise of 10% black enrollment. I am for the abolition of single-family zoning but only so we can make great, solid public housing. It helps maintain African Americans in this town so they can live here. People say this is a good place to live. How is this a good place to live, if we’ve effectively pushed Black people and people of color out of this town for decades?
Ward Five — Erica Briggs, Dan Michniewicz, and David Silkworth
Erica Briggs sits on the current Ann Arbor Planning Commission and has a history of serving on boards and commissions in the community. She holds both a master’s degree in public administration and a Ph.D. in political science.
David Silkworth is a licensed Property and Casualty Insurance Adjuster and is actively engaged in many elements of local government and other local organizations.
Dan Michniewicz works in the Ann Arbor food service industry and is running for Council on a platform that is strongly tied to his past community organizing efforts.
LC: What do you think is the biggest contributor to Ann Arbor’s housing crisis?
EB: The thing is, fundamentally, housing supply has not kept up with demand. That is an issue of rising costs to buyers and renters. The university is adding a lot of students, putting pressure on the private market. The economy is shifting towards more tech — for them housing is more affordable. We have the job center for Washtenaw County, which is great, but puts a big demand on our housing as well. Transportation is the second-largest cost. It is challenging to bring down the cost of living, but it is possible to let people live car-free and take down that cost instead. That means they can reduce their budget to live in a community that is more expensive.
DM: It’s the fact we treat housing as a commodity. If we guaranteed that everyone would have a roof over their head, it wouldn’t be an issue. I desire to take control of the housing industry away from the private sector. So, one of the aspects is increasing public funding so we can increase the amount of public/social housing relative to privately held housing. These are things [current Council] seems to be taking steps towards; they are introducing ballot language to get a millage for affordable housing. That would be a small step, but still a step. A community land trust is a tool which in a more direct way takes properties and puts them under the stewardship of the public. There are models where that would happen voluntarily through individual land parcels being granted from homeowners to the land trust.
DS: The University of Michigan’s growth model. They exploded, they grew, but only provided a certain amount of housing. The private markets try to play a role there, but unfortunately only at the highest end; it’s created quite a transformation within our city. When I went to school here, we didn’t have as many out-of-state or international students. The university is spending a lot of energy on these students, creating an imbalance in our community as a whole. Developments are trying to attract wealthy, rich people from other communities. We need to do a better job supplying more affordable housing to those that live here. I, as a City Council member, would try to achieve this. We need developers already here wanting to develop things to help us meet environmental and affordability goals. We can incentivize them to do it through governmental ordinances and policies. What if we required the new buildings downtown to have 15% affordable units? We need to do that going forward; we would be able to meet our goal.
LC: How would you define housing justice?
EB: Housing is a fundamental right. People should have access to it in their community; there should be housing for individuals at all levels of income. To be a just society we need to be providing that housing for the most vulnerable. They need to have access to it. It needs to be available.
DM: If we were to achieve housing justice, we would have to address the inequalities in how all of us interact with housing. We have people who don’t just make a living off of owning and renting property, but also amass wealth, great amounts of wealth, then they access political power and use it to amass more wealth. It’s tough to separate housing justice with other elements of justice. If you don’t live in a safe, warm, stable environment you’ll have health complications, so housing justice is health justice, and those sorts of things.
DS: I think we need to have homes that are affordable to the people who live here — our residents. I do not believe we need to eliminate single-family zoning. I’ve been in the homes of many African American families who enjoyed the protection of single-family zoning, who used that ownership to build an asset, to build wealth, to use as a resource to send their kids to college. I understand the impact of racist lending and zoning. Our federal government needs to take action to try to correct some of those injustices. I support the start of conversations about reparations at the local level. We have a lot of disparities and people who were excluded from things.
On August 4th you can also expect to vote on multiple other county and state level offices. Additionally, Washtenaw County will be voting on two millages: one allocating funds for the restoration and construction of roads, bike lanes and pathways, and the other funding the Washtenaw County Soil Conservation District for six years. Millage language can be found on the County’s website: https://www.washtenaw.org/DocumentCenter/View/15696/August-4-2020-State-Primary-Official-List-of-Proposals?bidId=
Polling places are open from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m, and voters can register in-person at the City Clerk’s Office with proof of residency until 8 p.m. on Election Day. Voters who register to vote within 14 days of an election will be required to provide proof of residency. Not sure if this means you? You can check to see if you are registered, where you will vote, and preview the candidates that will be on your ballot at the Michigan Voter Information Center. (mvic.sos.state.mi.us/).