The cost of housing is unquestionably a pressing concern for many U-M students. Coupled with the price of tuition, Ann Arbor’s high housing costs contribute to the extortionate nature of attending the university. Ann Arbor has the highest rent of any large city in Michigan. The average monthly rent for a studio apartment is $1,600. Living with roommates may alleviate some of the burden, but that involves complications many students are familiar with. Even building large-scale developments surrounding downtown is insufficient. The Ann Arbor City Council could have passed measures to resolve the shortage of low-cost housing. Instead, it’s pursuing harsh environmental regulations on new construction that will only make the city more unaffordable.
Ann Arbor’s A2ZERO Action Plan 4.0 outlines how the city plans to set energy efficiency standards on all housing properties regardless of when they were built. The plan declares that if implemented alongside the proposed Green Rental Housing Policy, “all rental housing in homes will be mandated to achieve energy efficiency standards as a part of maintaining a rental agreement through the City.” A local property manager, who asked to remain anonymous, argued environmental benchmarks will make older (i.e., cheaper) apartments economically unsustainable. Most of the city’s 8,500 rental properties were built before the state’s first energy-code requirements were established, in 1977. The property manager described how the stiff penalties for high water usage that constantly face these older properties dramatically inflate operating costs. With new complexes charging upwards of $2,000 a resident, it’s worth considering how additional regulations might restrict the already limited amount of affordable housing. The plan even admits, “Primarily higher income residents will occupy the new buildings that will be more energy efficient.” Although strict energy codes may reduce long-term expenditures, right now, the only buildings worth constructing are the ones with expensive leases that will offset the costs of regulation.
Ann Arbor’s most notable new housing developments, especially southwest and north of downtown, are oriented toward wealthy U-M students, whose families can afford the exorbitant leases. Private development suitable for middle and working class students is nonexistent. Small-scale construction is functionally impossible given the massive regulatory and financial barriers. This will stratify housing into the new, lavish high-rises and the older, inefficient properties. As the University of Michigan accepts more and more students each year, a high demand for lodging is preordained. While the university and city have certainly taken steps to alleviate this problem, student housing will remain limited.
Ann Arbor has also taken steps to prevent future development beyond its boundaries by purchasing land through a conservation effort titled the “Greenbelt program.” This initiative involves appropriating city and county funds to constrict potential construction on rural and forested property. While many may consider the environmental intentions to be benevolent, the Greenbelt will nonetheless artificially restrict the amount of housing. Any additional development, even McMansions, would increase supply and ease the shortage. Urban sprawl certainly has complications, but high rent due to a lack of housing will only perpetuate deurbanization. This in turn will facilitate long commutes from affordable zip codes, which has its own negative environmental impact. While affordability and climate sustainability are not mutually exclusive, it’s clear the city lacks concurrent solutions.
The obstruction of additional housing speaks to a larger phenomenon of progressives using environmental concerns to rationalize a decline in commercial activity. Regulations that promote sustainability will reduce material well-being, disproportionately for the poor. For instance, high gas prices may not directly affect people who ride public transit or drive electric vehicles, but they harm those who cannot afford such luxuries. The overwhelming majority of consumer goods in America are hauled by diesel-burning trucks. Regulatory barriers to drilling oil ensure everything will be more expensive, facilitating inflation. Reducing your carbon footprint, whether by eating less meat or paying more at the pump, equates to a material decline in quality of life. How exactly does this further the city’s expressed goal of equity? Progressives pretend they have fix-all solutions to every problem. That’s simply not the case. Priorities must be set, and as long as cheap housing isn’t one of them, Ann Arbor will continue to be the exclusive property of the rich.