The Ann Arbor Student Housing Affordability Crisis: How Serious It’s Become, and How It Can Be Solved

There is no question that Ann Arbor is a generally thriving city with countless positive attributes – a thriving social scene, gorgeous parks and landscaping, and a strong economy anchored by one of the most prestigious public universities in the United States. Unfortunately, like all cities, Ann Arbor also has several significant flaws behind its generally prestigious aura, and one of those issues is the student housing dilemma. After living in dorms for the first one or two years of their undergraduate tenure, students will generally seek off-campus housing options throughout Ann Arbor. As students begin their search for reasonably-priced, decent-quality housing, they are often met with the harsh reality of housing in Ann Arbor – extremely high rent prices, and a disturbingly low housing supply. If a student is lucky enough to find affordable off-campus housing, the general quality of that housing complex should likely be drawn into question, painting a picture of the struggle they face.

The Ann Arbor student housing crisis has hardly gone unnoticed, as many students have been vocal in their displeasure with the state of off-campus housing—and rightfully so. Given that some students at the University of Michigan are paying upwards of $70,000 per year to attend the university, one would think that access to housing wouldn’t be a major concern. While student dormitories are the go-to option for most first-year students, upperclassmen and transfer students generally must look elsewhere.

As of June 2024, the median rent for apartments of any type in Ann Arbor is roughly $2,140. While this number doesn’t appear to deviate significantly from the national average for apartment rents, this still doesn’t change the fact that this amount is undoubtedly out of reach for most individuals. The affordability crisis also extends to single-family housing, as the median single-family home price in Ann Arbor has shot upwards of $500,000, which is wildly expensive for the average individual. If legitimate solutions are not enacted, one can only expect the affordability crisis to continue in Ann Arbor for the foreseeable future. However, several potential options may make a significant dent in the aggressively expensive cost of living in one of the best college towns in the country.

One potential option that could increase affordability in Ann Arbor would be Community Land Trusts (CLTs). In concept, these are non-profit organizations that manage land for the benefit of the community. CLTs operate by providing “ground leases” to low-income and working-class families, allowing the homeowner to purchase the house for a reasonably low cost but not having ownership of the physical land it sits on. There are several examples of successful CLTs both within the United States, such as in Boston, and internationally, such as in New Zealand or the United Kingdom. While there are potential downsides to CLTs, such as the previously mentioned fact that people do not physically own the land the property resides on, thereby reducing resale profits, families in CLTs will also be generally protected from major housing price fluctuations, ensuring a generally stable price for prospective home buyers. 

Another potential option for increasing housing affordability would be to improve access to housing cooperatives. Housing cooperatives can be developed either in the form of market-rate or limited equity co-ops, with the ladder having a greater potential to ensure affordable housing while allowing some level of resale equity. In a city like Ann Arbor, housing co-ops have significant potential to provide college students, particularly students who are either low-income or otherwise unable to afford the incomprehensibly high rental costs, with a more affordable option. 

Another option, and one that is likely the more easily understandable and easier to implement than the above two, would be to simply increase overall housing supply, which would not only include the general increase in housing supply in Ann Arbor as a whole but with a particular emphasis on increasing affordable housing supply and subsidies. According to Ann Arbor’s zoning map, while it does allow for the development of apartments in select areas, with a clear accumulation within the downtown area, it is clear that the current amount is simply not enough to meet the demand of students, as most housing subdivisions do not include high-density housing, like the apartments present in the downtown area. Like many growing cities, Ann Arbor continues to expand outwards, beyond the I-94 beltline, with the majority of new developments outside of the downtown area either being single-family or “luxury” townhouses. While the development of new subdivisions isn’t necessarily a negative on its own, these developments are nowhere near being affordable for college students and working-class families. The best option to increase the affordable housing supply would be to significantly invest in the development of a variety of apartments, condominiums, and townhouses and ensure the zoning laws are not so restrictive as to entirely exclude these developments in most locations.

Ann Arbor is far from the only city that is struggling with affordability. Housing prices are inflated across effectively every region in the United States, which places a burden on most families but with a particularly negative impact on working-class and middle-class families, implicating many college students across the country, across Michigan, and in Ann Arbor. While there isn’t one specific policy that will solve the skyrocketing cost of housing, at the very minimum, enacting the above policies to a greater degree than what is observed in Ann Arbor could lead to positive developments on that front.

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About Wade Vellky

Wade Vellky, editor in chief of the Michigan Review, is a rising junior in LSA. Originally from Orange Township, Ohio, he previously attended the University of Wisconsin and Ohio State University.