Factions, Frictions and Futures: Election Time in Ann Arbor

Endorsing candidates for all five City Council seats in Ann Arbor. Ward 1: Anne Bannister. Ward 2: Jane Lumm. Ward 3: Tony Brown. Ward 4: Jack Eaton. Ward 5: David Silkworth. Here’s why.

Ann Arbor’s Democratic primary election on August 4, 2020 is probably going to be the most consequential election in Ann Arbor for the near future. By choosing a new City Council, voters will also be choosing a future path for the City, and depending on the outcome, there will be no going back.  Although we have always had agendas and differences, there has rarely been a divergence so sharply defined.

What is at stake?

Although there are many themes and questions (how can we deal with housing affordability? what about the roads? taxes – who should pay? what about Climate Change!), this election is simply about power.  It is about votes and whether Mayor Christopher Taylor controls them. It is about the direction and purpose that our civic body, the City of Ann Arbor, will take, and how that will affect its various constituencies. So while we have 10 likely candidates running for 5 seats (and really, they are all good and sincere people with minds of their own) – the question for Ann Arbor voters is – which faction do we want to win?

Lately several articles have attempted to define these factions. The most recent article about the election on MLive is my pick for the time being: “Disrupters vs. Defenders“. The Ann Arbor Observer likes to point to the Back to Basics Caucus, while Taylor’s Slate is the Activist Coalition. In his recent well-received blog post Sam Firke used the terms Protectors and Strivers. (In each case, the Taylor faction is in red, while those who oppose the direction he is taking the City are in blue.) If you ask any of these candidates whether they are members of a faction, they are likely to declare that they are independent thinkers with individual viewpoints, but reality says that we are choosing between two boats with different crews.

Regardless of which name you apply to the faction, Disrupters (who are Taylor’s candidates) will support his agenda for a complete change in the form and governance of Ann Arbor. He will continue to promote development and density, with a view to exploiting the high value of Ann Arbor’s real estate. If the result is displacement of the current residents, that is not all bad. He is fond of words like “transformative”, and “disruptive”, and often his initiatives are couched in broad visionary terms alluding to such liberal objectives as racial equity, housing for the “most vulnerable”, or preventing climate change. He is fond of soaring rhetoric. From his letter introducing A2Zero:

We recognize that this is an ambitious goal, but we know that Ann Arborites have the passion, intellect, creativity, and the compassion necessary to see it met. To be clear, achieving carbon neutrality within a decade will necessitate that we all work together. It will necessitate collaboration, innovation, and disruption. If we are to achieve our goal, Ann Arbor 2030 must be vastly different from Ann Arbor 2020.

Taylor’s Slate can be expected to carry out his promise of Disruption, though you will not find any of them using that term. If Taylor regains a Council supermajority, there will indeed be a whirlwind through our City, especially in terms of development and growth initiatives.

A central theme is the elimination of single-family zoning throughout the City. Although Taylor denies in the recent MLive article that this is his intention, this was the effect of the A2Zero language he endorsed. In the article discussing the campaign, he offers some vague reference to a future Master Plan revision process. (For a review of this, see our post, The Master Plan and Ann Arbor Emergent.   This planning process has been put on hold for budgetary reasons for the present.) But read the comments from the Slate. Lisa Disch was perhaps the most forthright about the concept. Here are her comments as reported in that recent MLive article.

Many who live in single-family homes in Ann Arbor are benefiting from a building boom that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, Disch said, adding it was surely disruptive then. It will be disruptive today to go through another boom, Disch said, but those who enjoy the benefits of homeownership owe it to future generations “to give back and to accept disruption and change as part of what makes a city thrive.” Disch said she’s concerned it’s illegal to build anything but single-family homes in much of Ann Arbor. “Single-family housing is not only the most expensive housing, it’s also the most energy-intensive,” she said. “And so we need to change our zoning codes to allow for more diverse forms of housing throughout the city.”

(Note: Disch is incorrect that single-family zoning makes it “illegal” to build anything but single-family homes. The zoning simply imposes restrictions regarding setbacks and lot sizes. Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are already permitted in R1 zones, with restrictions. See our discussion of single-family zoning in this post. Also, many other R zones are designed to accept duplexes or other additional structures and there are areas where this is prevalent.)

The Defenders, on the other hand, in general support the wishes of current residents to have the City government provide a continuity of community and maintain a level of services and protections that empower residents to continue Ann Arbor as their home.

Here are my chosen candidates’ views in their own voices (copied from their campaign websites, which are linked to their names):

Anne Bannister (Ward 1)

There are significant debates in Ann Arbor that you all need to be aware of: How much density is appropriate for Ann Arbor? Should neighborhoods be up-zoned to allow the replacement of single-family homes with apartment buildings? I believe those decisions should be up to neighborhood residents and should not be imposed by city government. I promote community involvement in the upcoming Master Plan Revision, giving the citizens a voice in shaping future development to meet the needs of all of us.

Jane Lumm (Ward 2)

I’ve also worked hard to increase meaningful resident and neighborhood engagement in decision making. That, too, will be especially important going forward as the city considers major policy questions on land use and zoning as well as in the necessary prioritization of scarce financial resources.

  • Opposed provisions of A2Zero Plan permitting apartment buildings and mixed uses in any single-family neighborhood

Tony Brown (Ward 3)

I support a community-oriented approach to neighborhood vitalization that keeps pace with our city’s modest growth. Ann Arbor’s downtown is an important part of our city, but within a much larger picture. Ann Arbor is its neighborhoods: Burns Park, Pittsfield Village, The “Woods,” Lower Burns Park. Ann Arbor city government must continue to invest in, improve and maintain the parts of our city where the majority of our residents live.

Jack Eaton (Ward 4)

Jack promotes development and City policies that generate public benefit. He negotiated affordable housing contributions from a developer and works closely with neighbors and developers to achieve positive outcomes. Many of the problems the City has had in the recent past are due to our economic success. Housing shortages, congested streets and flooding are the consequence of rapid growth. Jack believes the recession provides the City with an opportunity to seek economic equilibrium, where growth does not outpace our ability to improve our infrastructure.

David Silkworth (Ward 5)

Our affordable housing problem won’t be solved by simply increasing density with quadraplexes and ADUs in single-family residential neighborhoods. The solutions, and yes that’s plural, will only come from everyone working together, including developers, realtors, bankers, non-profit foundations, and politicians to create housing that is affordable for low- and middle-income folks. We can’t just keep building more market rate housing for upper-income people.

Since I am not attempting to provide an unbiased assessment of the two sets of candidates, I will not attempt to further characterize the viewpoints of the Slate individually here, though they are quoted extensively by MLive.

Adding up the numbers

Here are the power dynamics in the Ann Arbor City Council. There are 2 Council Members in each ward (10 in all). Then there is the Mayor. This is a total of 11 voting members. The Mayor has limited powers, but one of them is the veto.

As we described in this post, Taylor has had a rough time of it lately. He went from a supermajority (8 votes, which are required for certain high-consequence decisions, including purchase or sale of City property) in 2016 to a majority of 7 votes in 2017 (enough to pass most resolutions) to a disastrous 4 votes with the wave election of 2018. Now that we have Council elections only on even-numbered years, this (2020) is his first chance to recover the power that allows him to pass his full agenda without impediment. Currently, the Defenders have 7 votes, which means they are able to pass resolutions (most require 6 votes), but Taylor can veto them, which he has been doing more and more freely. Since it requires 8 votes to overturn a veto, the two groups are currently at a standoff.

The T-shirt for Taylor’s Slate. It has been seen out and about.

Two of Taylor’s reliable CM (Ackerman and Smith) are not running for re-election. That means that he will have only 2 votes unless he takes all or most of the seats currently being contested. Three of the Defenders (Lumm, Bannister, Eaton) are running for re-election. If they retain their seats but no others, the situation will continue in the standoff (7-4), since Hayner, Griswold, Ramlawi, and Nelson usually vote with the Defenders. Just one more victory (Silkworth in the 5th Ward, Brown in the 3rd) will mean 8 votes for the Defenders, which will seriously cripple Taylor’s ability to push his own agenda without a consensus. He really, really needs the entire Slate to win.

This need above all to win has been evident in the way the campaign has been waged. This is not a polite debate on issues. Forces have been gathered and weapons have been put into action.

The No-Holds-barred Campaign

Taylor’s direct involvement: For some time now, Taylor and his surrogates have been denigrating the very character of his opponents. He sent out an email to supporters with seven points about the incumbents’ record, all of which refer to particular disagreements but none of which are accurate. Unfortunately each of these would require almost a blog post in itself to explain the details and decisions involved. Here is just one:  “Voting no on affordable housing“. In fact, the incumbents have voted for numerous affordable housing initiatives, including non-profits’ projects, extra funding for affordable housing, a plan for using the old Y lot for affordable housing, and a request for the Housing Commission to evaluate City properties for affordable housing. They also voted for the pledge that Council passed unanimously. I suspect that the Mayor is still sore about Core Spaces (it had a few units in its plan). But as phrased, this is simply a lie; it can’t even be dressed up as “misstated” or inaccurate. His phrasing has been repeated by several commenters and bloggers on social media without modification.

Campaign contributions: The Slate has been blessed with generous campaign contributions. (This information is available on the Washtenaw County Campaign Finance database.) They received in total more than twice the contributions than the Defenders. Jane Lumm, who has been cultivating her donors through many campaigns, was the only one who received an approximately equivalent sum. (Jack Eaton loaned his campaign $10,000, which makes his figures illusory.) Linh Song made very substantial contributions to her own campaign. Note that these figures are for the entire election cycle, so include some contributions from 2019. Many of the contributions to the Disruptors were at the top allowed figure of $1000.

Total contributions for each candidate

But that is not all the assistance they received. At least one PAC (political action committee) was also active. Inspire Michigan, which is a PAC run by Ned Staebler (Staebler is from a Michigan political dynasty and is an active commenter on social media), is the funding source for the Michigan Talent Agenda. This organization has been active in Ann Arbor politics since at least 2014, which is when Christopher Taylor first succeeded John Hieftje. They are dedicated to bringing “talent” (think tech) into Ann Arbor for economic development purposes. This year they hired Change Media Group, which describes itself this way:

“Sophisticated targeting techniques allow us to ensure the right message reaches the right people at the right time, and gets results. We specialize in integrating digital, social, mobile, and more into comprehensive multi-channel campaigns that are proven to drive results.”

One outcome was a postcard that endorsed Lisa Disch, Jen Eyer, and Erica Briggs. There were other activities, as revealed by their Expediture Report filed with the Michigan Secretary of State. Many of the items in that report are payments to Facebook. They are notated as “oppose Jane Lumm” “oppose John Eaton” “support Jen Eyer” “support Lisa Disch” “support Erica Briggs”. Evidently the sophisticated targeting made use of Facebook algorithms. (I never saw any of them.)

Postcard from the Michigan Talent Agenda.

What is the agenda?

There are a number of specific call-outs on Taylor’s agenda, which are reflected in the positions of his Slate. Many if not most of them are directly linked to the wish to upzone Ann Arbor, and specifically to eliminate single-family zoning. We provided a lengthy discussion of that issue in our previous post. Briefly, here is our summary of the argument advanced by Taylor’s supporters.

By allowing greater density in the many parts of Ann Arbor that are still single-family, housing will become more affordable. As a consequence of this, it will also become more racially diverse and more economically equitable. (Because a unit in a quadplex is smaller and presumably more affordable, and also because it is presumed that more supply will reduce the effect of demand.) This is often signaled as “inclusive”. Also, because people who could formerly not afford to live in Ann Arbor can live close to work and take transit or use bikes, we can reduce the carbon load. Young people who have not been able to afford a house in expensive Ann Arbor can finally have a home (but not a single-family house) near the core and escape expensive rents.

A great many people, especially the frustrated and sometimes angry young (Millennials, etc.), have bought into this argument. It can be dismantled piece by piece, but not in this blog post.

Kingsley Condominiums. Price range $450,00 to $1,755,000

As indicated in the candidates’ statements, the Defenders don’t buy it. They recognize that these changes are likely to lead to displacement of current residents. A theme that one sees in social media is a suggestion that people who are squatting on single-family parcels would do well to sell out and move elsewhere. Transformative. Disruptive. Indeed. But the result will not be what many of its hopeful supporters believe. An advantage of this agenda is that it will release the untapped value in Ann Arbor real estate. There is wealth to be earned. We have seen what has happened in the neighborhoods near the core, where most parcels were formerly occupied by single-family houses or small apartments, and now host large expensive condominium complexes. This is what density looks like. But it is not affordable.

Ann Arbor – Tree City

As I see it, the Defenders will support change and all the progressive ideals that we share with most of the people involved in Ann Arbor’s civic affairs. But the issue of upzoning with its destruction of Ann Arbor’s neighborhoods is off the table. The Master Plan revision coming up in another several months or a year will involve full community input and review, and it will not displace the current residents of the city. Ann Arbor will continue to be the place we all made home.

Special note: It may not be obvious from coverage of the campaign, and he doesn’t make an issue of it, but the candidate for 3rd Ward, Tony Brown, is a lifelong Ann Arbor resident who is Black. He is also a well-informed long-time journalist who is familiar with the issues of the day and who speaks to them cogently and with great articulation. Isn’t it time we had a person of color on our Council? He could provide the type of leadership we have been missing.

Important information about the election: The Ann Arbor primary election is on August 4, 2020. Polls will be open for physical voting, with appropriate safeguards for physical distancing. If you prefer to vote by absentee ballot, it is highly recommended that you use the convenient drop boxes at City Hall (301 Huron St., Ann Arbor). The Clerk’s office is open on Saturday, August 1, from 8:00 to 4:00. Voters may request an absentee ballot (no reason is necessary), vote by turning in that ballot, and/or register to vote on that day. (Did we mention that we have a City Clerk, Jacqueline Beaudry, who has won awards for being a superlative Clerk?)  Vote as you like. But vote.

UPDATE: MLive has an article today (July 30, 2020) which is unfortunately behind a paywall. I subscribe but their use of “exclusive” for election-related coverage is questionable for what is our last local paper. The article is a good one, though. It reviews the campaign donations for the two factions and accurately points out the high proportion of development interests who have donated to the Taylor slate.

CONCLUSION: The Slate won handily. One has to say that the voters have clearly chosen the view of the future presented by the Mayor and in November Ann Arbor will have a different governing body. All incumbents were defeated. Here is a news report.

EPILOGUE: On a recent Friday (the 13th of November), new Council Members were sworn in. They immediately announced their intention to “densify” the city, in many cases by overturning decisions that were made in the previous term. Here is a key section, quoting Mayor Taylor in the MLive article.

Political opponents and critics have worried the new council will act to eliminate single-family zoning in the city, though Taylor earlier this year called that “classic election nonsense.”

Still, Taylor and his allies have made clear they support increased housing density and growth, and some have said they want to facilitate a broader community conversation about how the city is zoned through a master plan review process, including taking a look at what some call the racist history of single-family zoning.

“We have to have a reckoning with our past history,” Song said on the campaign trail. “What City Council can do is think about more inclusive zoning, talk about more dense housing, actually speak to and work towards affordable housing so that we have the diverse community I think that we expect from Ann Arbor.”

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14 Comments on “Factions, Frictions and Futures: Election Time in Ann Arbor”

  1. Ann Schriber Says:

    Thank you so much for this very careful analysis, and although you are in the “protectors’ camp (as am I!), you shared very needed information, which has been terribly skewed by the opponents. I could hardly believe how mean the campaign has been against Jane Lumm -half truths and innuendos, which were not only damaging, but extremely hurtful. I just hope that enough people read this to make a difference in the election.. With campaigns like this, how are we going to get good people to run?
    Ann Schriber

    • Yes, I have gotten to avoiding all social media discussions because they are so unrelentingly nasty, personally destructive, and useless as far as really working through any issues. It is hard for a candidate to keep her head above all that and just carry on.

  2. lauren Says:

    Thanks for this great analysis. I would venture to say that, in some area of ward 1, and particularly in the northside neighbourhood, the issue of the safe route to school/sidewalks/pedestrian safety is far more important that the density/zoning one. The issue has created some important divisions between neighbours and might, at the end, decide of the outcome of the election, one way or the other.

    • You make a good point. I’m sure there are a number of very specific issues in different parts of the City that have become a major topic just for that area. I paid little attention to the Northside sidewalk issue, but I can imagine that it remains very large in the minds of the people immediately affected. Certainly it has been raised as a campaign issue.

  3. Jason Jones Says:

    Very interesting article. Do you or any reader know of an example where a government sponsored initiative has actually worked against market forces and lowered the cost of housing? Or are all these initiatives designed by law to eliminate market forces and artificially depress prices? I’m admittedly very naive on the whole concept and the track record of success.

    • Fascinating question. My short answer would have to be “no”. But there are shadings. We’ll need to discuss this another time. There are a lot of models out there and many factors to examine. The current concept in Ann Arbor seems to me to be a very naive notion that if you just build a lot, market forces will deliver cheap housing. It is a long subject worthy of discussion.

      • Biswa Chatterjee Says:

        Is there a summary I can read of the argument against allowing more mixed development? The argument for zoning reform is pretty well summarized in this piece by 7 UM urban planning professors, who I assume aren’t all that naive?


        The argument against downtown density doesn’t make sense to me. Given the increase in UM employees and enrollment, where else do 10,000 more people go? Clearly we need more affordable housing as well, but where can it be built, and built affordably, if no existing neighborhoods allow it?

      • Jason Jones Says:

        Thank you for your reply. I figured that there was no evidence housing prices could be lowered just by building. Ann Arbor is just too small, with such a huge demand for housing that building even 100-200 housing units at market rates will do nothing to depress prices. Many large condos have gone up since I have moved here 5 years ago and they seem to contribute to increasing prices, not decreasing. In my experience, housing prices typically decrease for when residents want to leave en masse. Poor sociological reasons cause that like large increases in crime.

        It appears to me that the only way to depress prices in a real significant way is to limit them by law and prevent the owners from realizing their full market value. I find this approach very troubling in a free society.

  4. Yes, the op-ed from the Michigan Daily is cited in an earlier post. It was mostly authored by Jonathan Levine, who is an advocate of dense development (his professional focus is transportation planning and density fits that model). Don’t mistake this piece for a scholarly work, it is a thesis supported by citations of varying quality. I’ve discussed that with Dr. Levine.

    In answer to your question, this is a topic that has hundreds of studies and analyses that take different directions. I hope to summarize some of that in the future. But perhaps you missed the previous post, which included some discussion. https://localinannarbor.com/2020/07/12/disruption-in-ann-arbor-its-a-promise-2/

  5. Jason Jones Says:

    Regarding this comment:

    “The argument against downtown density doesn’t make sense to me. Given the increase in UM employees and enrollment, where else do 10,000 more people go? Clearly we need more affordable housing as well, but where can it be built, and built affordably, if no existing neighborhoods allow it?”

    Some questions:

    * Can you even imagine what 10,000 added housing units to downtown would look like?

    * Ypsi is very much an affordable community and is literally next door to Ann Arbor. Why is this not an acceptable solution? I know of many well paid individuals who work in Ann Arbor but live in Ypsi because they would like lower housing costs. They dont ask or demand that prices in Ann Arbor be lowered for them, they go to where they can afford to live.

    • Much of the discussion around this subject assumes that the only place individuals can live who want to work at the UM or other Ann Arbor work centers is in the City itself. But this does not reflect current reality or the way most cities operate. We have a robust transit system connecting us to Ypsilanti and it is an integral part of our metropolitan area. Our metropolitan area also includes Pittsfield and Scio Townships (where many people working here live) and a number of small cities nearby, like Dexter and Chelsea. Most of these are not available by transit and none are within walking distance. But they are viable alternatives for our workers. We simply do not have enough land to accommodate all workers and it should not be expected that we can house everyone.

  6. Anne Bannister Says:

    Thank you Vivienne for tackling these complex issues and illuminating factors that led to the stunning defeat of the Defenders in the primary. If you subtract $2K in contributions to my campaign from my mom and me, my opponent may have exceeded my fundraising by three to one.
    I have many comments and will start with these:
    1. Thanks for highlighting Tony Brown’s campaign. Mayor Taylor uses soaring rhetoric about diversity and inclusion when it’s politically expedient, but doesn’t walk the talk when real opportunities present themselves.
    2. Regarding the comment from Jason Jones, initiatives that have worked to lower the cost of housing include cooperatives, like Arrowwood, that has for decades provided affordable housing to seniors and families. Cooperatives can be designed to allow for home ownership and a cap on individual home equity.
    3. In the No Holds Barred section, “I suspect that the Mayor is still sore about Core Spaces (it had a few units in its plan),” Core Spaces was planned to allow for $5M from the sale proceeds to go to affordable housing. Three scandals are related here; 1) the ballot language caption, disallowed by the MI Supreme Court, 2) the lawsuit against the Mayor for signing the contract with Core Spaces without Council approval, and a week after the ballot petition signatures were accepted by the City Clerk, and 3) the Lower Town scandal, where nearly $10M in affordable housing contribution was given away to help the developer, by various means including rezoning away from a PUD to an obscure C1A/R zoning.
    Thanks again Vivienne, for your service to the community.

  7. Ed Clarke Says:

    It would provide perspective to see an analysis of the current housing stock and any planned/proposed/desired version. How many housing units in the city are single family? Duplexes? Apartments? Cooperatives? University student housing? Non-university student housing? Low cost? How do/should we incorporate the collar neighborhoods?
    Housing is expensive in A2 partly because of high property taxes, which are going much higher with A2Zero. Low cost housing and A2Zero are incompatible.
    Also, “low cost housing” can be created by having roommates

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