What's Left Ypsilanti

Unfinished Business

Desiraé Simmons

One of my early one-on-ones with late Ward 3 Councilmember Pete Murdock was like any typical day in Ypsilanti. It was a warm December day in 2017 as I walked down to Depot Town to visit a still-newish Cream and Crumb. There was Pete in his ever-present ‘Ypsilanti’ sweatshirt, hunched over his coffee waiting patiently for the young agitator he was used to seeing at City Council meetings. I can still hear his voice, always hoarse and sometimes just grunts with shrugs to show agreement or displeasure. I sat down and he instantly launched into why we need a mandatory recycling ordinance. That was something I came to appreciate about Pete—he wasn’t one for small talk. It was always about the issues, and while he always had time for his constituents, he didn’t waste time playing nice with politics. When Pete died, I instantly thought of this conversation and the work still left unfinished. In particular, he was passionate about recycling and housing affordability.

On April 6, 2018, Pete sent an email to members of the Ypsilanti Subcommittee on Housing Affordability & Accessibility with a list of housing policies that he was looking for some feedback on. There were a few main policy areas with lists of similar ordinances from other parts of the country. I’m now reminded of a time when I asked Pete to teach me how to write an ordinance and he replied with a shrug, “find one that already exists and edit.” The first ordinance on the list was ‘notification of intent to stop providing public housing support’ as a first step response to situations like what happened with Cross Street Village.

Cross Street Village is the formerly affordable senior housing development that was converted to a market rate complex in 2017. The developer of the building took advantage of a back-out clause in the agreement made to receive Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), despite the developer’s initial pledge to keep it low-income senior housing for a term of 99 years. Residents of Cross Street Village demonstrated against the market-rate conversion on July 12th, 2017. Today, remaining low-income and disabled seniors report issues of negligence (example: failure to meet the reasonable accommodation of repairing A/C units during the recent heatwave which brought 100 degree weather) on the part of the landlord, American Community Developers, to local and state representative’s offices.

Pete knew the importance of protecting current Ypsilanti residents who are likely to be displaced.

So, the preliminary ordinance package called for appropriate notice to the city so it could work to maintain affordable units, notice to tenants as well as relocation expenses, and the opportunity for the city/Housing Commision/or other affordable housing organization to have rights of first refusal if the property were sold. This would mean that before selling to a third party, the owner of the property would need to offer the city first dibs, so to speak.

Pete was also interested in extending those same protections to condo or co-op conversions. Pete stated in an April 6th 2018 email with regard to condo or co-op conversion: “Although this doesn’t seem to be an issue now, with property values and the pressure from Ann Arbor this could be more of an issue in the near future.” The important thing to note is that this was an ordinance looking ahead toward the challenges that are expected to come with increasing gentrification. Pete knew the importance of protecting current Ypsilanti residents who are likely to be displaced. Often, seniors are the first community to be pushed out—we saw that with Cross Street Village. And without proactive policies, the City was not able to respond and will continue to be behind the curve if they do not seek protections now. As the market continues to change, landlords may find it more profitable to move out their low-income renters and sell to developers looking to profit off of the Ypsilanti community. This is why Pete also included an ordinance focused on Just Cause Eviction. Just Cause Eviction protects tenants from eviction without proper reason, and may be used in tandem with the above ordinances to prevent tenant eviction for reasons of conversion or major remodeling, without compensation for relocation expenses.

“So where's the celebration!?” Once the City Council meeting adjourned, [Pete] joined us at Tap Room to enjoy an important victory for community participation, democratic process, and anti-gentrification work in action.

The next set of ordinances he included focused on tenant’s rights more generally. It included an ordinance requiring that landlords provide voter registration information to new tenants (this was successfully resolved into law on August 28th 2018 in Ypsilanti), that they provide previous utility bills if the tenants are required to pay them directly, and that tenants would receive radon testing results and abatement information ahead of signing a lease. He also included an ordinance to create a Housing Trust Fund, which was successfully established on June 5th 2018 and appropriated $75,000 in each of the fiscal years FY 2018-19 and FY 2019-20. The Planning Commission’s Subcommittee for Housing Affordability and Accessibility, which I serve on, supported the ordinance and is now considering recommendations to share with City Council about ways to use the $150,000 across two years that has been earmarked for the fund.

Pete was also instrumental in passing the Community Benefits Ordinance (CBO) and was present at meetings hosted by Rising for Economic Democracy in Ypsi (REDY), as was Mayor Pro Tem Lois Allen-Richardson. The second CBO in the country—Detroit’s was the first—was passed on September 11, 2018 with a hard-won 5-2 vote. Afterwards, Pete texted Amber Fellows, a REDY organizer, “so where's the celebration!” Once the City Council meeting adjourned, he joined us at Tap Room to enjoy an important victory for community participation, democratic process, and anti-gentrification work in action. The CBO seeks to ensure that the development of Ypsilanti does not leave behind the residents already here, and that the community is a negotiating partner in determining what benefits it deserves. Pete seemed so laid back and almost giddy, drinking his pop and laughing among a diverse crowd of millennials. It is a great memory.

In terms of some recycling work, with the closure of the drop-off center that was located on Frog Island, Pete felt an increased sense of urgency to address the fact that apartment complexes do not participate in the recycling program. He brought it up often during City Council meetings, and more recently during the conversations around public recycling receptacles. It was not important whether the complexes joined the city program, he seemed fine if they wanted to go with a private option—as long as the tenants had the same opportunity to recycle as homeowners have. He also pushed for an alternate site for a drop-off center for materials not covered in the recycling program. I primarily used the drop-off center for styrofoam and so I asked about that during our December one-on-one. Since Ypsilanti is a college-town with a lot of take-out, we end up with a lot of styrofoam waste. I can’t stand throwing it out and previously appreciated having the option to at least recycle it. Pete cautioned that he wasn’t sure if styrofoam is actually recycled given how unprofitable it is due to its light weight.

That conversation encouraged me to share my concerns with City Council during public comment and to think of ways that we could work with businesses to reduce styrofoam containers. In the spirit of #whatwouldpetedo I’ll share an idea. Ypsilanti can look at what has already worked in other waste-reduction campaigns: for instance limiting plastic bag use at grocery stores. Back in the day, grocery stores incentivized the use of reusable sacks by paying customers for bringing in their own bags. It was maybe $0.05-$0.10 each bag. Maybe it could even be a rewards program for returning customers when they bring the company’s branded reusable container. I’ve also seen many businesses using compostable containers but with no plan for actually composting the materials. The regional recycling program that I first heard the Ypsilanti City Council talk about during their August 28, 2018 meeting, includes composting; Ann Arbor already has a residential composting program.

In fact, that August 28, 2018 City Council meeting was full of recycling and housing related discussions. There was a first reading to reconsider ordinance 1320 which requires that landlords share certain information with their tenants upon occupancy; Pete alluded to ordinance 1320 in his April email to the housing subcommittee. During public comment I lifted up the desire for this info to include voter registration and education information such as what ward a tenant was moving into. There were discussions about the public recycling bins from the Sustainability Commission; the purchase agreement for 220 N. Park (which I had asked Pete about 2-3 days prior during a one-on-one and he thought the agreement was already over since he hadn’t heard about it); and the premature Intergovernmental Agreement for Recycling Drop-Off Services between the City and Township of Ypsilanti (it turns out that then City Manager Darwin McClary had not confirmed the deal and it fell through). During Pete’s “Council Proposed Business,” he brought up the proposed ordinance to notify tenants about ending support of affordable housing that he had shared in April’s email, questioned the closing of the drop-off center, and inquired about the status of the Pen Dam report.

Interestingly, given the recent news about the lawsuit against the City for reverse discrimination in the fire chief hiring scandal, Pete also asked about the process for hiring the new chief during those August 28 comments. One of Pete's last acts as a City Councilmember was calling the special meeting that ended with McClary resigning. When I interviewed Pete on March 22, the last time I saw him alive, he mentioned how important it was to remove McClary. Since this is now an ongoing issue it seems necessary to remember that the lack of a good process, like Pete originally asked for, is a large reason for why we are in this predicament. I hope the current Council is ready to handle this in a way that does not leave city residents on the hook for the Council's mistakes.

During our last conversation in March, Pete and I talked about his work starting the city’s recycling program, the Food Co-op, and the Friends of Prospect Park. He talked about wanting to stay engaged and that he was just a regular guy who was trying to be active in his community. He said he had a lot of ideas to still push forward—especially around housing affordability and community land trusts, which I wrote about for the April issue of What’s Left. He was eager to “get over this mess” (in reference to the cancer) so he could return to representing Ward 3 as soon as possible. I don’t think he knew it, but it was clear to me that he was dying. So I asked him what advice he would give to someone looking to get involved in politics and he said, “if you’re interested in municipal governance, participate. No matter the situation!” I know I am taking that advice to heart, and as Pete would say, “the work is never done.”

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