Citizens, Developers, and Council Reach Two Historic Deals: Tremendous Victory for Community BenefitsBrian Geiringer
EDIT: This article has been updated after the two Community Benefits Agreements discussed were approved by Ypsilanti City Council during the meeting of 6/21/22. The last few paragraphs did not appear in the original article. The title has also been changed; the original title was Citizens and Developers Reach Historic Deal: CBO Passes First Tests. Other minor details have been updated.
It’s early 2018.
Ypsilanti is waking up from a(nother) fever dream on Water Street… this one called ‘International Village.’ It was a political shitstorm that, when all was said and done, interrupted the budding career of the mayor and those of a number of other city officials. (If you don’t know that story, I highly recommend reading Tom Perkins’ work for MetroTimes from that era, and exploring Defend Affordable Ypsi’s website and Facebook page.) …We woke up from 2017 wondering how most of our city council, and many of our neighbors, had been fooled into trying to buy a $300 million bottle of snake oil.
Under that context, a group of Ypsilantians decided to craft a piece of legislation that could stop something like that from happening again. They called themselves ‘Rising for Economic Democracy in Ypsi’ or ‘REDY.’ …One evening, probably in March, I found myself walking through the brisk Pearl Street air toward one of REDY’s first public meetings.
This story isn’t about me or REDY–but that meeting, and a number of following meetings I attended, were quite special. Ypsilantians from all walks of life discussed goals for the city, personal dreams, and political strategy. We voted on priorities via technicolor stickers. It was great. This story is about the outcome of those meetings: a controversial and possibly wonderful proposal that the 2018 city council, under pressure, turned into law. The Community Benefits Ordinance (CBO), the second in the nation after Detroit’s, gives voice to the people of Ypsi when developers come to town.
Here’s how it works: any time the city sells a piece of land, and any time a developer requests over $50,000 in incentives from the city (which is very common), the ordinance kicks into action. It requires that the developers meet and negotiate with a small group of delegates–a CBO citizen commission. The commission is made up of volunteer residents from around the proposed development and around the city; they negotiate with the developer in order to agree to some benefits to the community that the developer must provide. The benefits could be anything, but some common ideas include building more affordable units, preserving some natural elements on the site, or providing additional amenities like, say, covered bike racks. The CBO commission might even ask the city to provide certain things, or pass certain legislation, in order for those on the commission to feel good about supporting these projects.The three-way relationship between the public, city council, and the developer makes sense when you consider that, despite much support, there was also immense pushback to International Village. That project turned out to be a sham, but the reason it folded was not because city council came to their senses. No–it was from fierce, spectacular resistance, from the residents. We saw the proposal as being so far out of alignment with what the people of the city needed that we actively fought against it and visioned for something better… The CBO is in some sense a radical reinterpretation of resident/council/developer dynamics: Rather than trying to please city council, developers try to please the community by meeting the expectation of material benefits for residents. And maybe–just maybe–council and the public can leave satisfied with new development… (and, hey, maybe I’m just an optimist).
“…if the 220 N. Park proposal becomes a reality, it would bring more affordable housing onto the Ypsi market than we’ve seen in decades.”
Anyways, you might be wondering why you haven’t heard much about all this. The law passed in 2018–where are our community benefits?! Well, despite some proposed developments being discussed, nothing since 2018 has actually gotten far enough off the ground for the CBO to be activated.
That is, not until this year. In the span of a few short months of 2022, two entire CBO commissions have been formed, have negotiated with developers, and have created Community Benefit Agreements that are currently being considered by city council. In fact, I was sitting in the final meeting of one of the CBO commissions when I first started writing this. That commission negotiated on a much-anticipated 48-unit development at 220 N. Park.
I won’t lie and say that that meeting was cheerful. The developers, two women who operate as Renovare Development, sounded a bit frustrated by the end. The chair of the N. Park CBO commission, Amber Fellows, would tell me later that they felt as though the developers had been “moving the goalposts” throughout the course of their five meetings: what had been agreed to at a previous meeting was suddenly up for debate once again.
This whole thing is clearly a learning process. Not only are we all learning about the whole CBO process as we see it unfold, but quite literally the CBO commission, the developers, and city staff are having to learn on the fly about what can legally be put into a development agreement. For instance, the N. Park CBO commission brought in someone from the Fair Housing Center to determine whether the proposed Renovare condominium homes can be offered solely to current Ypsi residents for the first 90 days they’re on the market. (Turns out they probably can.)
Still–tension and confusion are temporary. Affordable housing lasts a lot longer and goes a lot farther than ruffled feathers. And if the 220 N. Park proposal becomes a reality, it would bring more affordable homes onto the Ypsi market than we’ve seen in decades. It’s safe to say that this wouldn’t be the case without the robust citizen participation made possible by the CBO. Consider that before negotiations with the citizen commission, Renovare’s “affordable housing” had consisted of some homes for folks making roughly $99,000 a year, and a few for people who make $66,000. After negotiating, the new proposal includes four homes for people who make $33k annually (each of those will cost about $110,000), eight homes for those who make $49,500, and 11 at $66k. Not only that, the commission negotiated to ensure that these condos have a minimum footprint of 1000 square feet, outdoor storage, minimal Homeowner Association fees, and that current Ypsi residents who are first-time homebuyers will have a window to buy them before they are offered to the broader market. They also can’t be bought by landlords–these homes are for the primary owner to reside in. The commission also negotiated for energy efficiency standards, a bike rack, native landscaping, public input on street naming, and the list goes on. (Can you tell I’m excited? And no, I’m not trying to buy one of the affordable homes.)
Now, surely not everyone is going to be happy with this development, if it happens. There has been some tension around the site for years–in particular, many neighbors of that hillside lot do not want to see too much density of housing plopped into their backyard on what some have called a “wetlands”. At the same time, many housing advocates throughout the city have urged for as much affordable housing–as much density–as possible. (For instance one of the public speakers at the most recent council meeting rather poetically described Ypsi as a “vast monoculture of single-family housing.”) Which makes sense… renters make up 66% of Ypsi residents and we are in a crisis. Rents keep going up as gentrification intensifies; more and more friends are getting priced out every year. Given both of these perspectives, it’s no small feat that a neighbor to the proposed development, like CBO commission-member Rod Johnson, and housing advocates like Fellows, could negotiate together and land on something that makes them, the developers, and city council happy.
Well… if not happy, then at least ‘content’. That’s the word Rod used to describe the deal that was reached. Some weeks have passed since that meeting I’d attended, and I’ve gotten in touch with Rod Johnson through email. Rod is no stranger to local politics, having served as the Chair of the Ypsilanti Planning Commission from 2005 to 2016. He told me that the CBO commission seemed to be more of a “political, idealistic, and financial goaled commission as opposed to the more technical aspects of the Planning Commission.” He affirmed that he thought the CBO was beneficial to the city.
Amber, whose political background includes deep participation in REDY and Defend Affordable Ypsi (and What’s Left), as well as an active three-year tenure on the city’s Human Relations Commission (before being ousted by ex-mayor Bashert), has strongly positive feelings about the CBO. Fellows says that “the CBO is a necessary intervention for the interests of residents,” and that resident negotiators “do not have [the] same motivations or long-range political strategy” that some members of city council do. City councilmembers, Fellows says, are often motivated “to get a major development under their belts for the clout, aspirations of higher office, or their legacy, no matter how poorly suited or unhelpful to residents’ needs a proposal is.”
“…current Ypsi residents who are first-time homebuyers will have a window to buy them before they are offered to the broader market…”
I’ll admit–I don’t know as much as I should about the other Community Benefits negotiations; the ones regarding the first proposed development of the year, which is set to be built at 845 and 945 Clark Road. I do know that what’s proposed to be built there is affordable housing, but unlike N. Park, the Clark Rd. development will be rentals… over 300 of them. That CBO commission, which included REDY, DAY, and What’s Left member (among one thousand other titles) Desiraé Simmons, negotiated for a number of benefits as well, including a Tenant’s Council specific to that development, and an on-site community space. And, of course, they pushed the developer for units that are even more affordable: specifically, they agreed to many units that are affordable to folks making 40% or 50% of the Washtenaw County median income. That means there will be, in essence, rent-stabilized units that are available to people making roughly $32k a year–or about the median income for Ypsilantians.
Although there is so much else to it, I would be satisfied with the CBO if it had done nothing other than bring in more housing that people can afford: permanent homes and rentals alike. It’s fitting. In 2018 at those first REDY meetings, those were the words on everyone’s lips: “Ypsi needs affordable housing.”
I think Fellows might be right–in the four years since International Village, we have seen no evidence that any councilmembers are willing to fight for affordable housing like this (though Mayor Lois Allen-Richardson has served as a critical member of REDY). Give some power to the people, and we will demand for what we need.
I’m in another meeting. It’s June 7th and city council is considering the CBO agreements I’ve been discussing. Did I mention? These aren’t done deals. City council still has to approve them. And, in typical city council fashion, they’re making me a little nervous. I won’t stay for their discussion of the Clark Rd. development, but I’ll later learn that it is neither approved nor denied. Something about how the city wants a bit more money out of the deal.
But I am here for an argument about the N. Park development. Specifically, a concern is levied about housing as a generational wealth building tool–whether the affordable units should remain affordable long-term or return to market rates once the first buyer eventually sells. One member of the N. Park CBO Commission, Amanda Smith, argues for long-term affordability, saying she thinks “the trade-off is[…] do we want to help 23 people right now, in a big way, which is amazing, or do we want to help many many more people for years to come, in a slightly less big way.” Councilmember Somerville, notably a renter herself, added that “accessible housing and consistent payment of your home–so not paying more than 30% of your income on rent–will build wealth in other ways. If you’re not worried about your rent increasing by $300 when you renew your lease then you are building wealth[…] for people who have student loans, or people who have families[…] this is very much like a land trust, the whole point is accessibility and sustainability of the price you’re paying.”
UPDATE: Last night, in a rather anticlimactic affair, the two deals were approved by city council! It’s hard to overstate how exciting this is. 308 rentals and 46 houses for sale are coming to our town!
Apart from the housing that will be built, and the benefits that will be garnished, this is a tremendous vindication of the Community Benefits Ordinance itself. Another thing I sort of forgot to mention: the CBO isn’t actually… active still. As in, it expired in 2021. Since it had never been put to the test, city staff and council decided to use it for these two developments as if it were still on the books. After last night, it would be hard to argue that the law is not an incredible boon to the city. Still, it’s probably worth letting your councilmember know you think so (if you do) *wink*.
I’d just like to take a quick moment to shower gratitude on the unsung heroes of this tale: Ypsi residents who volunteered their time working with REDY to get the CBO written and passed, resident members of the two CBO commissions who negotiated for the Clark Rd. and N. Park deals, and countless folks who advocated for all of this along the way. We did it.
…Of course, the story’s not over. It remains to be seen, for instance, how the construction and eventual residence of these two developments will look. Surely some problems might arise. Perhaps more important in the long run is the fate of the Community Benefits Ordinance. There is plenty of work to be done on the update of the ordinance: negotiations could operate more smoothly and the ordinance could also be stronger. Eventually, as long as it stays a part of our development process, the CBO will face the final boss: Water Street. (There has been some talk of preemptively creating a citizen commission solely interested in the fate of the Water St. property; such a commission, after completing various evaluations, might request specific types of development proposals for the lot.) If you are interested in being part of that work and don’t know how to get involved, feel free to contact us at WhatsLeftYpsi@gmail.com and we can point you in the right direction.
(Oh and by the way… this is the link to where the city of Ypsi posts all of the documents for city council and all the other commissions including the two CBO commissions: https://www.cityofypsilanti.com/AgendaCenter)