The quixotic quest to stop cities from changing

The quixotic quest to stop cities from changing

Who wins, who loses?

People have feelings about the Democratic primary elections coming up on August 4 in my city of Ann Arbor. Why the fuss over a primary? It’s because this is effectively the general election. There’s so much straight-ticket voting in November that it’s virtually impossible to wage a successful challenge to the winner of the Democratic primary. There are five seats in play, one in each ward, and the winners will serve four-year terms. So this is it.

You’d think that since they’re all running in the Democratic primary, there wouldn’t be a whole lot of difference between candidates—but you’d be wrong. It turns out that how someone votes on national or state issues has nothing to do with how they want a city to run. The results on August 4 will either continue the rancorous trend of the past two years—when the council “flipped” to a conservative majority for the first time in 20 years—or restore a functioning government. 

The factions

Like in many cities that are experiencing housing pressure, this election is a pretty straightforward competition between two groups with distinct philosophies. The first is a group of “Anti-Change” candidates (“Antis” for short) who resist plans to address our housing crisis through more supply, prioritize fast driving over pedestrian safety, are skeptical of staff experts, and brand themselves as fiscally responsible. The Antis running for re-election include Councilmembers Anne Bannister, Jane Lumm, and Jack Eaton—along with their proxies in other wards, Tony Brown and David Silkworth. 

The second group are what I call “Good Government” candidates who want to allow discussions to happen about housing policy, advocate for best practices to protect all road users, prioritize expertise in City Hall, and reject the notion that growth is a “give away.” The Good Government candidates challenging the incumbent Antis—or seeking to fill empty seats—include Lisa Disch, Linh Song, Travis Radina, Jen Eyer, and Erica Briggs. (See my endorsement of these folks and the serious issues with their opponents here.)

There are also some earnest newcomers thrown in the mix who I hope will get involved in public service and run again. (If you want a deeper dive into these factions, Sam Firke wrote a comprehensive backgrounder, however I agree with this critique of his analysis.)

A map of the Ann Arbor Wards with endorsements for: Ward 1, Lisa Disch; Ward 2, Linh Song; Ward 3 Travis Radina; Ward 4 Jen Eyer; Ward 5, Eric Briggs
Who to vote for (Source: City of Ann Arbor and author)

No surprise, I am a big fan of the “Good Government” candidates. Like many of us who follow Ann Arbor local government closely or have served on council, I have strong feelings—particularly as I watch people put up yard signs for candidates whose values don’t align with their own.

Retail politics vs. policy

Once elected, incumbents earn an advantage through name recognition and “retail politics.” (Three of the five Anti candidates have the advantage this year.) When you’re responsive to a constituent, there’s a decent chance you’ve earned a vote in the next election. Being good at constituent service should be a minimum expectation, not a litmus test for re-election. But since many residents don’t follow local news coverage and see what’s happening in City Hall, that’s all that many residents have to go on.

Sorry, you can’t do both. This yard translates to, “Thanks, workers, but Ann Arbor is full.” (Source: author)

Is it really that bad?

That said, I want to take up a challenge, which went something like this: “Kirk, I get it, you feel strongly about this stuff. But when you make it sound like there is absolutely nothing redeeming about a candidate, I tune it out because it sounds extreme. It’s like looking at Amazon reviews. I learn a lot more from the 2-, 3-, and 4-star reviews than I do from the 1-star or 5-star reviews. Are you trying to tell me you can’t say anything positive about the Antis?”

Fair point! The biggest compliment I hear about some Antis is their communication, constituent service, and hard work. That’s good, but I’d expect the same thing of their challengers. So we have to look at the larger and more meaningful picture of the policy decisions of the Antis versus what we’d expect from their challengers. Policy-setting by city council, not customer service, is the overwhelmingly decisive factor in the current and future health of the city.

Who benefits?

Here’s my list of who has been benefiting—and could benefit in the future—from the policies of the Anti candidates:

  1. Those who place a high value on keeping parking lots, strip malls and office parks looking just as they do now. These are the areas of the city that the public has said are appropriate to allow more housing and are served by buses. More housing supply has been definitively shown to help address affordability and allow our tax base to grow. The incumbents have taken unprecedented steps to stop any discussion of housing policy and economic development, and they will absolutely continue to do so if re-elected.

    The Antis would like people to think that more housing options means radically changing the city’s landscape, but the truth is that no matter who is elected, it’s virtually guaranteed that 90% or more of the land area of the city—including historic districts and traditional single-family neighborhoods—will not visually change in the foreseeable future.
A Scio Township landlord is making videos to scare you into thinking this will happen to your house. Note: there is no chance this will ever happen. (Source: YouTube)
  1. Existing landlords who want to keep rents as high as possible. Because the supply of new homes is now being restricted, housing costs are going up faster than they would otherwise. The university has been enrolling thousands of more students than usual, and hiring is up. All of this demand is far outpacing supply, which is great for landlords. (There’s very little room left for new single-family houses within the city, so those home values will likely continue to increase regardless.)

  1. Those who wish for cars to go as fast as possible at any cost. Some object to the mere appearance of taking road space away from cars—even if it would makes them and every other road user safer and doesn’t significantly impact travel time. The Antis who are up for re-election (Bannister, Lumm, Eaton) have rejected professional engineer recommendations to make drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians safer.

    For example, the Anti faction voted down a project on Earhart Road that would have reduced crashes 50-100%—but would have made car travel slightly slower.
The prospect of slower car speeds was among the arguments why Bannister, Lumm, Griswold, Eaton, Nelson, and Ramlawi rejected safety improvements on Earhart Road (Source: City of Ann Arbor)

At what cost?

Even if the benefits of maintaining the status quo make sense for some, history demonstrates that each of these benefits come at a guaranteed cost to residents. Therefore, one must in turn accept the following:

  1. Worse city services plus higher taxes and fees. Less construction in the city means a decrease to the city’s main source of new net revenue. For example, losing the Core Spaces project on the Library Lot—a decision the Antis cheered—cost the city an immediate cash infusion of $10 million, a free public plaza, plus what would have been significant ongoing tax revenue.

    While construction can be temporarily disruptive for immediate neighbors, new housing means new money to the city. The fixed costs of running the city are going up faster than income from our tax base. This disparity also needs to be addressed at the state level, but in the meantime, new construction allows the city to continue to provide services without draconian cuts or dramatic tax increases. Some councilmembers are spreading misinformation that new housing “costs” the city money, while the opposite is true.

  2. A decline in public safety, namely more injuries to drivers, pedestrians and cyclists due to higher car speeds. The Antis try to pivot this issue to more police funding or signage, but crime is at historic lows and more officers and signs aren’t the answer to dangerous road design.

  3. Worse traffic and air quality due to more traffic generated by more people forced to commute from outside the city instead of living in the city. Continued job growth with very slow housing growth means worse traffic. We’re at 80,000 commutes into the city on average and climbing.

  4. Exacerbated regional inequity, as less housing supply means people with means bidding up rents and pushing those with less means further away from job opportunities, accelerating income and racial segregation.

  5. Fewer and more expensive apartment and condo housing options for you, your children, or your parents due to less supply in the face of high demand. Expect the trend of higher costs for less housing to continue.
When being a progressive might mean a new building down the street (Source: Reddit)

Another potential cost—which is not guaranteed but could be higher than all those listed above—is litigation risk. For example, in order to “fight for” the neighbors who do not want construction near them, the Antis have already gotten the city in trouble by denying legally allowed housing developments. A high-damage lawsuit has not happened in our community, however it has in other cities. The past behavior of many on council indicates there is a substantial financial risk to all residents should the Antis remain in the majority. (It’s absurd that Ann Arbor has a tradition of allowing politicians to vote on legal stuff like development proposals in the first place. They’re not qualified to do so, which is why most cities don’t do this—but it’s politically fraught to suggest stopping this tradition.) Another litigation risk is that the current Anti council majority is currently slow-walking changes to our water rate fees that we are legally expected to implement. Lastly, one incumbent has sued the city outright, and another has a record of actively helping people bring lawsuits against the city. 

These are awful tradeoffs.

The bottom line is that the Antis are effective at stopping and delaying government processes in an attempt to prevent the evolution of the city. Fighting to prevent inevitable change comes at a very high cost to the city’s financial well being, safety, and ability to deliver services. The candidates I support—Lisa Disch, Linh Song, Travis Radina, Jen Eyer, and Erica Briggs—are in favor of allowing our government to work properly. I urge you to give them your support.