Religious Action for Affordable Housing: Creating Community

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Engagement of Neighbors
While the RAAH capital fund campaign was taking shape, other important issues were simultaneously emerging. Avalon Housing hired an architect to draw up the building site plan and the construction design. This process involved many ongoing consultations with the City of Ann Arbor Planning Commission, Community Development Department, and other entities. The proposed site for the new low-income rental housing was surrounded by five important neighbors. On the west side was a new city park still under development. To the north was the Food Gatherers warehouse and site for their planned expansion. To the east was a well-established subdivision of over four hundred family homes in the $300,000 to $375,000 price range. Across the street on the south side was a newer subdivision of seventy-five homes in the $400,000 to $475,000 price range, and also a new Baptist church whose members were primarily Asian-American professionals.

As the neighbors in the upscale homes and the church began to become aware of the proposed low-income rental housing development, rumbles of discontent were heard. Small gatherings of concerned neighbors were held, which led to organized opposition by these homeowners. A RAAH board member who lived in the adjacent subdivision took initiative to invite some of his neighbors and some members from the Baptist church to his home for an evening of information, discussion, and response to concerns. This was the beginning of another stage of the project—to reach out proactively to concerned neighbors.

Avalon Housing staff responded to neighborhood discontent by holding several information and discussion meetings for the neighborhood at the Baptist church. The church was cooperative. It was eager to continue parking cars in a large open area across the street that was part of the land proposed for sale by Food Gatherers. The church responded favorably when Food Gatherers informed them that they could continue to use the parking area for the near future—a year or more—while development plans were still being finalized. This helped to relieve the concern of the church, and it continued to offer its building as a place for meetings with neighbors. This meant that the proposed new housing development now had friendly contacts on two sides of the site—the church and the city park—but the upscale homeowners were a very different story.

Organized Resistance Emerges
Representatives of the homeowners (Citizens for Neighborhood Safety) organized, hired an attorney and consultants, and prepared to engage in a long-term campaign of opposition. At the first public hearing conducted by the city planning commission, the Citizens for Neighborhood Safety group turned out in substantial numbers. Their consultants helped them to present a series of four key questions:

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  1. Traffic and pedestrian safety. They questioned whether the two-lane street that everyone in the area used to get in and out of their subdivisions was adequate for the new traffic that would be generated by the new housing and the expanded truck traffic related to the Food Gatherers’ new warehouse.
  2. Public elementary school overload. They questioned whether the children from thirty new families would overload the neighborhood school and create demand for unusual special services.
  3. Safety for children. They asked whether their children would be safe walking past the proposed low-income housing to get to the new city park recreation area.
  4. Screening for criminal background. This was the deepest concern. They asked whether or not the new low-income residents would be screened for criminal background. It seemed that some of the neighbors assumed that low-income people and those who were formerly homeless would have been engaged in criminal activity and would not be good future neighbors.

The citizens organization sought further research, more information, and detailed studies, and demanded answers to all these concerns.

The local Ann Arbor newspaper wrote several feature articles about the proposed development. As a result of the news stories there were letters to the editor that praised the initiative for affordable housing, saying it was long overdue. There were other letters that expressed the view that the proposed low-income rental housing was improperly sited in the midst of an upscale neighborhood, would create traffic problems, would overload the neighborhood school, and would unfairly depress property values. The Citizens for Neighborhood Safety pointed out that the boundary of the proposed site for the new townhomes was close to a railroad line and it was not a good site for families with young children. Supporters responded that the primary user of the land closest to the railway was Food Gatherers and there was more than two hundred yards, as required by the state, between the railroad and the proposed housing. Critics of the low-income rental townhomes feared there would be an exodus of homeowners from the two adjacent upscale subdivisions and a lowering of property values. RAAH supporters kept watch on real estate sales and reported that in the subdivision closest to the rental townhome site there were only five homes on the market during the next summer season.


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