Cliff Sheldon recalls that when he served on Ann Arbor’s city council from 1978 to 1982, housing affordability was not a priority. He was in the majority Republican party, and the members were older and relatively conservative. “It wasn’t on the agenda at the time,” he says.

It had been before, though, and it would be again as Ann Arbor became more desirable and the cost of housing steadily increased. “Now we’ve turned into a mini-San Francisco,” he says.

His wife, Ingrid Sheldon, later served on council and then as mayor. In her time, the big issue was homelessness–a debate that culminated in a voter-approved bond issue to build what is now the Delonis Center homeless shelter.

Now, with the price of housing at an all-time high, Ann Arbor is about to build as many as 1,500 affordable rental units. Funded by a twenty-year millage that voters overwhelmingly approved in 2020, the first project, a pair of towers on the former YMCA site across from the Ann Arbor District Library, is already in the planning process.

Affordable housing activism in Ann Arbor grew out of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. “The real-estate people made a determination where they would sell to African Americans,” recalls Audrey Lucas. They were steered to a handful of neighborhoods, the largest of which was just north of downtown. But in 1963, local activists persuaded city council to ban racial discrimination in apartment rentals, and in all housing in 1966.

Many of the same activists also pressed the city to provide housing to people priced out of the private market. Council agreed in 1965. The same year the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development was created. After race riots in cities across the country in 1967, HUD poured billions of dollars into urban areas to build affordable housing.

Former city attorney Bruce Laidlaw recalls that Ann Arbor didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of cities like Detroit and Chicago, which built dense high-rises so crime-ridden they would eventually be demolished. Instead, AAHC adopted a “scattered sites” plan, using federal money to build small, low-rise complexes on N. Maple, S. Maple, and Green roads. It also bought existing apartments, including Broadway Terrace on the north side and a complex at State and Henry.

Laidlaw says the scattered-sites concept was only partially successful. At least initially, the three new projects had a ‘higher concentration of very-low-income people than expected, and crime was a problem.

“The police hated to go there. There was a lot of trouble,” he says.

It didn’t help, he adds, that “the city went really cheap. The complaint was that kids would hang from a bathroom sink, and it would pull off the wall.” Elizabeth Lindsley, AAHC’s executive director from 1994 to 2009, explains that HUD regulations required accepting the lowest bid, which means “you don’t get the highest-quality product.”

In 1971, the housing commission also instituted a lease-to-own program. More than fifty single-family homes throughout the city were rented to tenants with the goal that they would eventually buy them. A portion of the rent went into an equity reserve, while part was reserved for maintenance.

Jennifer Hall, who took over as executive director in 2011, says that all but one of these homes has since been sold. She says AAHC is currently trying to follow up with some of the original residents to see if the program succeeded in building wealth for low-income households, and particularly African American homebuyers.

“Some of the homeowners lost their homes to foreclosure,” she says, “but we also know that other families formed a family trust, and they still have family members living there.”

In 1962, a nonprofit led by U-M public health grad and community organizer Shata Ling got a $1.7 million federal loan to build Lurie Terrace, a senior high-rise on W. Huron. (The AAHC followed with its own senior tower, Miller Manor, in 1971.) Another nonprofit led by attorney Peter Darrow bought property on Pontiac Tr., persuaded congress to extend federal loans to housing co-ops, and created Arrowwood Hills. It was the first of five affordable townhouse complexes that would eventually total more than 1,800 units.

But as the urgency and optimism of the decade faded, so did the flow of federal funds. Baker Commons, which opened on Packard in 1982, was the AAHC’s last big project, though smaller ones continued into the 1990s.

By then, a new generation of activists had adopted a new cause: housing the homeless. As a U-M student in the 1980s, Hall was involved with a group called the Homeless Action Committee, even getting arrested at a protest against the conversion of a single-room-occupancy hotel on Fourth Ave. to offices. (Ironically, she notes, she later worked in one of those offices after the city and county merged their community development departments.)

The city’s first homeless shelter was a volunteer effort in the basement of St. Andrew’s church. Originally seen as a temporary response to a severe recession, it evolved into the Shelter Association of Ann Arbor. Urged on by HAC, the city and county supported it as it moved to an old church on W. Huron, and then to the custom-built Delonis Center.

Hall also joined a group that squatted for months in some houses the city wanted to demolish on Ashley. “The city ended up working with the [Downtown Development Authority] to move one of the houses kitty corner on William/Ashley on a site the DDA owned,” she emails. “The Shelter Association won a bid to manage it, and … they created Avalon Housing” to provide long-term housing for people leaving the shelter.

“Our founders were watching people get housed out of the shelter end up back in the shelter,” explains Avalon executive director Aubrey Patino. Avalon provides the support people exiting homelessness with whatever support they need to stay housed, which may be anything from health-related needs to employment assistance and after-school programming.

With a combination of government and private support, Avalon now manages more than 300 units housing more than 800 people. One of the first to move in, in 1993, was Paul Lambert.

As a child, Lambert contracted meningitis that caused damage to his spine and coordination. Dependent on his parents for financial support, he became homeless after their deaths. If he weren’t living there, he says, “I’m afraid I would just be a bum or on the streets.”

Stu Morris has been a resident in Avalon Housing since 2010. For the previous five years, he’d been sleeping on the floor of a business office, where he helped with tasks like shoveling snow and raking leaves. But the owner of the building was dying and turned it over to his son, who wanted to sell it. A neighbor put Morris in touch with Avalon, which moved him into a one-bedroom apartment and a provided him with a case manager who helps with his laundry and shopping.

“If it wasn’t for Avalon Housing, I wouldn’t know where I’d be living or what I’d be doing,” Morris says. “It took me from not having a place to having a place and getting back on track and having a life.”

Avalon also got Miller Manor back on track. Laidlaw recalls that it was initially successful when there were age restrictions, but it became more troublesome when HUD rules were changed to admit residents with disabilities, regardless of age. Some had mental health and drug issues, and a range of problems ensued, culminating in a fatal stabbing in 2002.

Lindsley was at an accounting seminar in Las Vegas when she got the devastating news that Evelyn Walther, a model tenant and head of a resident council, had been killed. She explains that anyone who cleared the screening could be a resident, including alcoholics; roughly half had significant mental health issues. She brought in Community Mental Health to provide support but had limited resources for regular staffing.

When Avalon took over, it was able to provide twenty-four-hour staff in the building, as well as supportive services. “Thankfully, Avalon brought its own funding,” Lindsley says. “I didn’t have that.”

With better staffing, Patino says, the building “really has provided a solution for many of our neighbors and communities who just weren’t able to successfully call anywhere else home.”

Hall also found new resources to rebuild the rest of AAHC’s housing stock. When she took over in 2011, she told a HUD publication, “I was ashamed of their poor condition. When I looked at our finances, I completely understood why the buildings were in such poor condition. We desperately needed to replace two elevators that people were getting stuck in every day. The cost estimate was $750,000, and we received only $500,000 in capital funds each year.”

The low-bidder buildings HUD paid for in the 1960s and 70s were wearing out. The stream of federal funding that paid for them had long since dried up. Then-mayor John Hieftje recalls that with the city coming out of the Great Recession and the loss of 5 percent of its tax base when the U-M bought the former Pfizer property, “We didn’t have money to go spend to build a lot of affordable housing. When times are hard, you can’t go out and fund something new.”

Ann Arbor wasn’t alone: at the time, Hall emails, the U.S. was “losing 10,000-15,000 public housing units/year due to neglect, abandonment, and demolition.” In response, HUD created a demonstration program to provide more stable operating funding through project-based housing vouchers. To qualify, though, housing authorities had to commit to reinvest in their properties.

To do that, Hall writes, she “secured over $65 million from multiple funding sources.” The biggest was the federal low-income housing tax credit program, which is funded by congress and administered by the state through competitive grants. Since AAHC pays no taxes, it sells the credits it’s awarded to private investors, who became partners in its projects as they’re rehabbed or rebuilt.

With incremental additions as complexes are rebuilt, the commission now operates more than 400 units. At the end of a compliance period, “the investor leaves the partnership and the property reverts back to full ownership to the AAHC.” (Avalon uses the same model.)

Most residents, Hall says, are on Social Security or disability, or working minimum-wage jobs. The average household brings in $12,000 to $14,000 a year, and rents are subsidized with federal Section 8 housing vouchers. Tenants pay 30 percent of their income as rent, while HUD pays the rest.

Ann Arbor NAACP president William Hampton says he helped make the vouchers available here back in the 1970s. “People felt more like a part of the community, because they could live in places where people who are not low-income live,” he said. The result was that “a subset of the truly disadvantaged population felt more like they were regular citizens.” AAHC currently administers more than 2,000 vouchers at its own properties and private rentals–though because Ann Arbor is so expensive, many of the latter are in Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township.

Donetta Mazyck got her voucher through the Ypsilanti Housing Commission. In 2012, she was a single mother of two girls, ages thirteen and six, and paying $900 a month for an apartment in Ypsilanti–a huge stretch for someone juggling online classes and a $12-an-hour job as a lead teacher at a child care center.

“I was at wit’s end stressing out over it, trying to do schooling, trying to work, trying to take care of my children,” Mazyck recalls. “The stress pushed me to the limit.” A therapist at Catholic Social Services gave her a list of public-housing options. After receiving her voucher, she moved into a two-‘bedroom apartment at Hamilton Crossing, an Ypsilanti Housing Commission project on the city’s south side. She paid roughly $350, and gave birth to her son, now eight, while she was living there.

“It made things more promising and more hopeful,” Mazyck says. She was able to be part of a a match savings program, funded primarily by United Way, that provided $10 for every dollar she saved. In 2018 she bought a $30,000 four-bedroom manufactured home, and she now makes $45,000 a year directing the YMCA’s Ypsi child development center. But without her respite in public housing, she says, “I know I wouldn’t be where I’m at today.”

Joel Nelson worked in retail most of his life, often on commission, so his income varied widely.

That made it hard to save for retirement, especially with his high medical bills, including for atrial fibrillation and prostate cancer. He has an annual income of $25,000 from Social Security and a small pension.

He spent three years on the waiting list for Sequoia Place, a senior residence on N. Maple run by Samaritas, a faith-based nonprofit. “I have a wonderful family of folks here, a collage of families from different walks of life.”

Another resident calls Nelson a wonderful neighbor–“for instance, he goes out and clears the snow off of our cars.” For his part, he is “grateful” to be living there.

Other complexes built with federal funds, including Cranbrook Tower on the south side and Parkway Meadows off Nixon Rd., also have income caps and income-based rents. But the need for affordable housing still far exceeds the supply. Hall says the AAHC has more than 5,500 applicants on two separate wait lists–for roughly 150 openings per year.

Lindsley sees it as a success that Ann Arbor’s public housing is still standing and has not fallen into disrepair, as it has in other cities. And she, Patino, and Hieftje are hopeful that the city’s latest plan–building housing on city-owned lots with millage money–will help fill the gap.

“We just need to do everything we can to find partners to maximize that money,” Hieftje says, “and build as much affordable housing as possible.”