Allow Me To Introduce Myself

Here it is — not for attribution, but open to commentary (even you, Curious Observer) — the first draft of the introduction to my planning thesis on student housing in Ann Arbor. I know some people advocate diving into the chapters and writing the the intro last, but I want to set out my argument and narrative and make sure that I am at least reckoning with it if I deviate from it. If I stray in the writing, as usually happens, I’ll be able to go back and rewrite the intro. Without further ado (longish):

(NOTE: This does not yet contain my literature review and methods.)

Working Title

The housing of university students in Ann Arbor has been a controversial issue for most of the twentieth century. Perhaps no evidence illustrated the situation so clearly as the resignation of University of Michigan president C. C. Little after his proposal to build a women’s dormitory caused an uproar within the city that made the pages of Time magazine.

The reasons for this ongoing controversy are manifold. Shelter is a basic human need necessary for physical and mental health, while housing is also a means of consumption, lending status to individuals, neighborhoods, or communities. Economic value results from demand for this good. In Ann Arbor in the twentieth century, the combined growth of the university (particularly in terms of student enrollment) and a relatively limited private building market have combined to keep demand for housing consistently higher than supply.

The housing issue is also spatial in nature – students have been bound by a need and a desire for residential proximity to the University of Michigan campus. Because of this, throughout the twentieth century, housing issues have largely been focused on the downtown and downtown-adjacent areas, the neighborhoods nearest to the university’s Central Campus.

Despite the growth of the University of Michigan throughout the twentieth century into the multiversity of knowledge production, students are still the largest single stakeholder group within the university. Because of their concentrated location within the city of Ann Arbor, students are the chief intermediaries between the city and the university.

Students’ numbers, approximately thirty-nine thousand between undergraduates and graduate students, and concentrated economic impact should mean that they are important political stakeholders in the development of university and city housing policy and planning. However, that has not been the case. Early twentieth-century educational philosophy and social mores meant that the university functioned in loco parentis and controlled students’ living environments. This control continued and intensified through the 1960s until students began to demand independence from university oversight in their private lives and institutions like the University of Michigan began to relinquish the responsibility. In large part because of this paternalistic restraint upon students, as well as state voting laws, they have not been able to exert the political power one might expect from a majority-aged cohort that constitutes a significant minority – up to one-third – of the city population.

While the subject of student housing has been consistently at the forefront of local city-university disputes, the nature of the issue has seen considerable change throughout the twentieth century. First, Ann Arbor has seen marked shifts in the provision of student housing. In the early part of the century, the vast majority of students – men and women alike – resided in private, off-campus rooming houses inspected and approved by the university. During the 1920s and 1930s the University began providing on-campus housing for women students in order to provide a moral, uplifting environment for learning. In this period, the community protested the economic loss that dormitories represented to city landlords. In the World War II era, the university developed a radically different housing policy that featured large-scale, on-campus dormitories at the expense of off-campus rooming houses. The resulting building program only became economical with intervention from the federal government – Works Progress Administration grants in the late 1930s, Lanham Act funding during the war, and financing from the College Housing Loan Program. The university made protests in this case, arguing to the federal government that the private market was unable to respond to the needs of wartime mobilization and post-war accommodations for veterans and the Baby Boom. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the university abandoned its building program and students in larger numbers returned to housing in the community where they found greater privacy and independence. Community property-owners and a re-emergent landlord class realized these economic gains, but, in contrast to pre-war protests, a different political issue surfaced – backlash against the loss of integrity of family neighborhoods and the ascendance of the ideal of the single-family residence and neighborhood in Ann Arbor.

Throughout this economic and political turmoil, students as a body were largely left to navigate for themselves through the choppy waters of the pre-war, war-era, and post-war housing markets; to assert and defend their rights to decent, affordable housing and a modicum of independence as young adults and majority-aged citizens; and to participate in the process of planning for and regulating student housing in Ann Arbor. In this thesis, I argue that students individually and collectively were agents of change in this period of major alterations in the educational project of the university, in local and university housing policy, and in federal housing policy, making significant contributions to urban development even while they worked within a structural framework of national economic depression and world war, changing federal housing policy, suburbanization, the emergence of the research university, and urban crisis and revitalization. This consideration of student housing, then, is an effective means of examining the changing relationship between the city and the university in twentieth century American urban history.