Student Housing, City Politics, and the University of Michigan, 1920-1980

In my masters thesis research, part of the program for my urban planning degree, I took my first research steps in understanding the relationship between cities and universities by examining my own community, Ann Arbor. I researched student housing and the relationship between the University of Michigan and the City of Ann Arbor.

In the thesis, which you can download here (pdf), I found that the presumed responsibility of the university to provide housing for students was a recent creation. The federal government’s role in promoting higher education played a major role in these changes in the relationship between the university and the city.

In terms of methods, I did a great deal of archival research at the Bentley Historical Library and read other sources like student memoirs and even Arthur Miller’s first plays. In addition, I examined the regulatory and economic logic of development in the community through analysis of historical planning and zoning documents; and quantitative analysis of historical city assessment data. Finally, I hired an architecture student as a research assistant to illustrate the consequences of some of these changes on the built environment.

Some sample output:

TBC Assessment

In this chart we can see the rise in real value of assessed property in a section of central Ann Arbor particularly close to campus. In a number of cases, the late-1960s increase in property value came about because of private developers tearing down houses (that often had been chopped into apartments) and building larger, more modern buildings. Overall, this section, because of its proximity to campus, was highly desirable to students and simply became more valuable because of a shift on the demand curve.

Central A2 60-70

This chart, derived from U.S. Census data, illustrates the broader narrative of land development in Ann Arbor. Everywhere prices, units, and value was going up except in census tract 2 — the beginning of Ann Arbor’s own encounter with the urban crisis — segregation, industrial transformation, and central city disinvestment.

Thompson Block Cluster 1980

This AutoCAD reconstruction illustrates some of the physical consequences and instantiations of the housing market dynamics I illustrated in the previous two charts. By 1980 there were three, fairly large, modern multi-unit apartment buildings in the block cluster. In addition, a large apartment house had been demolished and replaced with a city plaza. While this area was not designated a historic district, its continued profitability as an area for student housing meant that buildings that were not redeveloped for larger projects remained inhabited and relatively adequately maintained, escaping the urban disinvestment of many other Midwestern cities.

Until the very recent era of huge endowments, the university (and public universities in general) only had the ability to provide large-scale on-campus housing with public subsidies, such as those of the Depression-era Public Works Administration grants and the postwar College Housing Loan Program. For most of the history of the university, Ann Arbor’s private market provided the vast majority of housing for students. However, the emergence of the modern historic preservation movement and the restrictive regulatory regime put the city in tension with the growth of the university. This housing situation helped politicize students in the emerging New Left (such as Michigan student Tom Hayden) and contributed to a 1969 rent strike and the rise of the Human Rights Party, a student-led organization that elected three students to the City Council, including Kathy Kozachenko, the first openly gay individual to be elected to public office in the country.


This is the combination of some old posts on my masters thesis I have combined into one page.

1. Student Housing, City Politics, and the University of Michigan, 1920-1980.

University students in Ann Arbor have suffered from a sustained shortage in the rental housing market for most of the twentieth century. City and university leaders have rarely been able to provide consensus on real estate issues, let alone remedies for problems or change in the central Ann Arbor rental market. No event illustrates the controversies that arise so clearly as the resignation of University of Michigan president C. C. Little in 1929 after his proposal to build a women’s dormitory caused an uproar within the city that made the pages of Time magazine. Little’s attempts to alter the existing logic of student housing and the underlying economic relationship of key public and private sectors within the city was politically untenable. As a result of this friction, students have had to pay high rents, endure poor conditions at times, and crowd themselves to afford Ann Arbor’s near-campus housing while battling landlords, neighbors, and city government on housing issues.

The reasons for this ongoing controversy are grounded in the fundamental characteristics of real estate. Shelter is a basic human need for physical and mental health, while housing is also a means of investment and consumption, lending status to individuals, neighborhoods, or communities. Economic value and wealth results from demand for this good. In Ann Arbor in the twentieth century, the combined growth of the university 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.

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

Students’ numbers, at the time of this writing 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, for much of the 20th century, that has not been the case. Early and mid-twentieth century educational philosophy and social mores meant that the university functioned in loco parentis, controlling students’ living environments. This university attitude and policy began in the late 19th century, focused on one sex, with the admission of large numbers of women to Michigan. As the university began to provide substantial housing for men on campus, they were also included in this economy of power. University control of undergraduates continued and intensified through the 1960s until students began to demand independence from university oversight in their private lives. As a result, institutions such as the University of Michigan largely relinquished the responsibility for housing most upperclassmen and loosened restraints upon students in their first two years. In large part because of these paternalistic limits upon students, as well as state and federal voting laws, they have not been able to exert the political power one might expect from a cohort that constitutes a significant minority – up to one-third – of the city population. Such empowerment came only in the 1970s and required the confluence of national and local political events, catalyzed by local housing concerns.

In this thesis, two issues become clear in Ann Arbor’s context of changes in the housing market and local politics. First, the real estate economy and the relationship of residents to real estate has been the paramount factor in local political currents regarding housing in central Ann Arbor. For Ann Arbor residents and city politicians, their actions and attitudes regarding rental housing and particularly student housing in the community are inextricably bound to their economic and social interests in real estate. I describe this in Chapter 3 as defense of the “local culture of property,” a desire for physical, social, and economic preservation of neighborhoods.

Second, throughout the economic and political turmoil of the twentieth century, 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. Students as a body were largely left to navigate for themselves through the waters of the pre-war, wartime, 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. Despite such challenges, these members of the university community made significant contributions to urban development in Ann Arbor. This they achieved even while they worked within a structural framework of national economic depression and world war, changing federal housing policy, urban decentralization, the emergence of the research university, and urban crisis and revitalization. While operating within market constraints, students envisioned and created housing alternatives and worked to change the parameters of the housing market largely constructed by forces outside their control.

2. The 1920s and 1930s were a period of transition in student housing in Ann Arbor, and signaled a changing relationship between the University of Michigan and the city of Ann Arbor. For the preceding six decades, university students almost exclusively established residence in the surrounding city, fulfilling the educational philosophy and economic pragmatism Henry Tappan articulated in 1852. Within this framework, private rooming houses dominated, though fraternities and sororities provided substantial housing alternatives – in terms of number and organization – within the city. By the end of the 1930s, the university was planning for a different residential model and had begun housing a greater share of students on campus.

However, this transition was not a continuous evolution. The two major changes in housing, student cooperatives and large scale dormitories, arose chiefly in response to the economic depression afflicting the nation. Major campus dormitories would be able to compete with private rooming houses only due to the federal grants of the Works Progress Administration, intended to help spur the construction industry and put unemployed citizens to work. Student cooperatives were born of the economic and political upheaval of the Depression, wherein alternative economic and political philosophies competed in mainstream thought, and, in this community, provided students an economical new housing option while attending the university.

The 1928 outcry over the planned women’s dormitory (what eventually became Mosher-Jordan) illustrates the ingrained thinking about the relationship between the city and the university and their sustained economic and social link through students. Landlords and landladies protested the university’s usurping the community role of housing students and threatened legal action. The city was economically dependent on the operations of the university and particularly on student consumption – the Ann Arbor Daily News, for one, acknowledged the interdependence of the two and advocated for greater university involvement in the city’s welfare. In the midst of the controversy, university president C. C. Little resigned from office because his plan – part of a broader vision to rethink the university – would begin to sever established educational and economic relationships. Such a reorganization found stiff opposition within the community, demonstrating that university business was closely linked to civic concerns and local politics. Only national economic and political strife would allow the university and the city to begin deviating from roles as bound economic and social partners.

During the coming periods of work relief, war mobilization and recovery, the growth of the federal government enabled the expansion of higher education. In several cases like the operations of the PWA, these measures began facilitating physical expansion with subsidies for bricks and mortar. The growth of the University of Michigan continued during this period and paralleled, even led, the trends in higher education towards increased enrollment, more prominent graduate schools, and a research-oriented faculty. These first steps in federal housing aid would dramatically change student housing in Ann Arbor and set the university and the city on an oppositional path.

3. The Great Depression dramatically altered the nation’s balance of consumption and production, a relationship that had grown increasingly skewed during the 1920s. In particular, the real estate and construction industries had been among the most active and profitable economic sectors and were the most severely affected by the Depression. In Ann Arbor, this meant a temporary loosening of the housing market that had grown tight in the aftermath of World War I and had become increasingly so since then. In just one year, student housing rents declined more than twenty percent.

The construction of several federally-subsidized dormitories commenced a significant shift in the university’s housing policy and operations. These dormitories were justified by the inability of the Ann Arbor housing market to keep up with the loss of rooming houses wrought by the university’s physical growth. They also gave the university more control over the activities of the students who lived on campus. The onset of the Second World War meant that the university partnered with the federal government to house soldiers and sailors in the course of their preparation for combat. The Lanham Act provided federal resources to the university for additional housing resources for soldiers. At the conclusion of the war, the influx of veterans and subsequent rapid growth in enrollment meant that Ann Arbor’s private housing market was again unable to respond to the need for student housing. University administrators in Ann Arbor and across the nation successfully sought aid from Congress, resulting in the College Housing Loan Program. This federal subsidy lent money at reduced rates to colleges and universities nationwide to help finance student housing. The aim was to keep housing costs low enough so that young men and women would not be precluded from getting a college education by the cost.

The ambitious scope of the PWA grants, wartime expenditures, and the College Housing Loan Program together expanded university housing to such an extent that more than a third of the university’s 25,000 students lived on campus in any given year during the 1960s. Housing capacity increased by 712 percent from 1938 to 1965.

In addition, the regular construction of dormitories over a 30-year period with these federal subsidies created the belief within the city and university community that housing expansion was an equal part of university expansion, on par with classroom space and research facilities. This expectation led to numerous political conflicts within the city when the supply of housing in the private market matched student demand and the university curtailed its building program as a greater proportion of students began living within the off-campus community again.

The changes of the wartime and postwar era—in access to higher education, in the structure of local real estate, and in the expectations of a student body that came to chafe under the yoke of university social control—served to alter the relationship between the university and the city, with students caught in between two institutions, the city of Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan, entering major periods of transition. As the university expanded in enrollment, research, and service functions, the city worked to cope with urban expansion, economic restructuring, and the changing balance of power within the economic community and the electorate.

4. After the major changes in the student housing market in Ann Arbor surrounding the war, the gradual but consistent expansion of enrollment at the University of Michigan (see Appendix C) and changing tastes in the housing preferences of university students led to another shift in the provision of student housing. While this change represented a move back to housing created and provided by the private market, it is not accurate to call it merely a reversal of the mid-century housing trends that resulted from federal subsidy. This is because first, the private units that housed students were decreasingly in structures that also housed owner-occupants; landlords only rarely lived on-site. Second, neighborhood groups and homeowners no longer clamored to accept students into their neighborhoods and homes. In fact, the late 1960s and 1970s saw an inversion of the prewar demand to local politicians and regents that students live off-campus, within the community. Neighborhood groups from the late 1960s on organized to oppose off-campus student housing and the changes it would bring to neighborhoods in central Ann Arbor.

This shift in attitude includes both local and national factors in its cause. The proximate cause of individuals’ and neighborhoods’ opposition to neighborhood transition was an alteration of the local culture of property. For example, the tradition (and the traditional narrative) of German families living and working as a community on the city’s west side was no longer sustainable. Federal immigration policy reduced the flow of European immigrants into the United States, making such ethnic enclaves impossible to maintain. In addition, the expanding conception of whiteness to include descendants of central and eastern European immigrants (within Ann Arbor proper as well as the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti metropolitan racial framework) diminished the importance of such Euro-American ethnic communities. Within this context, maintaining the neighborhood norms, the emerging middle-class community character, and the traditional architectural forms that represented and reinforced that community was the paramount goal of grassroots political activism. However, the resulting rejection of new development, low-income housing, and differing tenure choices did not come solely as a result of working out local identities. Such neighborhood opposition—to these effects of metropolitan expansion and to more assertive government strategies to provide the poor with basic necessities such as shelter—was a national phenomenon.

In the postwar period, residents of Ann Arbor’s city suburbs like the Old West Side and Burns Park were economically motivated to political action as homeowners seeking to protect the most significant investment of their lives. No longer were west side residents’ identities those of German immigrants and laborers. Rather than supporting metropolitan strategies of liberal reforms, homeowners sought to protect the neighborhoods they had invested in and the communities they were devoted to. In addition, grassroots neighborhood groups promoted the priority of home-ownership in single-family residential communities. Itself a product of federal subsidies and a long tradition of favorable federal housing policy, broad homeownership was a chief community value in residential neighborhoods outside Ann Arbor’s downtown. Neighborhood organizations emphasized this homeowner identity and pushed city politicians to protect their middle class values, as well.

This grassroots work to promote and protect property-owning rights was almost in direct conflict with another political movement fermenting within Ann Arbor, this one working toward a vision of tenants’ rights. Ann Arbor was one of the birthplaces of the New Left movement, including one of the first and most powerful chapters of Students for a Democratic Society. Local New Left activist groups, such as Voice, the local SDS chapter, the Ann Arbor Tenants’ Union, and later the Ann Arbor chapter of the Human Rights Party organized, campaigned, and even legislated to address issues of housing inequality and landlords’ exploitation of renters. This battle between representatives of two of the postwar era’s most significant political developments would have national implications. Its outcome subtly illustrated the importance of federal policy in local government and the utility of mastering and wielding the bureaucratic mechanisms of municipal governance.

Though the period of local reform promoted by emergent student leaders and the New Left was short-lived, the enduring crisis in housing and the combination of university and federal housing policy and alterations in state and federal law yielded significant economic and political victories in housing for students in Ann Arbor. Students worked in the postwar period to end the university policy of acting in loco parentis; to gain greater rights of participation in university governance of housing; to redress power inequalities in the local rental housing market; and to enact a program for political change at the municipal level. In addition, the decline of in loco parentis university control at the hands of student activism reduced sexual segregation and university control over women’s housing. University dormitories became co-educational and private housing in the community was markedly less segregated by sex. (See map at conclusion of chapter 4).

However, the continued expansion of the University of Michigan intensified political and economic problems surrounding student housing. Supply and demand inequalities in central Ann Arbor frequently led to redevelopment and put pressure on owners in single-family neighborhoods to convert or sell their homes for conversion to multi-unit developments and renovations. Grassroots neighborhood groups responded by forming neighborhood political associations to look after their political interests in city hall. In addition, an emerging group of preservationists within the city leveraged new state and federal preservation programs and legislation to protect their neighborhoods from redevelopment and to maintain their conservative community ideals. City politicians responded to the new power dynamic and worked to exploit fear of neighborhood decline, promoting the values of neighborhood associations, rather than students’ and tenants’ issues.

Despite these new political strategies and constituencies within Ann Arbor, neither significantly altered the underlying structure of the central housing market, nor did they remedy the enduring problems of the city’s housing market, including short supply and a dramatic power imbalance between tenants and owners. However, during the later 1970s, slowing university growth, decentralization of the city’s population, stagflation in the latter half of the decade, and restructuring of the state’s economy provided some correction in real rents in central Ann Arbor.

5. The politics of student housing have resonated throughout Ann Arbor for most of the twentieth century. From the protests of 1928 by rooming house operators to the federal subsidies for public works and postwar housing to structural changes in the near-campus real estate market to the New Left rent strike and attempts at rent control, the political and economic relationship between the University of Michigan and the City of Ann Arbor has been profoundly affected by changes in the student housing market.

The student housing story has been one of shortage and tumult. In the post-WWI period, the city’s private market was not able to keep up with university expansion and housing supply lagged behind demand. Men and women were forced to live in crowded and substandard conditions until the university provided housing of better conditions. The University of Michigan, though it was continually expanding, did not have the means to provide this housing until economic crises–serious unemployment and postwar housing shortages–prompted the federal government to intervene. This massive federal intervention changed the expectations of the community about the private market’s responsibility to provide students with housing. These changed expectations meant that relatively few new units were created in central Ann Arbor in the postwar period.

Changes in the local culture of property had two results. First, single-family residential neighborhood organizations mobilized politically to protect their immediate communities from the arrival and spread of new tenure choices, new income levels, and new building types. Second, a new landlord class emerged to purchase and accumulate properties housing the student market. This neighborhood protectionism and the collusion of landlords in the context of increasingly growing enrollments brought the rental market to crisis stage during the 1960s. This local housing inequity prompted segments of the emergent New Left political coalition in Ann Arbor to address local issues rather than campus, national or international issues. Enabled by changes in state and federal constitutional interpretations and amendments, students and the New Left were vital agents in addressing the housing market as a means of effecting economic equality, enacting a rent strike and working for rent control. However, strategies of strident action, critical rhetoric and participatory democracy were not sufficient to rupture existing economic systems and political relationships within the city. Students and the New Left were politically marginalized at the local and national levels during the 1970s and the student coalition to address housing disintegrated. The economic distress of the late 1970s and decentralization of housing in Ann Arbor led to a moderate slackening in the rental housing market. However, these changes did not offer the structural reform necessary to prevent the recurrence of past political and economic problems surrounding student housing in Ann Arbor. This brief respite was not a solution a housing shortage, in fact it portended events to come.

Throughout the twentieth century, only radical and divergent efforts at change have provided meaningful alternatives to the standard rental housing options available in central Ann Arbor. First, the cooperatives initiated by the university’s Socialist Club provided a model that was an exception to the standard rooming house arrangement. Second, federal intervention in response to severe economic distress, as with the Public Works Administration, and due to widespread market failure, as with the Housing and Home Finance Agency/Department of Housing and Urban Development, provided institutional, non-profit housing on a significant scale and changed the rental housing market of central Ann Arbor. Third, collective action and organizing by segments of the New Left movement resulted in concessions and alterations of the existing landlord-tenant relationship in the city, restoring balance to the uneven power dynamic.

Strident resistance has faced such changes to the established economic order of Ann Arbor. The first major attempt to provide housing on-campus cost the University of Michigan president his career as local landlords and landladies worked to protect their economic interests in the community. After World War II, pro-business conservatives testifying to and in Congress attacked the prospect of federal intervention into the student housing market even in the face of a national educational crisis. During the 1970s, local rental property owners banded together, opposing the work of the Ann Arbor Tenants’ Union and the rent control efforts of the Human Rights Party. The logic of the market is conservative.

In the midst of this fracas have been two institutions that have often been thought of as distant and unrelated in urban history. The University of Michigan and the City of Ann Arbor are tightly bound corporations created by the state with, at times, wildly divergent goals. Despite the mutual benefit that each finds in promoting research, industry, and cultural activities, the issues surrounding student housing frequently put one in opposition to the other – and, in some instances, in opposition to the interests of students. University students, the chief intermediaries between the city and the university, have worked throughout the twentieth century to create meaningful experiences during their educations at the University of Michigan, of which housing is a significant part. They have worked within the housing market as consumers, producers, and outside the established market as advocates critiquing and acting to effect change in housing conditions, finding much opposition in the process.

Students have suffered most from this sustained market shortage, but because of their positions as intermediaries they continue to represent the best chance for political and economic change within the city and reconciliation or opposition between the city and the university. Thus, the examination of student housing has illustrated the changing relationship between the University of Michigan and the city of Ann Arbor. The two institutions are economically dependent but in some instances are culturally and politically incompatible. In several cases throughout the twentieth century, changes in policy, philosophy and economics regarding the student housing market have caused serious tension and even political revolt between the two institutions and their many stakeholders. Even in the period of the multiversity, students are the lynchpin that holds universities and cities together, an intricate element with the many pitfalls and the great potential that is characteristic of the urban realm.