Getting to know Ann Arbor City Council candidate Elizabeth Nelson

Courtesy: Elizabeth Nelson

ANN ARBOR – Elizabeth Nelson (D) is defending her seat as Ward 4 Ann Arbor City Councilmember.

Originally from the Chicago area, she first moved to Ann Arbor in 1999 and returned in 2004 after a brief time in England. She is an Ann Arbor preschool teacher and helped to found the Children of Hoarders organization.

Nelson has served on the council since November 2018 representing her ward, where she has lived since 2004.

The following interview was conducted via email.

What do you feel are the biggest issues in Ann Arbor that City Council can tackle in the next few years?

In the next few years, we will be looking at our Comprehensive Land Use plan and looking to align it with community goals for walkable, sustainable neighborhoods. That project implicates multiple long-term issues facing our community. In planning and zoning for growth, we will have to engage residents in a serious way to understand community needs, infrastructure challenges, environmental impact, and affordability goals. We will have to ask hard questions about who benefits from the changes that we make, whether we are reinforcing private values and elevating public values.

More broadly, in virtually all policy areas: moving forward we must be committed to transparent, substantive debate and public engagement that includes all stakeholders. This task will be that much harder in a political environment where divisive, emotional rhetoric increasingly displaces thorough, fact-based discussion.

In the next few years, we have serious issues to tackle in terms of how elected leaders take on the responsibility of representation and govern with integrity. We are at a crossroads (a tipping point, I hope), as our local body increasingly models some of the more alarming political gamesmanship and distractions seen at higher levels of government.

In your opinion, what are the main issues in your ward? How do you propose to solve them?

Infrastructure that meets the needs of all users, stormwater management, and strategically planned growth are the biggest issues facing Ward 4, specifically, though these issues are relevant across the City. Fundamentally, I believe that residents must be heard when they demand public investment in our neighborhoods and identify problems in need of solutions like affordability and sustainable growth.

Elected representatives must advocate for neighborhoods and residents and I will continue to do that. Early in my term, I was successful in accelerating improvements to a multimodal path that served a senior community and provided safe access to a bus stop in Ward 4. More recently, though, I’ve faced surprising opposition when trying to advocate for public investment in Ward 4 community needs, e.g. improvements to a path identified as an important connector in our transportation plan (located between an elementary school and a city bus stop).

I will continue the work I am already doing: responding to needs in the community, elevating the voice of residents, and problem-solving.

In planning for growth and using all the tools we can to promote affordability, elected leaders must prioritize public/community good over special interests. E.g. In 2019, I led efforts to regulate the full-time short-term rental businesses that deplete housing supply and drive up housing costs in neighborhoods both east and west of the Stadium; a previous Council eventually passed an ordinance banning these businesses in residential areas.

Neighborhood concerns (across the city, but particularly in Ward 4) were ignored when a new majority of Council subsequently approved amendments to that ordinance that were designed to protect (and grant a functional monopoly to) a small number of investors. I continue to work on behalf of neighborhoods and the larger community, not special interests.

The best solution to these issues is more serious, substantive discussion and RESIDENTS speaking out to put pressure on elected leaders. I regularly meet residents who despair that our local government is unresponsive to community needs and our policies do not reflect public wants or needs. I continue to be a cheerleader for civic engagement--I sincerely believe that your elected government does a better job when the public is more closely attentive to the work we do and more informed. It is the only way that an elected government can be held accountable.

I am doing everything that I can to help residents engage with our local government, inform them about the decisions before us and expand opportunity for resident priorities to be heard. E.g. I believe there is widespread support for public investment in infrastructure as well as for intentional planning/regulation of the market forces that drive up the cost of housing.

Ann Arbor struggles with the same problems that exist at other, higher levels of government: an electorate needs to pay closer attention to where and how our policies do not meet stated goals, question why that happens and notice who benefits. Financial interests have the resources to effectively dominate all of our policy debates if no one pushes back. I am someone who is pushing back.

What could Ann Arbor do better?

We could do a much better job of assessing problems that need to be solved and engaging a range of perspectives when we consider options. We are quickly moving toward a model of government where only a very small group of residents are heard, elected officials eagerly delegate policymaking to those who are unelected (and considerably less accountable to residents), and the broader community ultimately has much less influence over local policy. In my first two years on Council, I looked for strategies to make our processes more transparent and inclusive. We are moving in the opposite direction now.

We have lost a lot of the diversity that defined our city in the past and we have ceased to be a place where lower-income people can find a place to live. The loudest and most powerful voices in our community currently posture a commitment to diversity and affordability, while promoting solutions that exacerbate gentrification, add housing only at the highest end of the market, and will primarily benefit landlords. We have a big problem when local elected leaders are closely allied with the very same profit interests that make our town less diverse and less affordable.

Recently, a property management company sent out a mailer to local landlords, boasting about experience managing “over 900 beds on campus” and offering a service to “raise rents” and “reduce expenses.” That company offers consistent financial support for many elected leaders and candidates for office, all of whom profess their commitment to affordability.

Ann Arbor could do a much better job of engaging our community in decision-making and pushing back against the financial interests that have an out-sized influence over local government and local policy-making.

Why did you decide to run again for City Council?

I am regularly told that my service on Council is significant, that I am meeting community needs in a way that is unique, necessary and important. Resident appreciation for my work is what prompted me to run again. I believe in how democracy can work at this level when elected leaders are serious about serving the public.

I am excited about opportunities to elevate concerns that are ignored by others (e.g. tenants rights) and advocating for people who don’t already have the power and influence to be heard.

What do you love about Ann Arbor?

I love a lot of the same things that others do--I love that I can bike to a fun downtown, beautiful parks, and fabulous public libraries. I love all the culture and activities that come with being a university town. My children have appreciated our excellent public school system.

As an elected leader, I love that so many of our residents are passionate about the same issues that I care about and that many of our residents bring significant expertise and perspective to these topics.

Find more about her platforms at her campaign website.

About the Author:

Sarah has worked for WDIV since June 2018. She covers community events, good eats and small businesses in Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in Applied Linguistics from Grand Valley State University.