He’s an MSU law student. He’s a skier. He worked with the Legislature in Lansing for six years and managed a political campaign fresh out of college. But he’s also the youngest member of East Lansing City Council, and up for re-election in November.
TBG sat down with Nathan Triplett to discuss East Lansing’s housing situation, his student-friendly moves and what’s next for this political player.
Q: I remember you catering during the election to students, and coming at it with a student angle. I’m just wondering since you’ve been in City Council, what are some things that you think you’ve accomplished for students?
A: You know, I think the most important part is trying to bring more students into the process through commissions or appointments to boards and commissions, as well as trying to lend an opportunity for student views to be heard about a number of issues.
A couple of really good examples, rental housing has always been a tremendous issue in our community, especially with the advent of these rental restriction overlay districts and trying to provide a venue for students to voice their opinion about the impact that those overlays have had. I spearheaded an effort to create a committee that would evaluate the impact and make recommendations to the council about changes to the process of how overlays happen and also what the actual impact of those overlays would be, and students were a critical part of that.
Also, trying to get the human relations commission, which I actually served on before being elected to council, to focus a little bit more on making students aware that one thing that’s unique in East Lansing is our human relations ordinance actually prohibits discrimination based on student status, which makes us unique among communities, and try and make people aware of that.
Q: My next question was actually about those overlay districts. I think that there’s a feeling among students that the City of East Lansing is trying to push them out of East Lansing. Can you speak a little bit to that and how the rental laws have changed when you’ve been in office?
A: I think the most important ordinance that East Lansing has ever passed in regards to rental housing is ordinance 900, and that really changed the economics of renting in East Lansing. It limited the number of people who could be licensed to rent most houses to two unrelated or family. So it’s my opinion that that’s really been the ordinance that had the biggest impact on helping to stem the dramatic growth of rental housing in East Lansing and provide some balance to neighborhoods.
The challenge is that at about the same time ordinance 1035c, which was the overlay ordinance that was passed, and my conversations with a lot of the folks that have petitioned for an overlay in their neighborhood has led me to believe that overlays provide them with a sense of security, when they felt like their neighborhood was becoming unbalanced with rental properties moving in, but I don’t think there’s any evidence that suggests that they’ve really had a positive impact on property values or on neighborhood stability or on things like that, but I think basically they have a positive psychological impact for some folks. I don’t think that they’ve had the same impact that ordinance 900 has on really changing the economics of the rental market.
What’s been disturbing in recent years is we’ve gone from in the beginning where overlays were petitioned for in neighborhoods where there really was a huge influx of rental property and it was turning neighborhoods into primarily rental or majority rental rather than a good mix, we’ve gone from that to the completely opposite side of the spectrum, to what I call pre-emptive overlays where you have one person apply for a rental license and then the neighborhood quickly organizes to block the issuance of that license and then oppose any rental in that neighborhood with an overlay.
I wasn’t on the council when the ordinance was passed, but I don’t think that that’s what was envisioned. It was supposed to protect balance and neighborhood stability. It wasn’t supposed to be used as a tool for exclusion. So that’s a really disturbing development for me, which is why we’ve started to evaluate options in terms of changing the process and making residents aware of what it is they’re really doing when they’re imposing an overlay.
And the other side of that, which isn’t necessarily just student focused, is with the housing downturn we’ve had an increasing number of people come to the council and say “we just can’t afford to be in the home that we’ve been in before, we can’t afford to make the payments so we have to downsize, we have to move, we have to go back to renting, and we can’t sell our house.” But of course since many of those folks live in overlays they also can’t rent their house, which puts them in a tremendous situation of hardship. And it’s been unfortunate but so far we haven’t been able to unite the community around a solution for that that would allow an exemption to the licensing requirement for someone in the event that they’re having an inability or difficulty to sell, which is something that I continue to work on and I think we absolutely have to address.
But the last thing that I would say is that the umbrella of all of that is I think that there is a legitimate issue in East Lansing about the balance between rental housing and single-family homes. But the tools that were imposed 10 or 15 years ago, I think we have to look at whether or not they’re still serving a legitimate purpose and make sure that we’re providing housing opportunities for all different types of people in East Lansing, from undergrads to young families to working professionals to senior citizens who want to age in place. And they’ve got a lot of work left to do there, because I don’t think that’s what we’re doing at the moment.
Q: As far as housing goes too, I think that some of maybe the intended or unintended consequences of people not being able to rent here or not being able to rent cheaply here has been a lot of people moving out to Chandler Crossings. And from what I can see that’s taken business away from East Lansing, we just had Lou & Harry’s move out toward Chandler, new buildings are going up there that might have gone up here, and also there’s the recent violence there. I don’t know your perspective on that. But looking back on Chandler Crossings, was it a good idea?
A: I think what a lot of people are unaware of and they have to remember is that most of the apartment complexes that are in the northern tier weren’t actually built by the City of East Lansing. They were built by Bath Township and have subsequently come into the city through what’s called a 425 agreement with Bath Township. So the initial decision to build those complexes is not a decision that the City of East Lansing made. But it’s a reality that we have to live with now.
But I think you’re right, there’s clearly been a re-location of many student renters from neighborhoods in the downtown with proximity to campus into the northern tier. You see a higher vacancy rate of apartments or houses for rent in downtown neighborhoods because of that.
I think as you point out there’s a price premium that students pay for living close to campus, and that can be a disincentive. But I think part of it too is that a lot of that housing in the interior no longer meets the market demand for students. And people want a room of their own, they want a bathroom of their own, they want a parking space of their own and lots of those older houses just can’t accommodate that. So I think that there are structural challenges in the market that have led to that as well.
But I think you’re right, it has to be an important priority for the city to continue to provide affordable housing for MSU students in close proximity to campus. And I think that we’re making strides in that area and we have to continue to do so. But what’s been built in the northern tier obviously isn’t going anywhere, so you have to balance those two things looking forward.
Q: And on the trend of building things, what’s your feeling about City Center II? Because for as long as I’ve been here, it’s been an eyesore.
A: You know clearly we need to re-develop that corner. And you’re absolutely right, you look at those buildings now and you used the right word. It’s an eyesore at the moment. Redevelopment there is really crucial. I think the important piece of that though is that is a key entrance to our downtown. So what gets developed is important. It’s important that we get that corner right, not just get it done. And I think that what’s been proposed for City Center II is a really transformational redevelopment where you’re integrating mixed usage into downtown that will add vitality and opportunity for additional retail and restaurant space incorporated with housing and a theatre. And really providing a new anchor on the western side of our downtown. All of that I think is good. The timing was obviously very unfortunate. With the economic downturn happening, financing the project on the private sector side has proved to be difficult. And we continue to move on that.
But I think what City Center II really illustrates is a fundamental choice that East Lansing has to make. If we’re going to continue to grow, we can either grow out through more sprawl, or you can grow up through higher density. And in recent years you’ve seen us begin that trend with City Center I and the Abbott Place Condominiums and things like that. But if we’re going to recover more retail uses in the downtown and encourage people to live in the downtown that’s going to require allowing higher densities along the lines of City Center II and some of the other projects we’ve moved recently, and for my money I think that’s the right direction for our community rather than attempting to build out yet further with the infrastructure costs and everything associated with that.
Q: And with City Center II, is there any thought that that’s still going to happen? I know the builder was exposed as not having enough money to build a project in Ann Arbor, and are they even paying taxes on it right now?
A: They are paying taxes on the project, in fact the City’s charter, as I’m sure you know, prohibits the council from entering into a contract with someone who is not paying their taxes so that’s always been a constant concern. And there have been certainly some financial difficulties in the developer acquiring the necessary financing for the project and he continues to work on that. In fact there’s been some additional financing in recent weeks about finding more financing, but the fact of the matter is in a market as depressed as this, finding a hundred million dollars or thereabouts in financing would have been difficult for any developer. It’s not unexpected and we continue to work on it.
But the other thing is one way or another the city’s going to promote and ensure that there’s a development befitting our downtown at that corner. I hope that it’s City Center II, we’ve put a lot of work into getting that right, but in the event that it doesn’t pan out for whatever reason we’ll find another appropriate use for that street corner, it’s not just going to sit there in its current condition forever.
Q: So doom and gloom aside, what are you excited for that’s happening in East Lansing?
A: You know actually East Lansing’s weathered this storm better than a lot of communities so we continue to do exciting things. In my time on the council I’ve been particularly proud of some of the environmental initiatives we’ve pursued. We’re really a leader in that area with incentiveizing green building, promoting recycling, investing in non-motorized transportation. Things like that are all very exciting.
We’ve also done a lot in the area of entrepreneurship and job growth. Not the more traditional sort of economic hunting model where we all fight over who’s going to find the next factory or the next big job provider, but in an economic gardening model. We’ve got the technology innovation center in downtown East Lansing which is fully leased out with new businesses, with our providing opportunities for those entrepreneurs. We just recently opened the hatch there, which is a student job accelerator to try to tap into some of that creative energy that’s on campus, and that same space is shared by MSU Technologies and MSU Business Connect as well, so you have this real node downtown of creative energy and entrepreneurship which I think is a real positive for our community and a model for other communities around the state who are looking for how to be able to revitalize themselves. So I think that’s a real positive as well.
And we continue to be able to provide a level of service that you don’t find in a lot of communities, which we’re very proud of and have worked very hard to be able to maintain despite the downed economy. So things are certainly not easy, we have big challenges with what’s happening on the budgetary front, especially with the state, but we’ve been able to weather the storm and continue to provide a high quality of service and make East Lansing a great place to live for students and permanent residents alike.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your involvement with Zipcars?
A: Zipcar has been expanding onto university campuses, obviously as a business decision it makes a lot of sense for them. MSU students aren’t all going to have access to vehicles, residents aren’t all going to have access to vehicles nor would they necessarily want that. And so the idea of having a way that you can get access to a vehicle to perform a particular errand or job just makes sense for a community like East Lansing. So we’ve been part of discussions with Zipcar, they’re deploying initial vehicles on campus and it’s our hope that once that model is proven on campus and it’s shown that that model can work it will actually expand that service into downtown East Lansing so that in a downtown parking lot or downtown garage there would be Zipcars available for use so that residents who are living in the downtown, are close to the downtown, who want to be able to run an errand without having a vehicle will be able to have access to that. I know it’s another example of the commitment we have to make downtown living more accessible, an attractive East Lansing, and have a more walkable more sustainable model of downtown redevelopment. And transportation is a key part of that and Zipcars are just one example of what we’ve done there.
Q: And what are your personal plans for the future? What’s the next Nathan Tripplett bumper sticker going to say?
A: Well at the moment I’m pretty happy with what I’m doing at the City Council level, we’ve got a lot of great things going on in this city and there’s a lot of things that I’ve started here that I’d like to be able to finish. We really touched on one of the ones that I feel most passionately about earlier, and that’s the expansion of affordable housing and housing diversity in this community. We’ve taken some steps, but we’ve got a long way to go, and I will continue to promote that.
As far as some of the environmental initiatives that again we’ve got a good start but there’s lots that can still be done so for the moment I’m happy working on the local level and I’ll be running for re-election this November to hopefully finish some of those things that I’ve started.
Q: Do you plan to court the student vote again?
A: Absolutely. You know I think it’s more than a voting block in this community and I spent a lot of time on campus during the election, I spent a lot of time working with campus organizations since then because MSU students aren’t just visitors in the community, but they’re an integral part of what makes East Lansing East Lansing. If it weren’t for Michigan State University, this community wouldn’t be what it was. It wouldn’t have the vibrancy, or the feel that it does. So people talk about student residents and permanent residents, but for my money we’re all residents of East Lansing and I value the vote of an MSU student just as much as I value the vote of a current resident, and I think that we should look at issues that affect both communities that address them both and really treat us as what we are, which is one community that happens to have students and permanent residents living alongside each other.
Q: Those were all my questions, did you have anything you wanted to add?
A: The only thing I would mention is that folks like me can do a lot of outreach to Michigan State students to try to get them to engage in the process, boards and commissions and things like that, but you know it’s also important for students to step up and make their voices heard as well. And one of the things that’s been most surprising to me when I was elected is how few students have reached out when they’ve had a concern or an idea and contacted me. When I go on campus and ask people they’re more than willing to tell me exactly what they think and offer their ideas. But I’m sure every day something happens in this community that sparks an idea or a concern or a thought for students on campus and I wish that more of them would pick up the phone and call me, or send me an e-mail, or contact the city by getting involved. Because they really are absolutely integral to this community, but that would be, it would be easier for them to be fully integrated if they would step up and get more involved, and they’re always welcome and I hope that more students will choose to take advantage of that.