By Ellie Colbert
When Laura moved to Madison from Waukesha two years ago with her children, she came for the opportunities that a big city could provide. But first, Laura had to find housing.
“It was not the easiest,” Laura said. “For me, obviously with kids, it was finding a place that I could afford but that also has good schools and a good neighborhood.”
Laura spent three months looking for housing, and was on several waitlists before she “got lucky,” and a spot opened up with the same development company she lived within Waukesha.
Laura lives in an affordable unit at Madison Mark, a mixed-income housing apartment by the Stone House development. Affordable units at Madison Mark are income restricted, meaning residents must make below 60 percent of the County Median Income, or $41,300 for a family of three. This allows Laura to spend one-third of her income on rent and not be cost-burdened by it.
Providing direct funds to developments like Stone House is one of the main ways the City of Madison has recently attempted to increase affordable housing in Madison. In 2014, a branch of the city government called the Community Development Division committed to building 1,000 new affordable housing units by 2019. The CDD provides around $7 million annually for developers to build low-income housing or mixed-income housing and is on track to complete their goal by 2019, according to CDD Director Jim O’Keefe.
But, despite the city’s efforts, there is still not enough affordable housing in Madison. More than 3,000 people are served by Madison’s homeless shelter system annually, according to city data Nearly one-third of Madison renters are considered cost-burdened, meaning more than 30 percent of their income goes to housing payments, and the vacancy rate sits at just 3 percent, according to MG&E.
“There is such a huge, huge, huge need,” said Georgie Nazos, a case manager at The Road Home, a non-profit that addresses homelessness in Madison. “It’s daunting, and whatever progress that’s happened seems so slow when there is so much need.”
This need is growing as the population of Madison grows, creating an increasingly tight rental market. This can put low-income residents at a disadvantage, when households with higher incomes can out-compete those with lower incomes for the same housing units, according to the Dane County Housing Needs Assessment, a report produced out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2015.
“Madison is a growing city, but it’s not all Epic,” said Revel Sims, an Urban Planning professor at the University of Wisconsin. “A lot of the growth that we are expected to see is around the hospitality and service sector, so we’re talking about very low wage work, a lot of insecure work. Those are folks that are going to have extreme difficulty finding affordable housing here.”
The City of Madison Community Development Authority operates 766 units of low-income public housing across the city and administers 1,724 Section 8 vouchers. Section 8 vouchers are considered the “holy grail” of public housing according to Nazos, and allow residents to pay 30 percent of their income for rent while the federal government covers the rest. But according to Nazos, the Section 8 waitlist is closed in Madison, and the waiting list for public housing is between two to three years, leaving low-income residents with very little options.
Still, the city of Madison has a commitment to addressing the issue that is commendable, Sims said. The CDD provides one million dollars a year in city tax dollars into a network of service providers. These service providers do everything from prevention programming, rapid rehousing initiatives, shelter operations and outreach, according to Jim O’Keefe, the Director of the CDD. For a lot of families who have experienced homelessness, the supportive services are crucial for not returning back to homelessness, said Nazos.
“Madison is unique in that respect. Not a lot of other governments in the state of Wisconsin spend local tax dollars on affordable housing,” O’Keefe said.
Revel Sims, professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison also noted this trend — municipalities outside of Madison don’t often build affordable housing, so it usually falls on the City of Madison to produce. Madison has less than 48 percent of the county’s population, but houses 73 percent of the county’s extremely low-income renter households, according to The Housing Needs Assessment.
“If [other municipalities] are pushed to do affordable housing, they’ll do senior housing because its seen as less risky, thinking about low-income folks still being racialized in many ways,” Sims said. “There’s a tendency to think of senior housing as a way of meeting their affordable housing obligations without actually providing affordable housing that might be needed.”
Within Madison, these projects still face a number of barriers, an important one being the high cost of property value, O’Keefe said. Kasie Setterlund, the Director of Operations at Stone House Development Inc, has found it difficult to find property that is inexpensive, but also well situated — close to public transit, grocery stores, schools and parks. For families that may rely on public transportation, or share one car, being centrally located is imperative, Setterlund said.
“We have to find land that has strong linkages,” said Setterlund. “We could find land in the middle of a cornfield anywhere that’s inexpensive but we wouldn’t be doing our residents any justices.”
Setterlund also noted pushback from the community as another barrier to building affordable housing. This is also known as NIMBYism, or ‘Not In My Backyard,’ which is common in certain parts of Madison, according to O’Keefe. At most neighborhood meetings regarding new developments, O’Keefe hears concerns from neighbors who believe affordable housing projects will bring too many people to a neighborhood, causing a burden on local schools, worsening traffic or reducing property values. These are mostly myths associated with a long history of controversial public housing in the United States, according to Setterlund.
“Neighbors assume that affordable housing means that their neighborhoods will turn into crime-ridden areas, which is absolutely not true,” Setterlund said. “We’re usually pretty successful at explaining to them what the studies show, that we’re a good developer, good management. We invite them to go look at our other properties so that they can see what they are saying is not actually true.”
After these new developments are built, residents, particularly low-income, non-white families, still face significant barriers in securing units. The typical waitlist for a new development out of Stone House is 400 people, according to Setterlund. Of these 400 people, Setterlund said, the majority are in need of housing reserved for those who make 30 percent of the county median income (CMI), or $27,510 for a family of four.
But only about 15-20 percent of most developments offer this type of housing, according to Setterlund. The rest of the apartments are typically set between 60 percent CMI and market rate, making affordable housing essentially unaffordable for a large percentage of Madison residents.
“Our operating expenses are the same as brand new luxury apartment building right across the street but my rental income per month is far less than theirs,” Setterlund said. “I have to be very careful, and we need those 60 percent rents in order to pay our operating expenses. So while we see a need there, it’s not feasible.”
If a family were able to get off the waiting list, there is still no guarantee they will receive housing, due to discriminatory screening processes, according to Nazos. Screening processes that look at criminal background, credit history and eviction rates disproportionately burden low-income residents, and in Madison, these processes are more likely to affect black residents.
In Madison, black families are 27 times more likely to be homeless than white families, while Native Americans are 15 times more a likely and Latinx people are seven times more likely, according to the Bicentennial Madison Housing Report. The same report found that the median black household income is 45 percent that of the median white household. In 2012, black men made up less than 5 percent of the population in Dane County, but made up more than 43 percent of prison placements, according to the Race to Equity report.
Experiences with homelessness and poverty, which disproportionately affect people of color, can often result in evictions or worsen credit scores. This can then cause difficulty in securing housing in Madison’s tight rental market where landlords can afford to be picky, according to Nazos. Most landlords will also run a criminal background check, and having a criminal background can serve as a significant barrier to securing housing which disproportionately affects non-white populations, according to Sims.
“There are only very few places in the city with someone who has a background with an eviction or a criminal record can find housing,” said Sims. “So that is a significant barrier to folks that often layers on top of racial discrimination, discrimination against families, discrimination against low income people.”
These barriers and discrimination have deep historical roots in Madison, and may require action beyond funding service providers, Sims said. While Sims commends the city’s clear commitment to building affordable housing and funding services, he questions if it is enough.
“Without some sort of really radical policy and restructuring, that I think only comes from social movements, I don’t think that we’ll see any big transformation, anywhere in the US,” Sims said. “As Madison grows, we need a large sort of institutional framework for housing people, especially that are very vulnerable to homelessness.”
One company warms up Madison’s low-income families
During cold winters in Madison, heating bills can rise. For some households, this means choosing between paying rent, paying food or paying utilities, according to Jason Hafeman, Outreach Manager at Project Home. Project Home is a private non-profit in Madison that has been providing weatherization, a service that works to retain heat in buildings, for low-income residents in Madison for the past 48 years.
“The services are important for low-income residents because the majority of them are spending a lot higher percentage of their income on things like energy bills,” said Hafeman.
Weatherization can reduce energy and heat bills by 20-30 percent, which can equate to $300 annually, according to Hafeman. Project Home will run air tests on homes to measure the amount of air leakage, use cameras to detect where that air is leaking and then add insulation to retain heat in the client’s building.
The majority of people that Project Home serves are senior citizens, single parent families, veterans and people with health issues and disabilities. The weatherization program is completely free for residents with an income below 60 percent of the state median income, and a portion of the funding comes from a small surcharge of one percent in everyone’s energy bill, according to Hafeman.
The home repair modifications offered by Project Home are also at little to no cost to residents, due to funding by the county and city governments. This program can include everything from installing ramps, which increases safety and mobility for seniors to stay in their homes longer, to repairing a roof, which prevents water damage and unhealthy living conditions.
“By preventing those issues from happening in the first place, we’re improving the health and air quality for the occupants which then ultimately keeps them from getting sick, or from having higher medical costs,” said Hafeman. “Those are the additional domino effects of a lot of these programs.”