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Money lacking for affordable housing

By Sean Ryan

Affordable housing remains low on the public priority list, frustrating organizers who are trying to squeeze construction money out of all levels of government.

“That’s been an issue that has concerned and troubled and plagued the affordable housing community for a long time — that there are other ways of spending public money that are essential,” said Bill Perkins, executive director of The Wisconsin Partnership for Housing Development Inc., Madison.

The National Affordable Housing Trust Fund is broke, Wisconsin housing advocates have decided for now not to approach the state for money, and organizers who are seeking $2.5 million from Waukesha County were told by elected officials to wait until broad public support exists.

There is a sentiment in Waukesha County that paying for housing is a personal responsibility, and government should not get involved in paying for it, said Mary Peschel, program and outreach specialist for Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin Inc. She said she understands, but disagrees with, the approach.

“It’s something people struggle with,” she said, “and it goes back to who pays for what, and I just feel that if there is a need in our community, it’s all of our responsibility.”

The trust funds, at any level of government, give grants to housing projects so private companies can afford construction while still renting or selling for prices below the market rate.

Perkins is part of a statewide group of housing advocates that, during the last Wisconsin biennial budget deliberation, did not lobby the state to create an affordable housing trust fund. The group would start its request at $80 million, he said, but any request to make housing a new state priority would be a nonstarter when existing programs with more public support have budget shortfalls, he said.

“There is a perception that affordable housing is an issue that does not affect the majority of people in the state,” Perkins said, “while there’s an argument that education, local aids do.”

There is no money in the National Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which was created in 2007.

Lobbyists at the federal level failed to get $1 billion for affordable housing in the latest jobs bill and expect opposition in the U.S. Senate to get money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, said Linda Couch, vice president for policy of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. TARP money is available for a variety of uses, including transportation projects, worker training and grants to local governments to fill budget gaps.

Despite difficulty in making housing a federal priority, Couch said, the national trust fund has economic and social merits. Wisconsin, for example, would receive $15.5 million for affordable housing construction if the $1 billion is approved, she said, and those projects would fill the need for cheaper houses.

“There’s just no private reason to do that,” Couch said, “which has long been something the federal government and, increasingly, the state and local governments have been involved in.”

Waukesha County is not involved in subsidizing affordable housing through a trust fund, something the Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin is trying to change.

Peschel said her group is holding community meetings to rally people to the cause and plans to return to the County Board before August to request money.

“I don’t understand why it is not a priority,” Peschel said, “and that’s probably why I have a passion for it.”

One comment

  1. Correction: The National Affordable Housing Trust Fund has yet to be funded. “Broke” implies it ran out of money.

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