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View from around the state: Madison shouldn’t confuse affordable housing with high-rise penthouses

The Madison City Council shouldn’t confuse the serious need for more affordable housing in the city with the desire of some to live in a high-rise penthouse.

Nor, after years of dealing with troubling obstacles and discarded plans, should it further complicate the massive Judge Doyle Square development downtown.

The city has an opportunity to approve 78 apartments for lower-income renters as part of Gebhardt Development’s proposed nine-story, mixed-use tower above a city-owned parking structure. The work is all planned as part of the
Judge Doyle Square project, which is taking place just south of Capitol Square. Gebhardt has offered to build twice as many lower-cost housing units as have competing developers. But some city officials want Gebhardt to scatter the subsidized apartments throughout the tower — even to have some on the top floors, with their sweeping views.

Really? When did the goal of encouraging more affordable housing in Madison turn into a demand for panoramic scenery from high above the central city? Most people would consider living on the top floors of a downtown tower to be a luxury, not an affordable option.

A rendering shows what the Judge Doyle Square project will eventually look like. (Rendering courtesy of …)

Gebhardt, a Madison company, wanted to keep the less expensive units together in its roughly $50 million building so a nonprofit organization could own them as a single condominium, which would have made financing easier.

In this scenario, the affordable units would still have had designs similar to those used for the more than 100 market-rate units at the development. And all the residents would have shared the building’s accommodations.

That would have still been a sweet deal for anyone who’s part of a family of three earning $54,240 or less a year, which is what you would have to make to qualify. The affordable units would be rented at no more than 30 percent of what occupants make for a living.

But that wasn’t good enough for some city officials, who worry that people in the affordable units might feel separated from their neighbors living higher in the tower.

Hey, welcome to the real world, where wealthier people often live in prime places because they can afford to do so. Most of the rest of us are happy having a comfortable spot that suits our needs. The idea that everybody — low-, middle- and upper-income people — must have equal access to the top of a new downtown tower is utopian folly.

Then consider the economics of such a city demand: If a small family earning less than $50,000 annually must live next to people making many times that, the city will end up having to subsidize more of these costs and there will be fewer affordable units.

That’s not only unfair to taxpayers; it also fails to ensure that the city is using to the utmost whatever resources it has to house people of modest means.

The developer, one of two working on the larger two-block Judge Doyle Square project, is trying to accommodate the city. Even so, the city’s Finance Committee this month will consider a plan that promises to add as much as $2.4 million worth of costs to the project, reduce the number of affordable units by nearly half and raise the eligibility requirements.

The wiser decision would be to find a way, at little or no cost, to increase the number of affordable-housing units that will be built – even if it means working people with modest incomes won’t be able gaze across the skyline from above.

— From the Wisconsin State Journal

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