By DEAN MOSIMAN
Wisconsin State Journal
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Homeless, Lonisha Jordan and her sons, 10 and 12, sleep in their car, motels or other places, each day struggling with circumstances that continue to shut out many in Madison and Dane County.
In similar predicaments are Paul Buggs, who spends nights at a men’s shelter in a church basement, and Tina Helt and her teenage son, who sleep in the entrances of buildings on streets near Capitol Square.
For all the local work to provide shelter for those with little means — and there’s lot of it — many feel the harsh realities of Madison’s shortage of housing for low-income residents, low vacancy rates and state tenant-landlord laws that place barriers before people with spotty credit or rental histories, evictions or convictions.
By Oct. 1, the county’s priority list of the homeless seeking housing had on it 563 singles and 155 families, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. And Madison public schools had 1,099 homeless students enrolled in the 2018-19 school year.
“There’s a lot of people here who have jobs that can’t afford places,” said Buggs, 59, who said he has worked his whole adult life but can’t afford a place to live because he has knee, hip and back injuries that have slashed his income to $847 a month in Social Security disability benefits. “It’s kind of hard in Madison.”
“It’s a huge challenge,” concurs Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway. “We’ve produced a lot of housing units, a thousand in five years. It’s not enough.”
Such hardships especially hit black residents. Racial disparities remain marked in Dane County, where blacks make up 5.1% of the population but accounted for 53% of those seeking homeless services in 2018.
Ruben Anthony, executive director of the Urban League of Greater Madison, called the disparity troubling.
“Families are working hard every day and find that they still do not have enough,” County Executive Joe Parisi said. “We know these pressures are felt disproportionately among people of color. We must continue to increase access to opportunity for all of Dane County’s residents, and work to address some of the deep-rooted causes of the barriers people face.”
Just priced out
Tina Helt, 48, and her son Noah Schaeffer, 19, have been homeless for months. Helt relies on Social Security disability payments for income and can’t afford an apartment.
They’re trying to obtain subsidized housing through the city’s Community Development Authority, but the wait list is long and openings can take months or even years to come around. As they wait, they’re coping with indignities and dealing with the indifference and stares of passers-by.
“People look at you like you’re worthless,” Helt said.
Many things contribute to the local housing crunch. Madison grew faster than any city in the state last year. Fair Market Rent is $931 for a one-bedroom unit and $1,519 for a three-bedroom unit. The vacancy rate has been low for years and averaged 3.4% for the first six months of this year; advocates say that should be closer to 5% to loosen the market.
To be considered “affordable,” housing should cost no more than 30% of a person’s income, advocates say. Otherwise, housing costs cut into money needed for food, transportation and other things. According to that standard, someone working full time for the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour would make about $15,000 a year and could only afford a monthly rent of $375.
The local group Dane County Joining Forces for Families hears more about housing insecurity than any other matter, say social workers there.
To keep up, Madison must add up to 1,500 housing units a year, city officials said. It needs another 1,000 units of rapid re-housing units to support singles, and 170 units of permanent housing with support services, they said.
Under former Mayor Paul Soglin, Madison started an Affordable Housing Initiative that uses city and county money to help private developers secure federal Low Income Tax Credits distributed by the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority.
From 2013 through 2018, Madison spent $23.7 million, and the county millions more, to help developers secure $149.8 million worth of tax credits to cover about $256 million in total costs for 17 projects.
Stone House Development, which has done 12 projects with low-cost units in Dane County, opened 880 units for those making up to 60% of the CMI. But of that total, just 51, or 6%, are for those making less than 30%.
The main obstacle is the cost of construction, said Helen Bradbury, Stone House principal. Quality, low-income housing costs the same to build as non-subsidized housing, but developers often can’t make the financing for such projects work when rents are kept low, she said.
To make up the difference, projects with low-income requirements must cut construction costs or be subsidized by taxpayers, she said.
In her proposed capital budget for 2020, Rhodes-Conway would boost the city’s Affordable Housing Fund to $5 million a year, up from $500,000, and set aside $1 million a year for a new “land banking” program to acquire land that can be used for low-cost housing and neighborhood developments.
“It’s what the city can do,” she said. “It’s not nearly enough.”
But the city can help in other ways, especially by making changes to cut project costs, the mayor said. She’s instructed staff to review city plans and studies to find “an inventory of ideas” to provide more housing. She expects that process to wrap up this fall.
Parisi, for his part, has proposed using the county’s 2020 budget to put more money into The Beacon homeless day shelter, provide more money for “navigators” who help people locate housing, and $66,000 for more staffing at the men’s emergency shelter. He would also open a Division of Housing Access and Affordability in Dane County Human Services.
For 2019, Parisi proposed $3 million for the county’s Affordable Housing Development Fund, but the County Board increased the sum to $6 million. Parisi proposed $3 million for the fund for 2020 with County Board action still to come.
“This isn’t to say that’s all that’s needed,” Parisi said.
Both executives say partnerships and state action are essential. “We need the state to fund housing,” Rhodes-Conway said. “We need the state to fund service providers. I want my tenant-landlord laws back.”