Imagine you’re a low-income person applying for Section 8 housing vouchers in Dane County—which will allow you to pay 30% of your income for housing, and the government pays for the rest. How do you get a voucher?
1. First, you wait four or five years until the waitlist opens up. When the day comes, make sure you’re free to get online as soon as they open the system. You have about four hours to keep trying before they shut the system down, because they’ve been flooded with more applications than they can fulfill.
2. Once you have applied, you wait . . . often a few more years, depending on how many people are on the waitlist ahead of you. When you get to the top of the list, you have only 60 days—or 120 if you can get an extension—to find a landlord willing to give you a lease. And that’s not easy.
3. If you can’t find a willing landlord in that period, your voucher gets revoked and you have to start the entire application process all over again.
“Affordable housing is woefully underfunded,” explained Heidi Wegleitner with Legal Action of Wisconsin. “Unlike the food stamp or Medicaid programs, which give benefits to all eligible applicants, funding for federally subsidized housing doesn’t come anywhere close to meeting the need.”
“Madison is fortunate to have Community Shares of Wisconsin [CSW] groups at the forefront, providing high-quality affordable housing for hundreds of families,” said Crystel Anders, CSW Executive Director. “In our 45th anniversary year we’re examining the challenges people face because of a lack of affordable housing—and we’re also highlighting the incredible work of our member groups.”
In addition to providing critical services, CSW’s housing groups are often on the front lines, advocating to improve laws and public policies for low-income people. Anders added that our groups’ advocacy work yields values to the community far beyond housing. A National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy article explained that “Investments in advocacy can have enormous payoffs. A recent series of reports from NCRP shows that [for] every dollar invested by foundations in advocacy, community organizing, and civic engagement . . . the lowest return on investment [was] $89 to $1 and the highest return [was] $157 to $1.”
Affordable Housing—One Victim of Madison’s Economic Success
Madison boasts UW-Madison, the state’s seat of government, a thriving community, and a beautiful setting. “It’s not surprising that tech, biomedical, and other types of businesses are created here, and that people want to move here,” said Dean Loumos with Housing Initiatives, which provides long-term housing to people with mental illness. “The industry average for apartment vacancies is about 5%, but for years here we have very low vacancy rates of about 2%.”
Anders Zanichkowsky with Tenant Resource Center noted that with Dane County’s “high median income, many people are priced out of the housing market. That includes many elderly people too, because their Social Security income can’t possibly cover both living expenses and rent here.”
“The working poor are also affected,” said Wegleitner. “In Dane County, if you make the minimum wage, you need to work about 70 hours a week just to afford an efficiency apartment.”
From Problem to Crisis
“Housing affordability is the key to stability in life and quality of life,” Loumos said. “And with so few affordable housing units here, this issue has evolved from a problem into a crisis.”
Wegleitner pointed out that the city, county, and Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority helped fund Tree Lane, which is opening soon with 45 units dedicated to affordable housing. “A project like this is great, but the need is far, far greater.
“Dane County needs to build about 1,000 new affordable units each year for the next 26 years to meet our needs,” said Wegleitner, someone who’s very familiar with the data since she is also a County Board Supervisor.
Diane Eddings with Common Wealth noted that since the rents are so high, tenants who need affordable housing are forced to rent substandard apartments. “Most folks in the Marquette Neighborhood on the east side—where we’ve developed and maintain affordable housing—can’t afford market rates for a simple one-bedroom unit. The prices are outrageous.”
Zanichkowsky agreed, saying that “the only option for many low-income people is poor-quality housing, which they pay too much for. That, in turn, leaves them with little to no safe
ty net for other expenses that come up.
“Unfortunately our current housing priorities in Madison are luxury apartments, not affordable housing,” Zanichkowsky continued. “And the developers who own those upscale units can afford to let them sit empty.”
Housing to Promote Integration and Quality of Life
When affordable housing has been built, “it was often put in areas marked by racial segregation and poverty—which simply perpetuates racial, ethnic, and economic segregation,” said Erika Sanders with the Fair Housing Center of Greater Madison. “Affordable housing needs to be placed in high opportunity areas that offer jobs, good schools, and green space. At the same time, we need to continually invest in resources in neighborhoods that already have high concentrations of poverty and affordable housing opportunities, so that they can transform into high-opportunity areas, too.”
Moving into a better neighborhood—defined as having less segregation by income and race, and greater income equality—not only affects quality of life for adults. It especially impacts children’s upward mobility when they reach adulthood, according to a recent study. In a related article, economists familiar with these new data argue “for a new approach to housing policy. Current policy often forces the parents of young children onto waiting lists for housing vouchers. It also gives tax incentives to developers who build in poor neighborhoods, rather than rewarding those who build affordable housing in areas that seem to offer better environments.”
The study further shows that the younger the children were when they moved into better neighborhoods, the better they did as adults.
Our Member Groups’ Essential Work in Affordable Housing
Housing Initiatives “Given too little funding at all levels of government, it has really fallen to nonprofit housing providers to try and fill much of the need,” explained Loumos, whose nonprofit permanently houses about 230 people with mental illness, offering them both stability as well as support services.
Common Wealth “We offer affordable housing to over 250 people each year in buildings we own and manage,” said Eddings. The dedication of a nonprofit like Common Wealth means that “our staff is very hands on, and we’re flexible in how we work with people.”
Suzy Stapleton, Marketing Outreach Coordinator with the City of Madison Section 8 Office, agrees, giving kudos to Common Wealth for “going above and beyond. They work with low-income people to not only find housing but to keep them in safe, sanitary, well-maintained housing. Many of their tenants might be struggling at one time or another, but the staff are dedicated to helping the tenants rather than evicting them.”
Bayview Foundation The Bayview community was the first in the area to provide affordable housing with supportive services. Bayview houses 102 families of great racial and ethnic diversity (photo).
Tenant Resource Center (TRC) Renters have somewhere to turn for answers thanks to TRC. Among the 13,000 people that TRC serves annually, Zanichkowsky said that a large number are low-income people trying to “find an apartment, or trying to stay in an apartment that needs major repairs.
“It’s very difficult to know how to navigate landlord-tenant laws, especially since new state laws—basically written by realtors—have overridden Madison’s laws,” he noted. “Madison lost most of its local control over landlord-tenant laws. This not only leaves tenants with fewer rights, it leaves long-term renters really confused about what their rights and responsibilities are now.”
Legal Action of Wisconsin “We help low-income people exercise and enforce their rights related to housing, public benefits, consumer, family, and employment laws,” said Wegleitner. “Landlords usually have the resources to afford good lawyers. We don’t have resources to provide services to everyone who needs it, but we try to take cases that could have a broader impact for low income people.
“Legal Action has a long record of pursuing justice for our housing clients in the Courts of Appeals and the State Supreme Court. Sometimes that is what’s necessary to hold landlords and public housing agencies accountable,” she said. “Despite our limited resources, we’re there to ensure equal justice for people in poverty.”
Madison Area Community Land Trust (MACLT) This nonprofit stands alone in offering “long-term, permanent affordability for lower income people who want to buy a home. Our buyers purchase the home and we retain ownership of the land and facilitate resales to the next low-moderate income buyer,” said Andy Miller with MACLT. “We use a resale formula to ensure our homes remain affordable for future buyers. Each year we develop new properties and a few of our 69 homes are resold. Over the last five years our homes have sold for an average of $65,000 less than comparable market-rate homes.”
Affordable housing is just one piece of the complex puzzle. Look for the next feature in the series: Stable Housing—and its wide-ranging impacts.