45 Years of Housing Justice: Madison’s Role and the Work of CSW Groups

Madison’s Role and the Work of CSW Groups

Too little affordable housing  . . . housing discrimination against the poor and people of color—these are problems deeply rooted in this country, and Madison is no exception.  Those who support justice might wonder how and why these issues remain so entrenched, and what’s being done to eliminate them.

Housing 1“For 45 years Community Shares of Wisconsin [CSW] has proudly supported organizations working to address the root causes of housing inequity in our community,” said CSW Executive Director Crystel Anders. “To mark this anniversary, we’re launching ’45 Years of Housing Justice,’ a five-part series. In it we’ll reflect on how our member groups have improved housing issues for our city and state, and how they’re tackling today’s problems.

“Access to housing is a complex issue, and that’s why it’s critical to fully understand the history behind this essential work,” she added.

The “45 Years of Housing Justice” series begins with this piece on historical context.

The next four pieces focus on how our groups have made strides, and how they continue their work to:

  • Offer affordable housing 
  • Provide stable housing
  • Promote equity for people of color and those with disabilities
  • Combat, and offer alternatives to, evictions

The Impact

The CSW member groups that work on housing assist an enormous number of people annually—likely between 17,000 and 20,000.

Bayview Foundation: 300 (100 households)*
Common Wealth: 260*
Housing Initiatives: 230
Fair Housing Center: 2,000
Legal Action of Wisconsin: 1,100 (Madison office)
Madison Area Community Land Trusts: 100 households*
Project Home: 600 households
Tenant Resource Center: 13,000

All of these people receive help in various ways, whether it’s with counseling and advice, time-consuming legal representation, or essential home repairs. Others* receive permanent, stable, affordable housing and other types of support to keep them in their homes. And in addition to the numbers above, many other people are positively affected when we make strides on housing policy.

A Madison Legacy: Role Model for Fair Housing Laws

We can take pride in one piece of our housing history, thanks to area activists and policymakers in the 1960s. “Madison passed its Equal Opportunity Ordinance in 1963, five years before our country passed a similar federal law,” explained Erika Sanders with the Fair Housing Center of Greater Madison.

The federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of a person’s race, color, national origin, and religion. Later, protections were added for sex, disability (physical or mental), and family status (e.g., having children under age 18).

Sanders added that many lawmakers and civic leaders have said that “of all the civil rights laws, the federal Fair Housing Act was the most difficult to get passed. In part that’s because of this country’s strong housing lobby, led by real estate agents and home builders who lobbied hard against its passage.”

It was Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination (April 4, 1968) that finally prompted passage of the federal law (April 11, 1968).

Eventual Vice President Walter Mondale co-authored the federal Fair Housing Act; it and its predecessors had languished in legislative committee for years. As Mondale explained in a National Fair Housing Alliance video, “The public reaction to this horror [prompted] the sensible members of the committee [to pass the bill]. They just didn’t dare bottle it up any longer.”

There is good news to celebrate thanks to local advocates: the laws in Madison and Dane County include protections for 10 additional classes—such as gender identity—that go beyond federal and state law.

Housing Discrimination, Housing Segregation, Economic Injustice for People of Color

We have good reason to cheer our fair housing laws. But often violations of the law are not addressed—so our laws go unenforced. As Sanders said, “The number of housing discrimination complaints we receive is just the tip of the iceberg.”

She noted that the Fair Housing Council (a statewide organization that has one of its three offices in Madison) has taken over 7400 complaints of illegal housing discrimination since its inception in 1977. “Of those complaints, 650 have ended up in courtroom proceedings. And of those 650, our clients have prevailed in all but 8 cases.”

Despite the impressive success rate with those cases, she again emphasized that “Discrimination is vastly underreported. Sometimes that’s because people don’t know their rights, or believe that a complaint won’t yield a meaningful result, or think the process will be too time consuming and emotionally exhausting. A huge part of our mission is to make the complaint process user friendly, and to empower victims of discrimination to stand up for their rights.”

She added that the biggest reason for underreporting is due to the way that discrimination occurs. “It’s difficult for a person of color to know that a manager is being untruthful when he says an apartment building has no rentals left. That’s why investigations of discrimination are so valuable; we can see if apartments miraculously become available when a white person inquires. Today’s housing discrimination can be really hard to detect, as it’s done with a handshake and a smile. And if people can’t recognize it’s happening, they can’t complain.”

Housing segregation, too, is still rampant. African Americans are unlike any other ethnic group in American history in terms of their physical isolation—and housing discrimination is the reason. We have only to look at the segregation in Madison—and Milwaukee’s status as the nation’s most segregated city—to see discrimination at work.

Furthermore this segregation “wasn’t inevitable—it was created, and continues to be created, in the present by systemic forms of discrimination, exclusion and marginalization,” said Bill Tisdale, Director of the Fair Housing Center of Greater Madison (and Milwaukee), in a recent article. He also enumerated many of the ways that segregation is enforced today.

Another factor related to housing is the extraordinary economic damage inflicted on people of color. Housing laws, policy, and other forms of institutional discrimination are as much to blame as individuals’ prejudiced views that Sanders alluded to earlier. For instance before and during the civil rights movement, the federal government helped ensure segregation through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). From 1934 to 1968, the FHA insured loans for white—but not black—people attempting to buy a home (and also excluded whites wanting to buy near black neighborhoods). This clearly limited black families’ ability to buy homes.

And there were other more egregious limitations. An investigation by the AP discovered theft of about 24,000 acres of farmland plus 85 smaller properties from black land- and homeowners in the last 150 years. Some land was taken by pressuring owners, by presenting false documents for signing, or by threats, violence, and terrorism. Virtually all that land today is owned by whites or by corporations. Now the land is, for example, a country club in Virginia, or an oil field in Mississippi.

Owning land and a home is the most valuable asset most people have, said Sanders, and a recent New York Times article echoed those comments. “It’s an asset that grows in value,” said Sanders, “and it can be borrowed against to send your children to college. After you sell it, assets can be passed onto your children. Home ownership is the number one way that most American families accumulate wealth over time.”

The multiple ways our society limits homeownership for people of color contributes to devastating long-term economic impacts. In the article “Failing to Address the Status Quo Will Drive the Racial Wealth Divide for Centuries to Come,” the Institute for Policy Studies points out that:

  • If average black family wealth continues to grow at the same pace it has over the past three decades, it would take black families 228 years to amass the same amount of wealth white families have today.
  • It would take 84 years for the average Latino family to amass the same wealth white families have.

CSW Groups Providing Solutions

“Amid the savage racial and economic disparities in our community, quality stable housing is a critical piece of the solution,” said Andy Heidt, Director of Bayview Foundation, which offers long-term affordable housing as well as high-quality supportive services to low-income people of color. “As a society we need to ensure that people pay no more than 30% of their income for housing”—though today that type of affordable housing is very difficult to find in Madison’s tight rental market.

“I look at Housing Initiatives and I see its ridiculously high success rate at a fraction of the cost of alternatives,” said John Shivers, a board member of Housing Initiatives. Shivers, a former client of Housing Initiatives, was homeless for most of six years before landing an apartment with this nonprofit that finds long-term homes for people with persistent mental illness.

In the last 45 years Madison renters have also been kept safe by smoke detectors, deadbolt locks on the doors, and locks on the windows—Housing 2and you can thank, in part, Madison Tenant Union (MTU). MTU was an original CSW member group in 1971 that helped get laws passed offering tenants basic rights to a safe home. Today the Tenant Resource Center (TRC)—created as a 501c3 partner to the now-defunct MTU—continues much of that work.

TRC volunteer Marcia Hazen said, “I have no idea where people would go if they didn’t have Tenant Resource Center to call—and I mean people across the entire state of Wisconsin. I hear such gratitude every time I volunteer. Our help is invaluable to landlords and tenants alike who just want to abide by the law but who need help knowing their rights and responsibilities.”

That knowledge is “more important than ever now that tenant protections at the local level have been weakened by state laws,” said Heidi Wegleitner with Legal Action of Wisconsin. “We were on the front lines at the State Capitol making sure that lawmakers knew how these state laws would affect our low-income clients.” Legal Action helps low-income tenants—disproportionately people of color and people with disabilities—stay in their homes by defending evictions and preserving access to critical federal housing benefits.

“We offer long-term affordability,” said Andy Miller with Madison Area Community Land Trust (MACLT), which manages all of the 100 homes owned by lower income homeowners in sites like Troy Gardens, their largest development. “People shouldn’t have to rent their entire lives, and affordable homes are hard to come by,” Miller noted.

Miller also explained that the U.S. community land trust movement was linked to the Civil Rights Movement. The first group in this country to call itself a “community land trust” had a goal of helping African-American farmers in the south obtain farmland. In fact a land trust in Georgia was established in part by Slater King, a cousin of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Diane Eddings of Common Wealth noted that “We bring a neighborhood-based approach to our affordable housing on the east and southwest sides of Madison. We supplement that with incubators for emerging businesses, community programs, and job programs for teens. So we offer support in different, but overlapping, areas of peoples’ lives.”

Housing 3“The work of all of these nonprofits is essential,” said Jason Hafeman with Project Home, which provides basic home improvements to low-income people (see photo).  “All of these CSW nonprofits approach solutions from different angles. Life is complicated enough to begin with, but for those struggling with housing, there can be so many factors involved. We need different nonprofits, working in different systems, each doing its part to help improve housing for low-income people, and people of color.”

Conclusion
For 45 years CSW has been connecting people in our community to the work of our member groups.  “Community involvement in these issues is critical to creating long-term change,” said CSW’s Anders.  “And CSW housing groups are a vital local force in advocating for change.”

Look for the next feature in the series: Affordable Housing—and why is this a critical part of the solution.