CAP TIMES HOUSING-09-07192017195300

Matt Wachter, housing initiatives specialist for the city of Madison.

Racial disparities in the city of Madison and Dane County have been well-documented in many areas, including infant mortalitylife expectancy, education, employment and poverty.

So Matt Wachter, the city’s housing initiatives specialist, was not surprised when the new city housing report showed that people of color in Madison are much more likely to experience homelessness.

According the report, African-American individuals in families are 27 times more likely to be homeless than white individuals in families.

Torrie Kopp Mueller is the continuum of care coordinator for the county’s Homeless Services Consortium and she's familiar with the housing barriers faced by people of color. But the factor of 27 still made her “almost fall out of my chair,” she said.

Wachter said income disparities account for some of the wide homeless gap, but it can’t explain the whole thing. City staff pointed to incarceration and discrimination as other possible factors.


The report is a supplement to the city’s Biennial Housing Report and breaks down Madison’s housing data by race and ethnicity. It was written by Wachter and Matthew Frater, housing initiatives and development intern for the city.

The data on homelessness was pulled from the January 2017 Point-in-Time (PIT) count, an annual count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals. Wachter noted that the PIT only accounts for the homeless that surveyors find and doesn’t account for people doubling up with friends and family. Because the count takes place on one night, it can be affected by factors like weather.

The data looks at two categories of the homeless population: single individuals and individuals in a family.

Non-white individuals in families are 12 times as likely to go homeless as white individuals in families on a given night. Broken down by race, African-Americans individuals in families are 27 times as likely as to go homeless, Native Americans are 15 times as a likely and Latinos are 7 times as likely to experience homelessness.

Non-white single individuals are three times as likely to go homeless as white single individuals. Again, the disparity is worst for African-Americans, who are eight times as likely to be homeless as white singles. Native Americans are 4.5 times as likely to be homeless. Single Latinos are slightly less likely than white single individuals to be homeless on a given night.

The report shows that non-white households in Madison make significantly less income than white households. African-American median income is 45 percent of median white income, and the median Latino income is 60 percent of the median white income. The report calls this difference “drastic.”

“Households of color are more likely to be low income and those that are low-income tend to be extremely low-income,” the report says.

A low income can put residents at a disadvantage in the city’s tight rental market, and the city’s apartment vacancy rate has been at historic lows in recent years. Households with higher incomes looking for an apartment can “out-compete” those with lower-incomes, the report says.

But income alone “doesn’t explain how extreme that disparity is,” Wachter said.


Wachter said he talked with city staff to try to understand why the local disparity is so large. Homelessness can be driven by many factors, like domestic abuse, disabilities or a history of incarceration, Wachter said.

“Certainly racism is an obvious one that’s going to be hard for us to ever measure,” Wachter said.

Asked about possible contributing factors, Kopp Mueller and Sarah Lim, community development specialist for the city, both pointed to incarceration disparities for people of color. The Race to Equity report showed that in 2012, African-American men, who make up less than 5 percent of the total adult male population in Dane County, they made up more than 43 percent of new adult prison placements.

Landlords can afford to be picky in a tight rental housing market like Madison, Lim said, and may reject formerly incarcerated individuals even if nonprofits can guarantee several months of rent upfront.

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Madison-Area Urban Ministry (MUM), a local interfaith organization, frequently helps ex-prisoners with housing, Linda Ketcham, the organization’s executive director, said earlier this year. She said the vast majority of inmates they work with are released back into the community without stable housing and end up sleeping on couches, in homeless shelters or on the streets.

Homelessness and incarceration can also become cyclical, Kopp Mueller said. When a person with a history of incarceration falls into homelessness, they may end up breaking other laws associated with homelessness (like urinating in public or trespassing), leading them back to jail.

“It keeps going around and around and around, so you can’t get ahead,” Kopp Mueller said.

“I definitely agree that felony on a record is one of the key things that affects housing in the city of Madison,” said Caliph Muab-el, who served 15 years in prison before co-founding Breaking Barriers Mentoring, a nonprofit that aims to empower youth.

Not only do former prisoners have a criminal history, but they often don’t have rental history or credit, he said, and it can be very difficult for them to find a job that will pay enough to afford housing.

Racism and discrimination also play a role in racial disparities in homelessness, Kopp Mueller said.

She used to work helping families find housing, and “knew there were certain landlords, if I sent them a white family, they would get in, no questions asked,” she said. But if she sent a family of color to that same landlord, they would be background-checked and asked questions that weren’t asked of the white family, she said.

Kopp Mueller said that to make real progress on homelessness, housing providers and homeless service organizations can’t be the only ones working to address the problem.

“We have to get it together, we have to take a hard, honest look at who we are, and we have to take a hard, honest look at our value system,” Muab-el said.