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Cap Times local government reporter Abigail Becker (right) facilitates a panel discussion on gentrification with, from far left, Anne Neujahr Morrison of the city Housing Strategy Committee, city planning director Matt Wachter, The Road Home program director Belinda Richardson and Madison School Board member Ananda Mirilli.

Gentrification and displacement are issues that have affected several areas of Madison. According to Matt Wachter, Madison’s new director of planning, gentrification is occurring both as residents get priced out of neighborhoods or aren’t able to move into those neighborhoods because they are no longer affordable.

“I think when people talk about gentrification we’re talking about a handful of different things,” Wachter said during a Cap Times Talk Wednesday night. “On one hand neighborhoods are always changing and people are leaving, new people are coming in, parking lots become an apartment building and some of those things are just normal living in a city things. And then i think when you talk about gentrification, talking about some of that happening really really quickly and a neighborhood changing in its racial composition, incomes of people in the neighborhood, all of that is disruptive and is not maybe the normal sense of things and so we pay attention to that.”

The event, titled “Madison’s gentrifying neighborhoods: The good, the bad and the ugly,” filled the High Noon Saloon on Madison’s east side. Along with Wachter, the panel included Anne Neujahr Morrison, a real estate developer in downtown Madison and member of the city’s Housing Strategy Committee, Belinda Richardson, program coordinator at The Road Home, and Madison School Board member and south side resident Ananda Mirilli, who is also the board chair of Forward Community Investment. Cap Times local government reporter Abigail Becker moderated the discussion.

Wachter said that when city officials are trying to determine if gentrification is happening in an area, they look to see if prices for houses or apartments are rising rapidly and review census data to see if the demographics are changing. He identified downtown Madison as completely gentrified and said that the Atwood Avenue area, as well as many spots on the north and south sides of the city, are facing gentrification issues.

While Wachter identified the telltale signs of gentrification based on data compiled by the city, Morrison had a much simpler, easy-to-follow sign that it’s happening in your area. 

“When I worked in low income neighborhoods in New York City, they would say that the first sign of gentrification is when you see a white woman with a stroller,” she said to applause and laughter from the audience. “And there are a lot of white women with strollers around Madison, so that’s probably not a good sign. 

Becker asked the panelists if the issue of gentrification is happening differently here. Wachter said that Madison, being a moderately-sized city, is facing more growth than development can keep up with and that is causing strain on city resources.

“Because you’ve got this constant influx of new people and we have a hard time accommodating them,” Wachter said. “So we are adding lots and lots of people but we’re not adding units quite as quickly."

For Richardson, trying to keep up with skyrocketing housing prices and number of families displaced by them is a constant pressure as well. The Road Home helps homeless children and families find stable housing. 

“As the prices of housing continue to rise, the wages are not rising,” Richardson said. “So a lot of times we have families that are working but are just making minimum wage. We try to be creative as an agency to find ways that we can support families with increased cost of housing. And that means through finding funding sources that can help with subsidies to supplement the income or creating a program on housing where we partner up with other developers.”

Morrison argued that gentrification has resulted in some positive benefits for the city, including the movement of students out of parts of downtown and into high-rise apartment buildings built specifically for them, making way for new development.

“When I left Madison, I had the sense it was only for students and for married people with children, and not a great place to be a young professional and certainly not a single young professional,” she said. “And I think that really has changed.” 

Mirilli wasn’t buying it. The positive changes she sees happening around Madison aren’t finding their way to the south side of the city, where she lives. The beautiful bike paths, dog parks and other amenities haven’t been made available to everyone, she said. Mirilli spoke at length about not being able to afford to move downtown, even after succeeding in her career. The further south one travels on Park Street, the further away one gets from the parts of Madison touted in brochures.

“The only place I could afford four years ago to rent was a two-bedroom on Rimrock and the corner of Moorland Road. I rented an apartment there and it was $650 per month and included heat,” she said. “The next year the rental increase was $50, the next year another $80 and by that time people are already telling me like you could afford a two-bedroom condo and that’s what I did. I purchased a two-bedroom condo on the south side.

“When people get to their apartment complex and they see every other neighbor with a sign on their door that they’re getting evicted because they can no longer afford the rent … it’s a little scarier and so that’s the conversation we don’t want to talk about and are often shy about.”

Throughout the evening Mirilli spoke up about giving voice to people who have both been left behind by gentrification and left out of conversations about it. She pointed out how south side residents had to push city officials to reconfigure their plans to redevelop the Truman Olson site on Park Street so the only grocery store in the area wasn’t displaced.

“I’m not just advocating for the south side because it’s exciting to do, I'm advocating for the south side because when the south side is a better place, Madison is a better place for all of us,” she said, adding that creative solutions to the problems created by gentrification are needed.

At the end of the night each person went through what they thought was a solution to gentrification issues. Wachter made clear that the amount of housing had to increase along with the population, but also that the City of Madison and the Plan Commission could look at changing policies like zoning requirements.