A lot of housing is being built in Madison, but experts say it’s far from enough.
As of late February, 822 single adults and 144 households with children in the area were homeless in shelters, living outside or in a car, or other places not meant for human habitation, according to the Dane County Homeless Services Consortium. And that doesn’t include those doubled up, staying with friends or family, or paying for motel rooms.
The city’s rental vacancy rate, which dipped below 2 percent in 2012-13, has inched upward amid new construction to 3.34 percent in 2018, still short of a healthy target of 5 percent, meaning many people with lower incomes must still compete for scarce units with high rents chewing up income needed for food and other basics.
Housing advocates, and city and county officials say perhaps 13,000 more housing units are needed for the very poor — those making less than 30 percent of the county median income, or $27,500 for a family of four, and that the city would have to create 1,000 units a year for the foreseeable future to meet demand for housing for those making up to 60 percent of county median income, or $55,020 for a family of four.
“It’s a very heavy lift,” city community services director Jim O’Keefe said.
Mayor Paul Soglin and challenger former Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway both emphasize many of the same strategies for expanding housing options. But where one points to his record, the other sees an approach that is too narrowly focused.
In fall 2014, Soglin unveiled, and the City Council strongly embraced, a roughly $25 million initiative to create 1,000 units of housing for the homeless and low- and moderate-income families by 2020. The effort uses a city Affordable Housing Fund and county support to help developers secure critical, state-awarded, federal low-income tax credits that can cover more than half of project costs.
So far, the initiative has inspired 18 projects with a total 1,304 units, including 1,149 aimed at those making less than 60 percent of county median income.
The completed projects include the city’s first big attempts at Housing First, which emphasizes getting the chronically homeless into housing and then offering mental health, substance abuse and other services: Heartland Housing’s $8.9 million, 60-unit Rethke Terrace project for chronically homeless singles and veterans on the East Side and Heartland’s $11.7 million, 45-unit Tree Lane Apartments for homeless families on the Far West Side.
“I’m the only mayor, for decades, who has added to the affordable housing supply,” Soglin said. “We’ve had a lot of discussion in this community about housing and the homeless. There’s only one candidate in this race who has done something about it.”
Rhodes-Conway said the initiative has been positive but said a broader approach is needed, including preservation of existing modestly priced housing, production of more subsidized as well as market-rate housing, housing cooperatives, land purchases for housing developments, tiny house villages for the homeless and support for tenants.
“It’s not doing enough,” she said of the current initiative. “There’s still a real problem.”
Housing the homeless
In late 2017, Dane County and partners filled a big void in homeless services with the opening of The Beacon day resource center 615 E. Washington Ave., which offers respite from the weather, a computer lab, connections to services, showers, laundry, day storage and restrooms.
But another challenge looms. The Salvation Army Dane County is working on redevelopment plans for its shelter for single women and families with children on East Washington Avenue, and Porchlight’s men’s shelter at Grace Episcopal Church on Capitol Square might need to be moved due to redevelopment on the block, said Torrie Kopp Mueller of the county homeless consortium. The current shelter is inadequate, and should be replaced, but won’t be displaced unless a replacement facility is created, said Rev. D. Jonathan Grieser, rector at Grace Episcopal.
“This is a turning point in our community where we can really look at developing purpose-built shelters that will provide safety for the people accessing it as well as staff,” Kopp said.
Both candidates remain committed to Housing First despite a high volume of police calls following the opening of Rethke Terrace and Tree Lane. Over the last couple of weeks, the city added about $420,000 for more support services and security at Tree Lane.
Rhodes-Conway said she was unsure how long the subsidies would be needed but said the city must revisit design, funding for operations and neighborhood engagement as it moves to create more permanent housing units with support services for the homeless.
Soglin, noting both projects are improving after bumpy starts, said the subsidies can’t continue indefinitely but that once additional support services take hold funds for extra security shouldn’t be needed beyond 2019.
The city’s next project, targeted for 1202 S. Park St., has been delayed as Heartland addresses concerns at its first two projects — with a deadline approaching for Heartland to use already-secured federal tax credits at the site. Neither candidate is sure what will happen with Heartland at that site but both are committed to doing future projects.
Rhodes-Conway said the city can also play a bigger role in preventing evictions, helping tenants get legal representation at eviction proceedings and working with the county to deliver more mental health and substance abuse services.
Soglin also called for a greater emphasis on addiction and said he was impressed by a recent visit to the Life Enrichment Center in Dayton, Ohio, which offers basic services like The Beacon but also a host of educational programs and offerings around mental health and addiction, including needle exchanges, peer support, HIV and Hepatitis C testing and training in the use of the overdose-reversing drug Narcan.
Creating more units
Both candidates want to build on the Affordable Housing Initiative, which relies heavily on finite tax credits distributed by the state.
Rhodes-Conway said the city must address many needs, from units for the homeless to market-rate rental and owner-occupied housing for those making more than 100 percent of county median income.
She supports using the Affordable Housing Fund to help people stay in their homes and for land purchases to help create affordable housing along transit corridors, especially coming Bus Rapid Transit routes. She’d also strengthen programs that provide low-income loans and free assistance for home improvements.
The challenger would more fully use the Affordable Housing Fund and tax incremental financing (TIF) to encourage more housing production. She would explore waiving requirements like parking minimums and building setbacks, and allowing bonuses for projects with a significant number of affordable units or near transit hubs. And she backs housing cooperatives and creation of more “tiny house” villages for the homeless.
Currently, the city’s $4.5 million annual contribution to the Affordable Housing Fund comes through TIF districts, which can be kept open for an extra year after borrowing is repaid if the property tax revenues go to support low-cost housing. Soglin said he’s now exploring how the city’s Community Development Authority can use bonds to create incentives for developers to do more projects with affordable units.
The mayor said he also wants to address racial disparities in the housing market, with an expanded focus on owner-occupied units. A key, he said, is new strategies to support minority-owned businesses, which creates inter-generational wealth that leads to home ownership and cultural and civic engagement. “I believe the people of Madison would want that addressed and that it’s a high priority,” he said.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify the status of the men’s homeless shelter at Grace Episcopal Church.