Madison strains to create low-income housing and sees racial disparities in homelessness

Madison strains to create low-income housing and sees racial disparities in homelessness

From the Special report | Homelessness in Wisconsin: State at the crossroads series
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Homeless family in vehicle

Lonisha Jordan and her son, Jamury, 10, in their family's car. Jordan and two sons relocated to Madison from Chicago earlier this year to escape gun violence and find a better life, but they have not been able to secure housing and sometimes sleep in their vehicle, motels and other places.

Homeless, Lonisha Jordan and her sons, 10 and 12, sleep in their car, motels or other places, each day living a low-income housing crisis that shuts out many in Madison and Dane County.

So does Paul Buggs, who spends nights at a men's shelter in a church basement, and Tina Helt and her teenage son, who sleep in the entrances of buildings on streets hugging Capitol Square.

For all the local effort -- and there's lot of it -- many feel the harsh realities coming from a low-income housing shortage, low vacancy rates, and state tenant-landlord laws that usurp local control and create barriers for those with spotty credit or rental histories, evictions or convictions.

As of Oct. 1, the county's waiting list of the homeless seeking housing stood at 563 singles and 155 families. But those numbers don't tell a full story because many doubled up or in motels aren't eligible to get on the list. The Madison schools alone served 1,099 homeless students in the 2018-19 school year.

"There's a lot of people here who have jobs that can't afford places," said Buggs, 59, who worked his whole adult life but can't afford a place because knee, hip and back injuries slashed his income to $847 a month in Social Security disability benefits. "It's kind of hard in Madison."

Homeless shelter

Paul Buggs, who worked his adult life but now relies on Social Security disability income, at the Porchlight men's homeless shelter in the basement of Grace Episcopal Church on Capitol Square.

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said, "It's a huge challenge. We've produced a lot of housing units, a thousand in five years. It's not enough."

The combination of factors especially hits blacks, who experience racism and disparities in poverty, unemployment, school achievement, and interaction with the criminal justice system.

While a state and national problem, racial disparities in homelessness are are acute in Dane County, where blacks represent 5.1% of the population but account for 53% of those seeking homeless services in 2018.

Ruben Anthony, executive director of the Urban League of Greater Madison, called the disparity "troubling."

"Families are working hard every day and find that they still do not have enough," County Executive Joe Parisi said. "We know these pressures are felt disproportionately among people of color. We must continue to increase access to opportunity for all of Dane County's residents, and work to address some of the deep-rooted causes of the barriers people face."

Just priced out

Tina Helt, 48, and her son Noah, Schaeffer, 19, have been homeless for months. She relies on Social Security disability payments for income and can't afford an apartment. 

Downtown homeless

Tina Helt, with her 19-year-old son, at right, talks about being homeless as they sit on a bench on Capitol Square. They are on a list for subsidized housing with the city's Community Development Authority.

They've waiting for subsidized housing through the city's Community Development Authority, but the list is long and openings can take months or perhaps years. As they wait, they cope with indignities and deal with indifference or stares of passersby.

"People look at you like you're worthless," Helt said. 

Many factors contribute to the local housing crunch. Madison grew faster than any city in the state last year. Fair Market Rent is $931 for one-bedroom and $1,519 for three-bedroom units. The vacancy rate has been low for years, and remains so, an average 3.4% for the first six months of the year, when 5% is needed to loosen the market.

To be considered "affordable," housing should cost no more than 30% of income, advocates say. Otherwise, housing costs cut into funds needed for food, transportation and other needs. Using the standard, someone working full time for the state's minimum wage of $7.25 an hour would make about $15,000 annually and could afford a monthly rent of only $375. 

Dane County Joining Forces for Families, embedded in Madison's poorest neighborhoods and communities throughout the county to advocate, solve problems and connect people to resources, hears more about housing insecurity than any other issue, its social workers say.  

To keep up, Madison must add up to 1,500 housing units a year, city officials said. It needs another 1,000 units of rapid re-housing units to support singles, and 170 units of permanent housing with support services, they said. 

Under former May Paul Soglin, Madison launched an Affordable Housing Initiative that uses city and county investments to help private developers secure federal Low Income Tax Credits distributed by the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority.

From 2013 through 2018, Madison invested $23.7 million, and the county millions more, to help developers secure $149.8 million in tax credits to help cover about $256 million in total costs for 17 projects.

Those projects are delivering a total 1,246 housing units, including 356 units for the homeless with support services for the homeless, veterans and those with disabilities; 508 for those making up to 50% of Dane County Median Income, or $45,200; 310 for those making up to 60% CMI, or $54,240 for a family of three; and 155 units with no rent restrictions. The city is now considering investing another $4.1 million to help support three more projects with 200 units set aside for those making up to 60% CMI.

But the initiative nor state efforts adequately address housing for the most vulnerable -- those making less than 30% of CMI, or $27,100 for a family of three. 

Of the 1,246 units created under the city's initiative, 229, or 18% were for those making 30% or less of CMI. Statewide, just 656 of 6,301 low cost units created with assistance of federal tax credits were for that income limit. And it's not just construction. These units typically also require support services for tenants.

Stone House Development, which has done 12 projects with low-cost units in Dane County, created 880 units for those making up to 60% of CMI, but of that total, just 51, or 6%, are for those making less than 30%. 

The main obstacle is cost of construction, Stone House principal Helen Bradbury said. Quality, low-income housing costs the same to build as non-subsidized housing, but a financing gap is created when revenue, due to lower rents, can't support the building cost, she said.

Dane County homeless

The gap, larger for projects with lower income requirements, must be filled through lower construction costs or public subsidy, she said.

In her proposed capital budget for 2020, Rhodes-Conway boosts the city's Affordable Housing Fund by $500,000 to $5 million a year and delivers $1 million annually for a new "land banking" program to acquire parcels that can be used for low-cost housing and neighborhood-supporting developments.

"It's what the city can do," she said. "It's not nearly enough."

But the city can help other ways, especially changes in the development process to cut project costs, the mayor said. She's instructed staff to review city plans and studies to find "an inventory of ideas" to create more housing, and expects the process to be done this fall.

Parisi's proposed budget for 2020 adds funds to The Beacon homeless day shelter, more work hours for "navigators" to help people locate housing, and $66,000 for more staffing at the men's emergency shelter, and creates a new Division of Housing Access and Affordability in Dane County Human Services. For 2019, Parisi proposed $3 million for the county's Affordable Housing Development Fund, but the County Board increased the sum to $6 million. Parisi proposed $3 million for the fund for 2020 with County Board action still to come.  

"This isn't to say that's all that's needed," Parisi said.

Both executives say partnerships and state action is vital. "We need the state to fund housing," Rhodes-Conway said. "We need the state to fund service providers. I want my tenant-landlord laws back."

Segregation of opportunity

Like many blacks, Jordan, 32, moved with sons John, 12, and Jamury, 10, to Madison from Chicago to escape gun violence, find better job opportunities, and create a better life for her family.

She gets child support, works temp jobs and is seeking permanent employment, but her income isn't enough in Madison's tight housing market. The family lives from its car, motels or other places and is on a waiting list for CDA housing. 

"I just worry about the next day and what I can do to get it better," Jordan said. "I just want to move into an apartment and get my family into housing."

Blacks face multiple barriers to housing here.

A recent city analysis, for example, exposes stark racial segregation of opportunity based on income for rental housing in Madison. It shows 50% or more of rental units affordable almost everywhere in the city to the typical white household, but only small, isolated areas on the North and South sides with 50% or more of rental units affordable to the typical black household in 2016. 

Rental affordability by race

It's not just income.

"Unfortunately, some landlords are passing over candidates that have poor credit, prior evictions or convictions on their records," Anthony said. "Landlords that don't want to rent to African Americans have plenty of cover to discriminate."

The Madison School District's Transition Education Program, which provides services to homeless students, reports more than 61% of those students are black, 16% Latino, 16% multiracial, and 6% white this past week.

Homeless students

"When you don't have adequate housing it impacts kids who attend school and their behavior. It also has an impact on their parents' overall health and their well being," said Michael Johnson, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County.

Solutions include more low-income housing, prevention programs, transportation, jobs and training, building wealth for women of color, and embracing people when they return to the city after incarceration, Anthony and Johnson said.

"Are we going to continue to plan and make Madison a place that includes poor people and people of color as part of this community," Anthony said. "Or will we put up public policies barriers that make it impossible for the poor and minorities to live and work in this community."

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