Rick Herrick wakes up at 6:15 a.m., his 65-year-old body aching terribly. He eats a brief meal before beginning his day-long, mostly fruitless ritual of looking for a job.
Herrick doesn’t know how to use a computer, so he travels to potential employers throughout the day until he is exhausted. After 5:00 p.m., Herrick returns to Porchlight’s drop-in men’s shelter for a hot dinner and a place to sleep.
And the cycle repeats.
In Dane County, more than 1,000 people will find themselves in similar situations this year. The circumstances that lead them there are as varied as the individuals within, but they can all be traced back to two key issues: lack of affordable housing and crumbling support structures.
The housing crisis
Lack of affordable housing in Madison continues to be one of the central problems the city faces.
Max, a Porchlight attendee who asked his name be changed, said the greatest barrier to escaping homelessness is the lack of affordable housing. Max is lucky and has been able to find a job, but for now he continues to sleep at the shelter because it helps save money that would otherwise be spent on rent.
The demand for apartments is increasing, but supply is not able to keep up, leading to historically low vacancy rates throughout the city, Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, said.
“For a city that has so much going for it, one of the biggest problems we are facing is a lack of affordable housing in many parts of the city, including the downtown,” Verveer said.
Madison Gas and Electric determines vacancy rates by gathering data each quarter on electric meter usage. A healthy vacancy rate is around 5 percent, Verveer said.
Between 2009 and 2015, vacancy rates for Madison ranged from less than 2 percent to slightly more than 5 percent, according to the MGE website.
Low vacancy rates can cause a slew of issues, including putting tenants at a disadvantage to landlords, diminishing choices for prospective renters and raising rent prices, Verveer said.
The affordable housing crisis can be traced back to the recession, Verveer said. Very little construction occurred in downtown Madison during the recession because it was hard for developers to get lenders on board.
County Supervisor Leland Pan, District 5, said since the recession there has been an increase in the homeless population due to heightened economic pressures.
Now, even out-of-state developers are eager to try and develop housing in the downtown area due to the intense need, Verveer said. Core Campus, the Hub’s Chicago-based developer, is an example of this. Unfortunately, most of these businesses are eager to build more expensive complexes instead of affordable ones.
Affordable housing is facing the largest shortage in downtown Madison, Verveer said.
Many of the new apartment buildings are geared toward students and young professionals instead of individuals who are middle or low-income, Verveer said. Aside from a select few, such as the Madison Development Corporation’s proposed affordable housing development on Mifflin, downtown developers are not building affordable housing complexes because of the high cost of land downtown, he said.
“Madison has an affordable housing problem in a big way,” Verveer said. “It would not be an exaggeration to call it a crisis.”
The Tenant Resource Center
To help alleviate issues associated with finding and maintaining housing, the Tenant Resource Center helps individuals with any housing issues they may have, from searching for low-income housing to mediating landlord-tenant disputes.
The center’s employees have extensive training on Wisconsin housing laws and focus on ensuring tenants and landlords understand their responsibilities and rights, Brenda Konkel, the center’s executive director, said.
The center also provides individuals with a list of housing available in the Madison area every week. The list includes everything from affordable housing to some of downtown’s luxury apartments, Konkel said.
All the affordable housing options in Madison currently have waitlists, but the center helps explain the waitlist process to potential applicants and even assists in the application process.
Dane County Housing Authority overwhelmed by need for affordable housingAfter spending eight years working through the waitlist for low-income housing, the Dane County Housing Authority reopened their waitlist this Read…
The Tenant Resource Center is currently struggling to keep up with the demand for services, Konkel said. Changes to state law in the last several years have complicated security deposit requirements. After an eviction, landlords can now keep security deposits for up to 21 days after the lease ends, or after they re-rent the apartment — whichever comes first. More people have questions about when they will get their deposits back, which has contributed to the increase in call volume.
Additionally, many of the people using the center as a resource have more needs than they have in the past, such as help with letter writing due to imperfect English, Konkel said.
Both the city and the county have committed to building affordable housing over the next several years and between 200 and 250 affordable units will likely be created, Konkel said.
These apartments are part of the city’s housing first initiatives, which are designed to get people off the streets first, and then connect them with jobs and other resources, Verveer said.
These new apartments, Konkel said, are unfortunately not enough to keep up with the demand.
“We are falling behind faster than we are moving forward, but we are doing more than we’ve done in the last five years,” Konkel said.
The Tenant Resource Center helps individuals from all backgrounds. They have an office on the University of Wisconsin campus and 20 percent of the people they help are students.
The center receives funds from The Associated Students of Madison to continue helping students with their housing questions, Konkel said.
UW and affordable housing
Aside from assisting students with off-campus housing questions, UW plays an important role in downtown housing and sets the base price for standard student housing, Ald. Zach Wood, District 8, said.
Though students do put pressure on the downtown housing market, there are not many ways UW can help.
“It would be great if UW could build more dorms and put them at a more affordable price,” Wood said. “But expecting the university to drastically reduce one of its major sources of income is not incredibly likely.”
Housing on campus has been an ongoing issue, with even freshman students placed on the waitlist for the dorms every year, Wood said. Once students move off campus, finding affordable housing can be even more challenging.
“It’s very complicated considering the perfect storm of conditions that make housing in Madison very expensive,” Wood said.
County funding for homeless services have been stagnant in recent years.
Pan said while the city has more influence in the construction and availability of affordable housing, the county works to provide human resources. The county provides these services indirectly through contracts with nonprofits, such as Porchlight, he said.
County funded services include those run by YWCA, Red Cross and Porchlight, Pan said.
Support for services provided to homeless people has remained flat and even in decline once adjusted for inflation, Pan said. Restrictions imposed by the state government have severely limited the county’s ability to raise funding for new initiatives, he said.
“Frankly, the situation around homelessness is dire,” Pan said.