Listen up, Verona. Pay attention, DeForest. Hear this, Stoughton.
Mayor Dave doesn’t think you have enough poor people living within your boundaries. And Madison has too many. So, uh, how about a deal? You help us; we help you.
That’s right, folks, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz is not content just managing the affairs of Madison these days. Now he’s thinking regionally. The goal: to disperse the population of low-income residents more evenly throughout Dane County, thus alleviating the heavy concentration in the capital city.
How the mayor would do this isn’t entirely yet clear, but he has a few rough ideas. The city and county housing authorities would be merged into a single entity responsible for the entire county. The mayor would also open up the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund — which provides grants and loans for the creation of low-income housing– to developers in surrounding communities. “Low-income housing is not just Madison’s responsibility but also the responsibility of the entire region,” he said during his State of the City address Tuesday night.
By influencing housing patterns, the mayor would naturally alter schools’ student makeup as well. This is the main crux of the mayor’s plan. Low-income children would be freed from the drain of poor schools and would perform better in more economically mixed classrooms, he claims.
This seems a fair proposition. A person’s outlook and performance can certainly improve when he or she is transported into a better environment. Randy Moss, New England Patriots wide receiver, is not the same as Randy Moss, Oakland Raiders wide receiver. Students surrounded by high-achieving peers often boost their performance as well.
But what about the communities that would become home for these ex-Madison residents? Might they resent the attempt by another city’s mayor to socially engineer their communities and schools? Might they be concerned about increased strains on their school districts’ finances brought by low-income residents? Might they have concerns about crime, which unfortunately tends to be higher among less affluent populations?
Certainly, there are many questions Mr. Cieslewicz will have to answer if his grand experiment in regional housing planning ever gets off the ground. For now, he’s saying the suburban schools would benefit from increased economic diversity in the classroom. Let this be a lesson, friends: There is nothing — nothing — that can’t be justified by vague allusions to some type of “diversity.”
Meanwhile, should we be troubled that Mr. Cieslewicz is contemplating such a plan in the first place? The spirit is noble, but the notion that Madison needs to jettison some of its low-income residents is a radical idea. It is to suggest that Madison tried to do what it could for them, and now it’s time for everybody to go their own ways. Surely Madison has some tricks left in its bag other than passing its problems off on its neighbors — neighbors who, it must be added, lack the public transportation and social services used disproportionately by low-income residents.
Explaining the situation, the mayor often cites the financial hardships caused by the state-imposed revenue caps on local school districts. But every school district in the county operates under the cap, not just Madison.
Madison schools, then, can’t export their problems. Improvement must occur within the city’s borders.
A confluence of housing and government revenue comes in Madison’s Inclusionary Zoning ordinance, which mandates new development set aside at least 15 percent of its units for affordable housing. The mayor promised Tuesday that the law will be scrutinized this summer, though there’s no indication he wants to scrap the ordinance or let it sunset in 2009. This is unfortunate.
(Side note: a state appeals court struck down the rental portion of Madison’s IZ law in 2006, ruling the ordinance was preempted by a state law prohibiting municipal rent control. The City of Madison has an extensive web page devoted to IZ, yet it’s unclear if the people responsible for maintaining the site ever heard of the court’s ruling. The site has numerous references the IZ rental program.)
By artificially setting a price ceiling on portions of new development, IZ works to raise the price of market-rate housing. Unless market-rate buyers are willing to bear this cost, developers are discouraged from investing in the market. Along with lower assessments on IZ units, this hurts property tax revenue, which is exactly what Madison needs to fight the pockets of poverty the mayor has identified.
Of course, it may seem counterintuitive to eliminate a program aimed at increasing affordable housing if the desire is to keep low-income residents in Madison. Remember, though, that rental IZ contravenes state law, and almost everybody living in these pockets of poverty rents. IZ does nothing for them.
Eliminating IZ might not be a total solution to the problems the mayor outlined Tuesday. But it would certainly be more productive than trying to force neighboring communities to bail Madison out.
Ryan Masse ([email protected]) is a first-year law student.