Graphic by Max Homstad
Affordable housing identified as chief concern for Madison’s mayoral candidates
The race for Madison’s next mayor is well underway, and many candidates identified a common issue in their campaigns: the need for affordable housing. As the city continues to grow and constantly introduce new construction projects, city leaders fear Madison’s less affluent residents will be left out in the cold by rising housing costs.
Under current Mayor Paul Soglin, the city government made affordable housing a central focus. In 2014, the city implemented a $20 million Affordable Housing Fund to help facilitate creation of affordable housing throughout Madison. The original goal with the fund, used mainly in conjunction with low-income housing tax credits given to developers by the state, was to develop 750 units of affordable housing over five years. The goal later changed to 1,000 units, a mark Soglin announced in February the city was “well on track” to meeting and exceeding.
Despite stating in July he would not seek another term in office, Soglin declared his re-election campaign in October. In his announcement video, he listed housing as one of his five main focuses for the city going forward and touted the Affordable Housing Fund’s success.
Although the city made strides, some candidates running against Soglin in next spring’s election believe there is more to be done in pursuit of affordable housing. Toriana Pettaway, a mayoral candidate who serves as the Racial Equity Coordinator for the City of Madison, pointed to rent prices in supposedly affordable developments. She says some charge rent of up to $2,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, causing her to question if that’s really improving affordable housing.
“I think what the city is doing right now is working to a degree,” Pettaway said. “I think the city could be doing a lot more to really address what’s not working.”
Satya Rhodes-Conway, managing director of the Mayors Innovation Project at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy and former city council member, announced her run for mayor in May, making her the first to make a bid for the position. She expressed concern over the city’s reliance on low-income housing tax credits from the state.
“Our housing problem is big enough that we just have to look at a whole wide range of solutions and try everything.”
“Given the changes to tax law, I think that may become less desirable for developers, so we’re going to think about other ways to promote affordable housing,” she said. “Our housing problem is big enough that we just have to look at a whole wide range of solutions and try everything.”
Rhodes-Conway believes the best solution does not lie in just the Affordable Housing Fund or hoping for tax credits to come down from the state. Instead she urged the city government to “get creative.”
She identified housing cooperatives as a possible alternative as well as the need for the city to emphasize preservation of already-existing affordable housing. Improving the quality of existing developments coupled with efforts to strengthen tenant rights against eviction might actually be cheaper than creating new affordable housing, she said.
Another alternative, according to Pettaway, is improving the city’s public transit system. She hopes the city will be able to improve service to communities that are underserved by bus lines.
“Transportation needs to be consistent, it needs to be rapid, it needs to be in such a way that you don’t need to look at a schedule,” she said, pointing to University Avenue’s bus lines as the gold standard for reliability. “Mass rapid transit should be that dependable throughout our whole city.”
Pettaway thinks issues of housing and transportation are inseparable when talking about employment. Without affordable housing and transportation, she said, it is impossible for people to stay employed and take care of their kids. “You can’t have one without the other,” she said. “If one fails, the next will definitely fail.”
Transportation is also a key focus for Raj Shukla, the executive director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin, who announced his run for mayor in late July. Shukla believes the transit system should extend its hours as well as its range into communities that he called “functionally isolated” from the rest of the city due to their limited access to public transit. He identified areas of the city’s west side, where he said it can take up to 90 minutes to get to work by bus, as proof that Madison’s buses are “not a functioning transit system.”
Shukla also proposed looking at the possibility of implementing bus rapid transit, a bus system offering faster service with limited stops and dedicated street lanes for buses. The city government has been trying to bring bus rapid transit to Madison for years and issued a report on its feasibility in 2013, but nothing has come of it since.
Although transportation is a key issue for Shukla’s affordable housing plans, he believes the best way to ensure affordable housing is through quantity.
“No matter what, we have to figure out ways to help the community embrace more housing, period,” he said. “You cannot get to a more affordable situation without increasing the stock of housing.”
He thinks the best place to start is by rethinking zoning laws that prevent denser development. In a city where space is a major limiting factor, more housing would certainly entail taller and more multiple-unit buildings, Shukla said. He also questioned why Madison does not have row houses typical of older American cities like New York and Philadelphia where space is also a constraint.
Despite all the policy proposals put out by those running for office, there are also aspects of affordable housing that go beyond legislation. Both Shukla and Pettaway said the city would have to convince neighborhoods to accept major changes as a result of more affordable housing. They anticipated resistance from neighborhood groups who do not want the demographic change affordable housing would bring.
“The biggest obstacle is residents who are more affluent, who have higher incomes, who don’t understand the whole idea around urban and regional planning and why we’re trying to integrate all walks of life into the community and not have them segregated in one area,” Pettaway said.
Shukla also identified this issue, but said it was not so much an obstacle as an opportunity for the city government to engage in discussion with the community over the need to help out those with lower incomes.
“We need to be a city that is welcoming and accessible to people of all sorts of different backgrounds,” he said. “There’s only one way to do that, and that is show leadership and engage in discussions that I think too many of our leaders in this city have shied away from.”
According to Shukla, this is the most effective way to help promote affordable housing in the city, which is key to helping residents with lower incomes as well as bridging the racial equity gap. For him, the issue all comes down to city leadership.
“It’s largely a political question,” he said. “We need to find ways to make sure that our city is welcoming and available and accessible to a whole range of folks, not just the very wealthiest and not just white people.”