Is the door closed to an affordable home?
When Rock and Walworth county residents approach Community Action for help, housing is almost sure to be one of their concerns.
There's the Delavan man who managed to make ends meet on his meager wages until he was injured and couldn't work anymore. He fell behind on his rent and was "seconds away from being on the streets," said Marc Perry, Community Action director of planning and development.
There's the Janesville single mother who accrued so much debt paying for child care that she couldn't make rent even though she had a job.
The organization was able to help both clients, but many others don't connect to community programs and wind up desperate for a place to live, Perry said.
Affordable housing already is a problem in Walworth County, and it's increasingly becoming an issue in Rock County too, he said. Wages for society's lowest-paid workers have stagnated, while costs—including housing and utility expenses—have increased.
In a recent survey for Rock County's Homeless Intervention Task Force, respondents—those who access community services such as ECHO, Community Action and Salvation Army—listed utility payments as their second-highest concern after employment. Rent assistance ranked fifth following dental and medical care.
The problem is even more acute in Walworth County, Perry said.
Walworth County employs many low-wage workers for its retail and hospitality sectors, yet housing prices are high and no public transportation is available.
"Someone said to Lisa (Furseth, Community Action's executive director), ‘Affordable housing in Walworth County is anything under $1 million,'" Perry said.
In 2007, Community Action presented a plan to build low-rent apartment units in Delavan for people making 30 to 60 percent of the county's median income. But the plan was shot down after residents and city council members questioned the proposed location and the drop-in homeless shelter attached to the project.
The organization is working on an alternative plan and hopes to present it in spring, Perry said.
Sarah Boss, executive director of the Walworth County Housing Authority, said Community Action has proven the need for more affordable housing.
The housing authority distributes Section 8 housing vouchers, a federal program that allows low-income people to pay just 30 percent of their gross income for rent.
Currently, the waiting list for Section 8 assistance in Walworth County is 12 to 15 months, Boss said.
"What happens to those people? What do they do until their names come up on the waiting list?" she asked. "We don't always know that."
Boss believes Walworth County needs to offer public transportation so people can access jobs outside their immediate neighborhoods.
The county also needs more transitional housing—temporary housing that combines rent assistance and case management—for people struggling to make ends meet, she said.
Transitional housing is a need in Rock County too, officials said.
The waiting list for federal rent assistance in Janesville stretches more than two years, said Judy Adler, a city community development planner. That's because, according to program rules, the city can serve only a certain number of households.
"Once we're at 100 percent, somebody has to drop off before we can add somebody on," she said.
Currently, the Salvation Army offers five transitional housing units at scattered sites for single adults and assistance for families. The YWCA also has a transitional housing program, but it's only for battered women.
The area needs more transitional housing for people who can't get into those programs, said Karen Lisser, ECHO executive director.
ECHO, a church-sponsored charity, offers one month's emergency rent to people in danger of losing their housing. Lately, the need has been climbing and the resources have been dropping, Lisser said.
The organization was only able to offer rent assistance to 294 families in 2007, compared to 420 in 2000.
And one month's rent is really only a quick fix to a huge societal problem, she said.
The real solution, Lisser said, is paying all workers a "living wage"—enough to support their families' needs.
"Affordable housing is an issue, but it's really an issue of income being enough," she said.
Affordable housing is a problem for low-wage workers across the nation, but there’s no doubt Walworth County residents have it especially hard.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment (including utilities) in Walworth County as $769 a month. The median selling price for a Walworth County home in 2006 was $194,000, according to the Wisconsin Realtors Association.
That compares to $694 for a two-bedroom apartment in Janesville and $129,000 as the 2006 median sale price for a Rock County home.
WHAT IS AFFORDABLE HOUSING?
The federal government defines housing as affordable when it makes up 30 percent or less of the renter’s income. (Housing includes utilities, too.)
But in 2006, 74 percent of clients using ECHO’s rent assistance program spent more than half of their income on housing and utilities, said Karen Lisser, executive director. That’s up from 31 percent of clients in 1995, Lisser said.
Walworth County’s lack of affordable housing affects more than those in need, said Fred Burkhardt, executive director of the Walworth County Economic Development Alliance.
For the county’s economy to run smoothly, it needs to provide for the needs of its lowest-paid workers, he said.
"We have a shrinking workforce, and one of the key issues, whether it’s affordable housing or housing just in general, is the proximity of the housing to the jobs," he said.
The alliance hopes to conduct a "job/housing balance study," which would examine the range of housing options needed to reflect the earning levels of Walworth County’s residents.
"It’d be really nice if everyone could afford a $200,000 house," Burkhardt said. "Unfortunately, that’s not the case."