The way to create more affordable housing in Janesville is to build more rental units, not to expand the city’s rental assistance program.
Homeless advocates have their hearts in the right place, but we’re not sure a lack of rental-assistance funding, also known as Section 8, is Janesville’s problem. The federally-funded program makes housing more affordable for the people who qualify, but it does nothing to address Janesville’s meager supply of quality rental units.
A lack of supply is driving up rents. That causes more people to seek rental assistance and more quickly soaks up rental-assistance funding to cover those already in the program. Officials estimate the city’s rental vacancy rate has dropped to only 1 percent, and even people who don’t need rental assistance are struggling to find quality housing. It’s an urgent situation with widespread ramifications, including for employers who want to move to cities with enough workers and an adequate housing supply.
If Janesville wants more young professionals to come here, it needs to build rental units. Many millennials are bogged down by student debt and haven’t saved for a down payment on a house, though they have enough income to rent.
Landlords have reacted to this supply dearth by raising rents, and that’s their right. The way to cure this problem is not by demonizing landlords or by shelling out more Section 8 money. Rather, city officials should make rental developments a top priority, helping developers overcome the predictable opposition of neighbors, who almost never want an apartment complex near their homes.
The Briar Crest controversy is case in point.
We’re still baffled over a Janesville Plan Commission decision last year to prevent a developer from building an apartment complex on the city’s northeast side. Waunakee developer Bill Ranguette had plans to construct “house-like” upscale apartments with 50-foot-wide courtyards, vaulted ceilings and two-car garages with rents between $1,250 and $1,400. This project wouldn’t have directly benefited rental-assistant recipients, but it would have indirectly boosted the supply of Section 8 housing by allowing tenants to “trade up,” making more lower-end units available as higher-income tenants move into the new complex.
The project might have relieved some of the pressure forcing rents higher.
Unfortunately, the plan commission snubbed Ranguette’s proposal, which would have been ideally situated between big-box retailers and the Briar Crest subdivision.
Our concern is the message the commission sent to other prospective developers. Why bother spending time and money seeking the plan commission’s approval if the commission will ultimately side with angry groups of neighbors?
For the record, the city administration recommended the commission rezone the area to make way for Ranguette’s complex. Despite that, the commission voted against it.
Prospective developers have a partner in City Manager Mark Freitag’s administration, which recognizes local housing trends and is trying to address them.
We can’t say the same for the plan commission, which includes some city council members. They might claim to have a pro-growth mentality, but the city’s rental crunch is proof the city isn’t working hard enough.
The time for building more rental developments was yesterday. Janesville has a lot of catching up to do.
—A previous version named the wrong city body that rejected the rezoning request. It was the plan commission, not the city council.