Carol M. Austin
James C. Jensen
Delores Ann Morris
Jeffrey “Ormp” Ormson
Judith “Judie” Siefert
Gary Edwin Thalacker
A new statewide housing report shows that even the fastest-growing communities in Wisconsin can’t keep up with the demand for new housing.
As it turns out, Janesville and Beloit are perhaps the most strained cities in the state when it comes to a housing shortfall.
A report released this week by the Wisconsin Realtors Association says that, over the last decade, Rock County has averaged growth of about 1.7 families for every one new housing unit created here.
That’s the lowest rate of housing unit growth for any of the state’s 20 largest counties, according to a Gazette analysis of the report.
It’s a status the Realtors association calls housing “underproduction.” And despite emerging plans between developers and Janesville housing authorities to bolster the rental market, the city is still at the epicenter of a housing market that doesn’t produce nearly enough affordable housing to satisfy demand.
The report says that’s evidence the local housing market has not fully recovered from the Great Recession, which could stifle the economy locally and statewide.
As local employers look to expand or hire new workers, the shortfall in available housing becomes obvious. There aren’t enough housing units to support the growth in population here, and at the same time, demand for an ever-slimmer stock of housing has begun to inflate costs.
In nearly half the counties in the state, affordable housing has started to become unattainable for working-class people, particularly first-time home buyers, according to the report.
The report says entry-level housing in Rock County remains “affordable,” meaning that on paper a median-income household should be able to afford median-price housing.
However, the housing report’s numbers are based partly on U.S. Census surveys between 2006 and 2017.
From mid-2017 to the middle of this year, the average sale price of a Rock County home increased from $158,000 to about $190,000, according to Multiple Listing Service data.
The median home price statewide is about $200,000, the highest in state history.
Even if home sale prices remain “affordable” in Rock County compared to the state average, that doesn’t mean it’s any easier for the average household that rents here.
The most recent U.S. Census survey on housing affordability shows that about 50 percent of renters in Janesville are considered rent-burdened.
Kelly Bedessem, the city’s housing services director, said she hadn’t seen the Realtors association report, but she’s not surprised the data show Rock County has the largest gap in available housing among peer counties.
“I think we’ve worked really hard in this community since General Motors left. Every week, you hear about this new place opening, this place adding on people. We’ve been really fortunate that way, and it’s good,” Bedessem said. “But up until recently, we haven’t heard about new housing being built.”
Her office works with moderate- to low-income people who need rent or home mortgage assistance.
In some cases, Bedessem said, renters contend with rents that have climbed from $800 a month to $1,100 and up.
“It’s crazy,” she said. “If you can even find a place, you can’t afford it. Not if you’re making minimum wage. Even if you’re making more than that, maybe you can’t even afford it.”
“It’s sad to us. On a daily basis we have multiple folks come into our office, rental assistance clients. They’re looking for someplace to live. Some of those are looking for affordable units; others are looking for any unit, ‘affordable’ or not. They literally can’t find it.”
Bedessem said the city is working on a survey of rental prices this fall. That will help city officials get their arms around whether rental programs adequately address a growing shortage in rental housing.
She said the housing crunch also affects the city’s first-time homeowner mortgage assistance program, which helps first-time home buyers who have already secured bank-backed mortgages.
With home sale prices rising, Bedessem said, there’s a growing gap between her clients’ income and the costs to bankroll even a modest home.
It’s also harder for the city to operate a program in which it buys foreclosed homes and renovates them as affordable housing, she said.
Homes the city was buying five years ago sold for $20,000 but usually needed a lot of renovation. Those same houses now can cost the city $60,000 to $80,000. After renovations, the homes are almost beyond the reach of many of Bedessem’s clients.
In its report, the Realtors association suggests answers to the housing crunch might be found at the state level, through broader use of tax incentives for programs such as those Bedessem oversees.
It also suggests communities focus on more renovations of older housing stock and on building more multifamily rental housing, whether that’s duplexes or mid-rise apartments.
The city is working with developers on a handful of projects, one of which is a mid-rise apartment complex proposed just north of the Janesville Police Department. The proposal already has earned state tax credits and could add up to 90 apartment units, a blend of “affordable” housing and market-rate apartments.
Bedessem said she hopes the developer will submit plans to the plan commission this fall.
At this point, she would be happy to see any kind of new housing, whether it’s affordable housing or not.
“We just need more housing,” she said. “If we do build the high-end apartments, or houses, it could at least create a trickle-down effect with other properties coming open. We just need more houses, period.”
Recent buzz on social media in Evansville is about sexual misconduct and safety of students at the high school, and 22 people gathered Thursday night to discuss the problem and solutions.
They spent 80 minutes discussing the topic without mentioning specific incidents.
Parent and community volunteer Victoria Flynn organized the meeting. She said afterward that comments on the local community Facebook page about one allegation led to an outpouring of allegations of other such incidents.
“How can we make the schools feel safe for these young girls—and boys?” asked a retired teacher.
She didn’t get a direct answer.
Others who spoke at the meeting suggested that part of the problem was harassment or bullying on social media.
Flynn emphasized rules for the meeting, including that no names would be mentioned.
Lt. Patrick Reese of the Evansville Police Department said he couldn’t discuss juvenile cases.
Flynn said the high school principal at first said he would attend the meeting with other officials, but then school officials backed down. Instead, they sent a statement, saying they are obligated to protect students’ privacy.
“We have concluded that attending a meeting organized for the purpose of addressing concerns about a current student made public by social media does not allow us to meet these obligations at this time,” the statement reads.
The statement went on to say the district would “continue to follow all policies and procedures for investigating and responding to complaints of harassment, and where necessary will take steps to stop any harassment and prevent it in the future.”
In a separate interview, Evansville schools Superintendent Jerry Roth said he couldn’t comment on any allegations. He said he thinks the community airing concerns about a student is not appropriate because all the information isn’t known, and it’s largely accusations that haven’t been confirmed.
“We take all concerns seriously, and we address all concerns. It’s just that we can’t and won’t publicly communicate what’s happening,” Roth said.
Roth asked that people not speculate when they don’t have all the facts.
“Unfortunately, everything you read on Facebook isn’t the truth,” Roth added.
“We want to protect every student,” Roth said. “Every student has the right to privacy, whether it’s somebody who is accused or somebody who is accusing. We do everything we can to ensure that we honor that privacy.”
“It’s more than one student. This isn’t about one student,” one woman said after the meeting.
Several speakers at the meeting at Eager Free Public Library expressed frustration that school officials were not present to answer questions.
Those who spoke took pains not to mention anyone’s name or even describe incidents of sexual harassment or assault. They also seemed intent on addressing more than the conduct of one student.
One woman said school officials keep telling her they are taking care of her concerns, but they can’t tell her how.
“It’s just unsettling when incidents keep happening, but ‘It’s being taken care of,’” she said.
Much of the meeting involved questions to Reese, the Evansville police lieutenant, who said he would not discuss specific cases.
“I know the community wants instant results, but that’s not always possible,” Reese said about harassment cases.
Evansville is a safe city, and people should not believe their children will be assaulted or harassed if they send them to school there, Reese said.
“Kids say crazy things sometimes,” Reese said, but if people feel violated or are concerned for their safety, they should call police.
A man asked about the number of sexual misconduct incidents police handled at the high school in the past year.
Reese said he didn’t know, but he said police refer many incidents to juvenile justice authorities.
Much discussion focused on harassment on social media, and Reese said police spend a lot of time tracking down such incidents. He said parents should monitor and regulate what their children do with their computers and phones.
“Let’s face it, the kids, their brains aren’t fully developed yet, and they make some poor choices at times,” Reese said.
Several audience members agreed, and a possible community forum where police could advise parents about steps they can take was discussed.
Flynn offered her services to organize community responses in the future, and some seemed to want to do something further.
Gazette reporter Ben Pierce contributed to this story.