A new countywide housing report indicates housing can perpetuate or worsen racial and ethnic disparities in income and opportunity.
Where people live can affect employment, impact education levels and restrict access to transportation, according to the report.
Janesville, Beloit and Rock County governments collaborated on the fair housing report analyzing local impediments to fair housing. The report, compiled by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council, is periodically required for communities that receive certain types of funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The report reveals issues intertwined with housing.
Across Rock County, for example, homeownership rates are starkly different between racial and ethnic groups.
In Beloit, 63% of white residents own their own homes compared to 33% of black residents. The divide is worse in Janesville, where 68% of whites and 22% of blacks own homes. Both communities have a homeownership rate of 43% among Latino residents.
Poverty rates break along racial and ethnic lines, too. The disparity in poverty between white, black and Latino households is considerably greater in Rock County than the U.S. average, according to the report.
That means more residents are spending more than half of their income on housing, considered a severe housing cost burden. Racial disparities continue in this category; more than half of Janesville’s Latino population has a severe housing cost burden.
Dorothy Harrell of the Beloit NAACP said local governments must address the gravity of the statistics. If people feel they have been discriminated against, their community needs to act on their complaints, she said.
Government apathy can leave people feeling hopeless, she said.
She mentioned the connection between housing, employment and other means of upward mobility for people of color.
“The city has to read that report and understand what is actually the truth about this community as far as minorities in this community making less than anybody,” Harrell said. “So, the ability not to have jobs that pay well means their housing will never be improved and their ability to buy homes is not going to improve.”
Kori Schneider Peragine, a senior administrator with the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council and a lead author on the report, said taking steps to reverse segregation is required under the Fair Housing Act.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has made a recent push to show how housing locations can have lasting impacts on a person’s life, she said.
“When you think about segregation, it’s more than just living separately from each other based on race. It’s about the access we have to opportunity,” Schneider Peragine said. “Even if you have access to get housing but it’s only limited in a certain area of town, and that area doesn’t have the best schools or clean air or safe streets, then it’s still not fair housing because your full set of options is not available to you.”
Janesville officials have discussed the city’s housing shortage for the past year. Beloit and the rest of Rock County have similar problems—people interested in moving to the area find few residential options.
When there aren't enough places to live, some people inevitably are displaced and forced into subpar housing or into homelessness.
If that happens, the impact reaches beyond housing.
The report’s findings didn’t surprise Janesville city officials.
“The community opposition to multifamily housing, we see that on a regular basis when people start to talk about doing affordable housing developments,” Neighborhood and Community Services Director Jennifer Petruzzello said. “We experienced that with the proposal that is going through now north of the police department.”
That proposal is a 92-unit, three-level apartment building called River Flats. It would be located on part of the block bordered by Jackson and Franklin streets, Laurel Avenue, and Centerway.
Petruzzello said the project has received a key state tax credit necessary for its approval. The project will make its way to the city plan commission later this year, and likely would include a request for tax increment financing incentives.
To live in an affordable housing unit, tenants must make below a certain income level. If River Flats is approved, it would provide much-needed relief in a tight market, Housing Services Director Kelly Bedessem said.
“Our inadequate supply of affordable housing, clearly we know that’s a problem and have been attempting to deal with it,” Bedessem said. “That came out in the (June 2018) housing forum that we had some zoning restrictions that were prohibiting some additional development.”
Janesville’s goals outlined in the report include providing incentives for two or three affordable housing developments within the next five years. The city also plans to revise restrictive ordinances in 2020.
More affordable housing would help give more low-income residents a better place to live. But it’s only one rung on the ladder to homeownership, which creates greater financial stability.
One of the report’s goals is to improve consumer education for renters and homebuyers. This effort should specifically target black and Latino communities, the report says.
Janesville sponsors free homebuyer workshops, but the report recommends the three municipalities increase education efforts.
Some of those efforts also could come from the private sector.
Francisca Reyna, a report committee member and vice president of business development and education at Blackhawk Bank, said she teaches about 140 classes a year. The classes cover homeownership, basic finances and the importance of credit.
Reyna has been a part of focus groups concentrating on financial challenges among racial groups.
In her experience, it’s not uncommon to see Latino and Asian residents who must build credit from scratch. Black residents usually have credit, but some need to repair poor scores, she said.
Blackhawk Bank has a program for people who need to establish or fix their credit. It places loan money into a certificate of deposit, and users make monthly payments to pay off the loan, Reyna said.
Becoming financially solvent isn’t the only way for someone to improve their housing situation, but it helps. It could allow someone to rent in a better neighborhood or purchase a starter home.
A better place to live could be a sparkplug for more life improvements. It could provide access to better jobs or enhance the quality of a child’s education.
Considering the local discrepancies revealed by the statistics, it will take a lot of work by public officials and others involved in the report to make major changes.
The report’s strategies for each municipality’s goals are small, but when taken together, they could have a significant effect on fair housing.
Reyna said she doesn’t want her time on the committee to be wasted. She hopes those involved continue to push for tangible changes after the report is finalized.
“I’ve sat on so many committees where you go around and provide input and then nothing happens afterwards. What’s the point of doing that?” Reyna said. “And I think that within that group, there’s a lot of people with really good intentions.
“If we come together and brainstorm, even if they implement one little thing, I think we can make progress.”