One of the most common problems Jennifer Petruzzello hears from Janesville renters is landlords suddenly raising rent by a significant amount of money.

Petruzzello, the city’s neighborhood and community services director, said landlords might inflate rent by $200 per month on short notice. Such a large increase might cause a renter to fall behind on rent and possibly lead to an eviction.

That might force a renter to move, and finding another affordable place to live is difficult in Rock County’s tight market. On top of that are the unexpected moving expenses and paying for a new security deposit.

Local housing challenges were the focus Thursday night at Craig High School, where the Diversity Action Team hosted a presentation and forum about housing inequities.

Petruzzello, Beloit Community and Housing Services Director Teri Downing, and Rock County Planning Director Colin Byrnes led the panel discussion. The cities and the county are collaborating on a report that analyzes barriers in fair housing.

The report is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The first draft won’t be ready for another month, and a 30-day public comment period and additional public hearings will take place before the final report is adopted.

Before the panel members shared some of the report’s early findings, Diversity Action Team President Marc Perry discussed the history of housing discrimination.

Jim Crow laws. Black codes. Open segregation. Redlining. All were policies instituted decades ago that led to historical discrepancies in homeownership and income levels, Perry said.

Statistics show the effects of those policies are still felt years later, even though discrimination was outlawed through the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Wisconsin has the highest level of inequality between whites and blacks, Perry said. Four other Midwestern states round out the top five. The region isn’t traditionally associated with segregation, but the data shows racial disparities exist everywhere, he said.

Some of the local statistics paint the same picture.

In Janesville, 68.4% of white residents are homeowners, while only 22.2% of black residents own homes. In Beloit, the situation isn’t much better—62.7% of white residents own homes compared to 33.1% of blacks.

In both cities, blacks predominantly rent.

Average income levels for black and white residents spark discrepancies in rent burden rates, which is defined as paying more than 30% of income toward rent.

On average, white renters can afford higher rents than black residents, meaning black renters have fewer affordable units available.

During a thoughtful and robust question-and-answer session, the roughly two dozen audience members emphasized that balancing racial disparities in housing must go beyond housing services. It’s an issue affected by unemployment, holding living-wage jobs and education levels.

Nobody left after the event’s scheduled 8 p.m. end time had passed, with most sticking around for another 20 minutes to continue the discussion.

Diversity Action Team members and the three government officials encouraged the audience to keep talking and participate in the fair housing report’s public comment period to generate new policy ideas.

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