After a few years living in a car, Janesville native Hunter Stewart said he’d started to find his feet in life.
For the past three years, Stewart had been stringing together what he calls a “house life,” a non-homeless life like other people he knows. He was getting by, renting modest homes, most recently a small house off of Milton Avenue.
He works 40 hours a week at two part-time jobs—at a retail shop at the Janesville Mall and at a sandwich shop. The jobs net him an average of $9.50 an hour, but Stewart and his 4-year-old cat, Garth, had been getting by.
That was until Stewart’s landlord dissolved Stewart’s handshake lease, gave Stewart two weeks to vacate and then sold the house to someone who promptly flipped the property and put it on the market with a $40,000 price tag, Stewart said.
Stewart said he can’t afford to buy the house he rented just a month ago. Sometimes, he said, it had been a strain just to pony up the $600 a month in rent for the one-bedroom house.
Now, Stewart’s homeless.
He’s 26. He’s got some college under his belt. He’s working. But in Janesville he can’t find a place to rent that he can afford.
Most local rentals, he said, now run a few hundred dollars a month more than the $600 he could barely afford before. Vacant apartments are so scarce that landlords can afford to be extra picky about renters, especially those who have a cat, he said.
He’s couch surfing at a relative’s home while he hunts for a place he can afford. Until about two weeks ago, he’d been living in a tent next to a row of shrubs in a friend’s backyard.
“I’ve fallen on hard times before and worked my way out of a hole that’s been dug. But I was getting used to house living. I thought I’d already triumphed over homelessness,” Stewart said.
“When this hit, it kind of sucked the air out all at once. I mean, it reality hits real hard. It’s like, at this point, at my age, I’m supposed to have some sort of responsibility, right?”
Stewart is one of a growing number of people who are homeless or borderline homeless struggling to find an affordable place to live in Janesville—a city that one recent statewide real estate report claims has perhaps the tightest housing market in Wisconsin.
Some city estimates are that the rental housing market is at least 500 units shy of demand.
Officials said more local renters are increasingly under financial strain as home sale prices—and in turn rents—continue to increase.
A growing proportion of local renters now spend at least 50% of their income on rent, city housing officials said. For some, rent cost increases have begun to outpace wage increases.
The developer of a proposed affordable housing apartment complex in downtown Janesville recently said that the company’s market surveys indicate affordable or rent-controlled apartments in Janesville have occupancy rates of “99 percent.”
U.S. Census data used to calculate housing affordability trends is nearly 3 years old. But Kelly Bedessem, the city’s housing services director, said she sees recent evidence the housing crunch is tightening like a noose for a growing segment of the working class.
Bedessem said multiple residents show up at the city Neighborhood Services Office every day saying they can’t find an apartment in Janesville, or, if they can, they can’t afford the rent. A growing portion of these people are families with at least one working adult. It’s an emerging class of people caught in a cycle of housing instability that’s driven by a shortage in rental units and rabid demand for housing across the board.
“I would say we get a half a dozen people that come in and say, ‘Help me, I can’t find anywhere to live.’ And they’re not even the city’s rental assistance clients. They’re people from all walks of the community,” Bedessem said.
There’s always a tent in somebody’s backyard.
Except when there isn’t.
Out of the tentJanesville resident Greg Rea let Stewart pop up a tent in the backyard of Rea’s residence on Bennett Street after he learned Stewart, his daughter’s friend and co-worker, had his apartment sold out from under him.
The tent was next to a stand of Arborvitae shrubs along the lot line of Rea’s residence, which is in a quiet neighborhood a few blocks from the Rock County 4-H Fairgrounds.
Stewart’s tent arrangement worked fine as a stopgap until Rea got notice from the city that the tent was a code violation. Under city rules, tents cannot be used for living or housekeeping in most areas, including residential backyards.
Rea was ordered to “remove the tent and occupant from the backyard” within seven days or face daily fines between $25 and $100, according to a Sept. 19 code violation from the city Neighborhood and Community Services Department.
Rea, who is 65 and runs an automotive body shop on Janesville’s west side, said he complied.
Rea’s own home is small, and he said it couldn’t easily accommodate an impromptu roommate. He had run electricity to the tent and invited Stewart to use a bathroom in a detached garage whenever he needed to clean up.
“It was going to help him. At zero cost. Zero. Just to let him stay for a little bit, a few weeks and get back on his feet,” Rea said. “When police came to my house, and I got that (city) notice, I didn’t have the nerve to tell him. I couldn’t break it to him. I had to ask my daughter to do it.”
Rea said it irks him he got cited for a code violation, particularly when the city is allowing homeless people to sleep in their cars overnight at Traxler Park.
But Rea said what bothers him more is how quickly and easily a working person can have his housing choices reduced to a tent or a relative’s couch.
“I feel like somehow I failed that man (Hunter),” Rea said. “It just doesn’t make sense to me anymore. I don’t understand how the heck we have gotten here. How have we got to where there’s no good ways we can help one another?”
Not enough housing
Bedessem said police often find evidence of makeshift homeless encampments in wooded parts of the city, but she finds it unusual that a resident would erect a backyard tent to help someone who is homeless. Even so, Bedessem isn’t surprised the predicament presented itself.
“The backyard tent is unique, but I don’t think the scenario in and of itself is unique,” Bedessem said. “I think it’s just another example of a scenario of what happens when we don’t have enough housing, unfortunately.”
Bedessem said one woman recently came to the city seeking help after her landlord sold her apartment out from under her.
“The owner came in and said, ‘Hey, we sold this. You need to get out.’ Then, she had nowhere to go. And, you know, good luck trying to find a place right now on 30 days’ notice,” Bedessem said.
“I think it’s sad. The market is just tight. And so any house that’s for sale and it’s for a reasonable price, people are going to scoop them up.”
The city now is working with a Madison-area developer who plans River Flats, a 92-unit “affordable housing” apartment on North Franklin Street near downtown. That project would use a state tax credit to offer dozens more apartment units priced for low-income or moderate-income renters. But those units won’t be on the market until mid-2021, according to the developer.
Also by 2021, two other apartment developments on tap in Janesville could bring about 300 more mid-priced and luxury-priced apartments.
Bedessem hopes more rental units being added in the next two years will start to free up other apartment units and address the overall shortage of rental housing.
Only about 100 new, owner-occupied houses are being built a year in Janesville, and that’s as the area over the last five years has attracted more than 3,000 new jobs in the manufacturing, warehousing and distribution, and healthcare sectors alone.
The city is looking into some alternative housing solutions. It’s been in talks since early this year with Community Action on a plan to build three ”small homes”—500-square-foot homes—on the south side to serve as transitional housing for people at risk of homelessness. For that project, the city is eyeing a slice of the city-owned River Valley Park at Kellogg and Willard avenues, but the proposal faces headwinds.
After a neighborhood meeting hosted by Community Action and the city in August, Bedessem said two couples who live near the park began circulating a neighborhood petition opposing the small homes.
Bedessem said Community Action is hosting another neighborhood meeting this week to address the petition and people’s questions about the small homes.
Some neighbors don’t like the idea the houses would be built in a city park, Bedessem said.
“It’s kind of like a ‘don’t steal our park’ kind of a thing. It’s 100%‘we just don’t want it here. Oh, we think it’s a great idea, we just don’t want it here,’ is what they said. One of the opponents to the project said in what I perceived as somewhat threatening terms that they don’t want to be my neighbor,” Bedessem said.
“I said, ‘Well, that’s not very kind.’”