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JANESVILLE

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.

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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.”

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