A perfect storm in the housing market has left Hunter Stewart scrambling to find a place to live in Janesville.
The dark clouds started forming with the 2008 financial crisis, when plunging housing prices removed any incentive to build new housing. Those incentives have been slow to reemerge, despite prices now topping 2007 levels. Meanwhile, local not-in-by-backyard protests have frustrated some efforts to replenish Janesville’s depleted inventories. As a result, homelessness looms for people such as Stewart, who had been living in one-bedroom rental for $600 a month.
As Gazette reporter Neil Johnson reported last Sunday, Stewart became homeless after his landlord kicked him out before selling Stewart’s home to somebody else. Stewart couldn’t find a new place and ended up living in a tent in the backyard of a Janesville residence until he had to leave that spot, too. Now, he’s couch surfing. One of the most troubling aspects of the story is that Stewart is employed, working 40 hours a week with two part-time jobs, yet he seems as susceptible to homelessness as someone unemployed.
Make no mistake, homelessness in Janesville and many other cities is, in reality, an affordable housing crisis. No doubt many other issues, such as mental health and addiction problems, contribute to homelessness, but the only logical explanation to the sudden surge in homelessness both locally and nationwide is the precipitous decline in affordable housing.
Many statistics bear out the dilemma facing Rock County. A new Wisconsin Realtors Association study shows Rock County has the lowest rate for housing growth in the state, with an average of 1.7 families for every new housing unit created here.
It doesn’t help that some modest efforts over the past few years to grow the housing inventory have run into fervent NIMBY objections.
Most recently, the city encountered resistance with its proposal to build three small, 600-square-foot homes on the south side to serve as transitional housing for people at risk of becoming homeless. This project seems like an ideal setup for people such as Stewart.
Predictably, a petition to stop the project circulated among neighbors, who say they favor the concept but just don’t want it near them.
Amid so much anti-new housing sentiment, Janesville needs a YIMBY (yes in my backyard) movement. The city needs administrators, a plan commission and a city council willing to green light projects that raise no objections except from the NIMBY crowds. Solid plans advanced by reputable developers should not be derailed.
Janesville should be much farther along with new multifamily developments, despite notable progress made in recent months on three projects. A 92-unit “affordable housing” apartment complex planned for the downtown won’t be finished until 2021, while two other projects could add as many as 300 units over the next couple years.
These projects are desperately needed but come too late for Stewart and others in similar predicaments. Residents who so passionately object to developments near their neighborhoods but claim to support such developments “in theory” have made Janesville’s homeless crisis worse than it should be. People are suffering because it has taken too long for new housing to get built.