Damakant Jayshi

It’s a topic that has prominently figured in committee and Wausau City Council meetings since late last year: lack of affordable housing. On Thursday, Marathon County’s Extension, Education and Economic Development Committee discussed potential options that could be taken to address the shortage of housing units.

“I think it falls under the same bucket as childcare,” Dist. 21 Supervisor Thomas Rosenberg said Thursday. “Marathon County is getting older and older and older, and you need people who are younger. They are the ones with kids and they are usually the ones at the lower end of the income scale. We need those people here to build our county and to build our economy.”

Rosenberg also said he is not sure what the county can actually do about the shortage of affordable housing “but I think it’s an important issue.” The EEED Committee was discussing whether the county had any role in addressing it.

Marathon County Administrator Lance Leonhard said other counties are having the same conversation about role of the local government in housing.

“There is shortage of housing at all levels,” he said. Leonhard noted the county has a number of delinquent properties that could be eyed for potential housing projects, but he stopped short of making suggestions that he said would be up to the board to determine.

Supervisor Bobby Niemeyer suggested incentivizing local landlords and businesses to build more single bedroom apartments that are more affordable for residents. The Dist. 38 supervisor said the shortage of such units is making it “more difficult for us to attract more people” to the county.

Wausau and Marathon County are among the places where the affordable housing shortage is prominent. Calls to prioritize building affordable houses for people with low income have been growing.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s GAP report, the U.S. “has a shortage of 7 million rental homes affordable and available to extremely low-income renters, whose household incomes are at or below the poverty guideline or 30% of their area median income.” To put those numbers in perspective, the NLIHC said “only 36 affordable and available rental homes exist for every 100 extremely low-income renter households.”

In Wisconsin, the number of extremely low-income renter households is more than 187,000, with only 34 affordable and available rental homes per 100 households.

Lack of affordable housing and poverty are among the top factors which contribute to homelessness, according to a report.

Data shows poverty and low income do play a role in making housing out of reach for many local families. In Wausau and Marathon County, where the poverty rate is 15.8% and 6.7%, respectively, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, issues surrounding homelessness have drawn intense scrutiny in recent times. According to data presented by the United Way of Marathon County at the Wausau Affordable Housing Task Force meeting in February, 850 people sought emergency shelters in Wausau and other areas in the county in 2021 alone.

Issues related to homelessness have dominated discussions in Wausau area. The Wausau Police Department said they have seen a steep rise in complaints from businesses and residents in Wausau’s downtown area about people experiencing homelessness.

There’s another problem that perpetuates homelessness even if people have income to rent an apartment: a lack of demonstrated rental history and associated references to satisfy landlords. Some of those who have legal citations or criminal history face additional challenges.

Two weeks ago, the director of Marathon County’s Social Services Department, Vicki Tylka, pointed out another factor contributing to lack of affordable housing when she was briefing the county board about how the lack of safe and adequate housing is forcing children to live away from their parents: A number of landlords are selling their homes to large corporations that in turn increase rent, making affordable housing further out of reach of families. This is a nationwide trend now, with big investors buying homes from local landlords. But some homeowners are fighting the big companies.

But some cities and communities have gone beyond merely discussing the problem. Of these, Houston has been making waves by moving 25,000 off the streets into their own homes over the course of the past decade. They have aggressively adopted what the housing advocates says works best: housing first policy, which means building more houses.

Leonhard said the county administration could explore options surrounding the issue should the committee and Board of Supervisors direct it to do so.