Damakant Jayshi

The Wausau City Council on Tuesday sent a housing-related project back to its Finance Committee, waiting on a decision until they find out how much of the city’s remaining ARPA funds will be needed to address removal PFAS from water.

The Community Development Department is seeking $34,000 from the American Rescue Plan’s Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds for its ‘home buyer education counseling and closing cost assistance’ programs.

Of this, $500 was to be given as closing cost assistance to first time home buyers if they participated in counseling from an agency certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Wausau Community Development is a HUD certified pre-purchase counselor and the only one in the city, as well as for Marathon and nearby counties. The project sought to cover 50 such buyers, totaling $25,000. An annual administrative cost of $3,000 for three years is included in the request.

Despite its relatively low cost – every single project approved for ARPA funding approval is above that amount except one for internet firewall replacement – its passage through the 11-member council was not certain.

The Finance Committee is already sitting on another project, ‘improvements and expansion of affordable housing units,’ which aims to promote rents for low-income people. The total cost of the project is $1.3 million, with $1 million requested through ARPA. The Finance Committee put that project on hold, saying they needed more information before giving it the green light.

Of the $15 million that the City of Wausau has received in ARPA funding, officials have already appropriated $3.85 million. At least seven of the funding requests are above $200,000; none so far are appear to be from Community Development.

Before the decision to send the project to the Finance Committee, Tammy Stratz, Wausau’s Community Development Manager, gave a passionate defense of the counseling program, listing several reasons for supporting the proposal.

House prices have risen steeply and closing costs have increased too, Stratz said. “$500 doesn’t seem like a lot. Housing counseling is required for some of these bank programs and it has to be a HUD certified counselor,” Stratz said.

Stratz said the people fail to buy homes because they are not aware of all the requirements and counseling helps them address that knowledge gap. Wausau’s homeowner versus rental housing ratio is not good, she said.

“We are just 54% homeowners. That’s ridiculous,” she said. “We need more homeowners. So (if) we can do whatever we can do to increase that, I think we should.”

An alternative would have been funding from HUD, which gives grants to certified agencies. But Wausau was unable to apply for the program despite being the only HUD certified counseling agency from the area because “we don’t have capacity,” she said. This project would have increased those numbers, with at least 50 new homeowners added to the database.

Unclear is how many alders were moved by her plea, since no vote was taken.

Before the decision to send the measure back to the Finance Committee, Council members held a robust discussion on the project as well as which projects should qualify for ARPA funding.

Council President and Alder from Dist. 6, Becky McElhaney, said though the counseling project was a “very good program,” she opposed it, adding that ARPA funds should touch as many people as possible and the proposal would have strayed away from that objective.

“Home counseling serves a narrow scope of people. I think we have water issues that are No. 1 in our community, and we have a big gap,” McElhaney said. “Even though this is only $34,000, that should be going to that gap.”

“That water issue touches every person in this city and beyond, including low-income people,” she added.

Three Finance Committee members, Lisa Rasmussen, Sarah Watson and Doug Diny, defended the proposal, saying it was “a small ask” and would make an impact, helping people buy homes.

Dist. 7 Alder Rasmussen said “one of our goals is to help our low to moderate income residents find sustainable long-term housing solution. That doesn’t mean always renting.”

Watson, chair of the Wausau Affordable Housing Task Force, said the topic came up during a Task Force meeting and it was revealed that a lot of home buyers do not have basic knowledge. “The goal of ARPA is to get people into homes.”

Alder Diny agreed, saying lack of knowledge was an impediment for a lot of home buyers. “So the fewer people we have failing in that process, the better,” he said.

But Alder Tom Kilian questioned the program, saying the city lacked affordable housing.

“Counseling to get people into affordable housing would be beneficial if we had affordable housing,” the alder from Dist. 3 said. “We need to have money put into affordable housing with ARPA, like Alder Watson and the Task Force had recommended. We need ARPA funds to be applied to homelessness and to date I see none of that.”