Wisconsin State Journal: High rents are pushing many out of the Madison area market

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Source: Wisconsin State Journal

Karen Gabriel rents a 532-square-foot studio apartment in Madison’s Allied Dunn’s Marsh neighborhood but spends most of her free time looking for a new place to live. She calls her daily experience “roof anxiety.”

“I’m not asking for much,” Gabriel said while driving one of her usual routes after work in search of promising “For Rent” ads.

Gabriel, a paralegal who makes roughly $36,000 a year after taxes, is about to be priced out of her apartment. She pays $899 a month in rent for her small studio but recently was informed by her property manager that will increase to between $999 and $1,099. Gabriel can’t afford that, she said, since her $1,400 biweekly paycheck also goes toward food and other expenses.

Renters across the Madison area are grappling with increasingly unaffordable monthly payments, caused largely by a housing shortage and tight market.

A surging population and high costs for the construction materials to build new apartment complexes and houses are exacerbating the problem, said UW-Madison professor of urban planning Kurt Paulsen.

Currently, the county is producing 1,500 single-family homes and 2,250 multifamily units per year, according to MadREP.

“Until we can increase housing production to keep up with projected population growth, housing prices will likely continue to rise due to growing demand,” MadREP said.

Helen Bradbury, the president of privately owned Stonehouse Development, said that as developers grapple with the continuing high price of construction materials, among other things, the cost burden falls to renters.

Stonehouse Development has 18 properties in Wisconsin, with 15 in Madison, which alone comprise 1,000 subsidized rental housing units and 100 market-rate units.

“If inflation takes off tomorrow, I’m going to suffer that loss and deficit for the entire year, as all our tenants sign a one-year lease,” Bradbury said.

Not only are there operating and utility expenses to pay. There are also real estate taxes and property insurance.

“We have seen an exponential increase in utilities,” Bradbury said. “My director of operations told me to expect a property insurance increase of 20% to 30% next year.”

Amberly Tobin, a 34-year-old who rents on Madison’s West Side, said she has four college degrees in the sciences, two of them graduate degrees. She makes roughly $50,000 a year working full time as a scientist.

But to help cover living expenses and several other bills, Tobin said she lives with a roommate and tends bar on weekends and for weddings. Bartending adds roughly $6,000 to $9,000 to Tobin’s annual income.

Tobin said she pays $1,160 in rent. That will soon increase to $1,290, she said — a figure Tobin considers unaffordable even with her three jobs. She wishes she could buy a house or condo but said she can’t afford that either. She’s “barely making ends meet” as it is.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” Tobin said, adding that while she and her roommate are searching for another place to live in the Madison region, the two have yet to find any promising leads.

Glimmers of hope

“There is some reason for optimism,” O’ Keefe said. The improving vacancy rate corresponds to a surge in the issuance of permits for new housing in Madison.

Within the past five years, Madison has approved 13,433 multifamily housing units and 2,189 single-family homes, according to figures the city provided the Wisconsin State Journal. The city approved 730 multifamily units and 1,325 single-family homes in 2018. In 2022, it approved 4,076 multifamily units and 150 single-family homes.

It’s unclear the exact proportion of multifamily units and single-family homes that fall under the “affordable” threshold.

But the city has brought 28 rental development projects to fruition with its Affordable Housing Fund that started a decade ago. The projects have produced or will produce 2,486 new housing units, 1,942 of which support households at or below 60% of Dane County’s household median income of just above $40,000, the city said.

The Affordable Housing Fund in general helps local developers secure equity in Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority tax credits to support the construction of affordable rental units. The City Council this year increased the fund to $10 million — double the sum from when Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway took office in 2019.

The city also recently made changes to its zoning code to encourage more dense housing along future routes for bus rapid transit outside the core Downtown.

At the Dane County level, a survey is being conducted that will help the county determine how it should tackle regional housing crises.

‘Nothing fancy’

Gabriel is still looking for an apartment.

One day last month, she explored Madison’s South Side. Later that evening, Gabriel perused websites in search of more leads.

Despite having no luck in scoring a dwelling that suits her needs, Gabriel is already packing up her apartment — boxes have overtaken her compact living room, bedroom and kitchen. Her lease is up in June.

“My ideal (living space) would have 1,000 square feet with a garage,” Gabriel, who originally went to school for photography, said during her drive. “Maybe a basement. A washer and dryer inside. Two bedrooms. I would put my crafts in one bedroom. Nothing fancy. I would love to have a fireplace for the cold days. I would also like a kitchen I could maybe bake some cookies in.”