(First published in the April 26, 2018 issue of City Pages)
Advocates say there’s a marked shortage of affordable housing in the Wausau area. For many people, that means living without a car in order to pay the rent
Lisa Likwarz with her mode of transportation, at her apartment building, the Trolley Quarter Flats.
Lisa Likwarz has struggled in years past to make ends meet. She has been unemployed for more than 10 years because of a disability that causes her to be ill and prevents her from working a steady fulltime job. She lives on nearly $850 a month from a disability check.
She was lucky enough to land a low-income apartment in Trolley Quarter Flats on Wausau’s east riverfront, one of the newest and most renowned recent additions to Wausau’s housing market.
But even so-called “affordable” federally subsidized apartments around Wausau can seem unrealistically expensive—typically around 30% of monthly grossincome for a one bedroom unit.
For example, one of my co-workers at City Pages looked into an affordable unit at Wausau East Apartments a few years ago and was shocked at how expensive they were—and it turned out his income was too high to qualify anyway, making him wonder how anyone making less could afford them.
So how can people make that work? In Likwarz’s case, she can manage the $333 a month rent mainly because she doesn’t own a car. She couldn’t afford it.
Her low income is an extreme example. What’s common, however, is that many people must live without a vehicle as the only way to afford an “affordable” place to live, according to several local sources who work on this issue, including Pam Anderson, who leads the Get Smart Wausau Coalition that advocates for, and organizes programs on, financial wellness.
The city of Wausau has made a conscious effort in recent years to provide more low-income housing for residents by encouraging developers to take advantage of tax credits to help fund those projects.
Take the Atrium Lofts in the Sav-o Supply building, which plans to open this spring. Of the 29 apartments in the building, 24 are reserved as affordable (meaning income limits for the tenant) and five are market-rate (rented out at whatever price the landlord thinks it might fetch).
The 24 affordable apartments will be offered to folks who are earning less than the Wausau area’s average median income (AMI), which is nearly $49,000. The most affordable apartments at around $333 a month are for people making 30% of AMI, or about $14,700 a year.
For someone making $24,500 a year (about $11.78 an hour) the affordable rent units cost nearly $600. Rent is around $725 a month for someone making $29,400 a year, the max income to qualify (which is $14.13 an hour).
Yet I pay $619 a month for an apartment (non-subsidized) with a lot more amenities. But it’s located on the far west side, miles from any bus line, making it an impossible living situation for anyone without a car.
MetroPlains Management Regional Property Manager Andy Wiesner says nearly all of the affordable units in the Sav-o Supply Building have been rented out and even the market rate apartments are gone too. MetroPlains redeveloped Sav-o Supply, Trolley Quarter Flats and the Federal Building. People tend to gobble up these units when they become available, Wiesner says.
“The advantage with units like the Trolley Quarter Flats or Sav-o Supply Building is they’re right near downtown. You can walk wherever you need to go,” Wiesner says, which makes these apartments attractive to people of all incomes levels. “The market-rate people find these apartments and they don’t want to leave.”
For someone like Likwarz, the $333 rent is doable also because she gets monthly rent assistance that pays for about half—but those HUD vouchers are hard to come by and reserved for those most in need.
Likwartz makes it work by getting around on foot or by bike, and occasionally rides the bus to get to grocery stores on the west side. “I would like to be more minimalistic if possible,” Likwartz says with a smile.
How they get built
The Sav-o Supply building’s Atrium Lofts in Wausau will provide 24 more affordable apartments when it opens this spring. Wausau now has nearly 1,000 subsidized units in the city but experts say that’s not nearly enough.
The genesis of affordable housing goes all the way back to 1986, when the federal low-income housing tax credit was created. This tax break encouraged companies to build housing for America’s neediest families and individuals. More than 3 million rental units have been produced since the program’s inception.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the affordability of a rental unit is calculated by the federal standard that no more than 30% of a household’s gross income should be spent on rent and utilities. Anything over that and a household is considered cost burdened.
Households paying more than 50% of their income are severely cost burdened. And nearly 25% of all renters in the U.S. fall into this category, according to a 2017 report from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.
There are roughly 1,000 affordable units in Wausau, although that’s not nearly enough, says the city’s Economic Development Director Chris Schock. “Statistically, nearly every county in the state doesn’t have enough affordable housing,” he says. “Many places are even worse than Wausau.”
It’s difficult to develop low-income housing projects. Developers can take advantage of federal tax credits, but even factoring that into the equation, it’s hard to make money because the rents are so low. A developer earlier this month got approval from city committees to add three duplexes to city-owned vacant lots on West Thomas Street but says the project needs nearly $300,000 in assistance from the city in the form of a tax increment finance district loan to make the finances work.
That’s why many affordable units are created by redeveloping old buildings. The Trolley Quarter Flats, Riverview Towers, Federal Building, Atrium Lofts and old Wausau East High remodels are examples of “historic” affordable housing in Wausau. These developments can work because they also can take advantage of historic preservation tax credits.
Wiesner says if not for this additional historic preservation tax credits it received, the renovation of those three buildings wouldn’t have happened. Plus, people tend to find these buildings attractive. “It’s not a cookie cutter apartment project. It’s a project that’s done very well,” Wiesner says.
The problem is, Wausau doesn’t have many historic buildings left that could be renovated by a developer, says Schock. “Unfortunately Sears doesn’t qualify as historic yet, even though it is a dinosaur… We don’t have blocks of empty warehouses like Milwaukee where you can use historic preservation tax credits to renovate them.”
Only 27 units for every 100 renters who need them
The Marathon County Housing and Homelessness Coalition is hoping it can help provide some of the low-income housing that is missing right now. Co-chair Pam Anderson has been in talks with a group of nonprofit organizations from larger areas in the Midwest—Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, etc.—to get more low-income housing in the area. These nonprofits build 100% affordable housing, and Anderson says she hopes by June she can have a timeline for when those developers can make it to Marathon County.
Marathon County is way short on affordable housing, according to the United Way’s ALICE Report (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed), which identifies those in the community struggling to make ends meet.
In the latest ALICE Report from 2014, there were 1,083 adequate affordable units in the county and 4,048 low-income renters—only about 27 units for every 100 renters who need them. “That shows you that for people of this county, we don’t have enough affordable units,” Anderson says.
Also, the number of families in the ALICE Report that were struggling was high: 41% of families in Marathon County were living paycheck-to-paycheck and 10% of them were below the poverty level.
The situation hasn’t improved much since then, Anderson says, despite some additions to the low-income housing market. There are still long waiting lists for Section 8 vouchers through HUD, which help low-income families pay for affordable units. “It may take 2-3 years of waiting before a voucher becomes open,” Anderson says.
Even if a family or an individual gets a voucher to help them pay for housing, there are still many little fees that can put people on the streets. “People may not have the money saved to pay for first month’s rent and a security deposit,” Anderson says.
The Housing and Homelessness Coalition does have some programs that can assist people from getting evicted if they’re one month’s rent short of money.
Still, that doesn’t always help. Evictions are a big local problem, says Leah Griesbach, a financial wellness advocate at Catholic Charities in Wausau. Griesbach counsels families in financial distress, and notes that, “If someone has an eviction on their record or a judgment on their credit report it can be very difficult for them to find a new residence.”
According to a national study by the nonprofit Eviction Lab, Marathon County’s eviction rate of 2.17% is higher than the state average (1.89%) and higher than surrounding counties (.83% Portage, 1.71% Lincoln, 1.05% Shawano).
In 2016 Marathon County saw 335 evictions, nearly one per day, according to Eviction Lab, which tracks data across the U.S. Wausau ranked sixth in mid-size Wisconsin cities with an eviction rate of 2.55%.
The Housing and Homelessness Coalition has formed a subcommittee with the city of Wausau to tackle the issue of missing affordable housing, and Anderson says getting the county on board is the organization’s next goal. “Most people tend to think of more urban areas like Madison and Milwaukee as the ones that are in most need of affordable housing,” Anderson says. “And while they do need it, mid-size areas like Wausau are in just as much need of places for people to live.”