The flood waters disproportionately hit Vermont’s affordable housing stock — at the worst time

The flood waters disproportionately hit Vermont’s affordable housing stock — at the worst time
The flood waters disproportionately hit Vermont’s affordable housing stock — at the worst time
Krystal Marshall and her daughter Quinn Baker, 6, have had to move out of their flood-damaged apartment Elm Street in Montpelier. Seen on Monday, July 24. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Krystal Marshall loves the Montpelier townhouse she’s rented for the last two years, which abuts the North Branch of the Winooski River in the back. It’s the first place that’s felt like “an actual home,” she said, in part because she and her two kids each have had a room of their own.

The townhouse is part of the North Branch Apartments, a 39-unit complex owned by the nonprofit affordable housing developer Downstreet. The complex consists of two sets of buildings lining the river — located at 87 and 89 Elm Street — separated by a small pocket park, where Marshall and her mother recently dug up the weeds and planted flowers.

“I love the space. I loved the community here,” Marshall said. “It feels like everybody that are in these two Downstreet buildings seem to really look out for one another.”

The catastrophic flooding that hit Vermont earlier this month tore up those flowers — and caused major damage to 87 Elm, displacing all of its residents. On the door of Marshall’s townhouse, fire safety inspectors have posted a “DO NOT ENTER” sign. Alongside it was a handwritten flier advertising free legal help.

A full accounting of the destruction wrought to Vermont’s housing stock is not yet available. Only top line numbers are beginning to trickle in, and they are preliminary. But a pattern appears to be emerging: Whether it’s rental buildings in north Barre City or a manufactured home park in Berlin, some of the hardest-hit housing was also Vermont’s most affordable.

An excavator next to a manufactured home in the mud.
An excavator digs out access to a manufactured home that was flooded in Berlin on Thursday, July 13. Photo by Natalie Williams/VTDigger

From a first look at Federal Emergency Manage Agency data, Vermont Housing Commissioner Josh Hanford said reports thus far indicate that floodwaters disproportionately impacted low-income areas.

“There (are) lots of homes on back roads — single-family homes, middle-income and higher that also (were) damaged,” he said. “But not at this scale.”

There are many reasons why that might be. Vermont’s villages have historically been built in river valleys, and denser development has been concentrated there, patterns which modern zoning codes have largely reinforced. But money has also allowed the affluent to spread out on larger lots uphill, while those with less have remained in floodplains — even as the risks have grown.

“Market pressures … are constantly pushing lower income people further and further toward options that reduce their quality of life — older, more degraded housing stock, or housing stock that churns through natural disasters more quickly,” said state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D/P-Chittenden Southeast, who chairs the Senate’s Economic Development, Housing & General Affairs Committee.

“Just the lack of available affordable housing in high, dry places, is a major factor in all of this,” Ram Hinsdale said.

Not ‘going to put it on the most expensive land’ 

Those development patterns are particularly striking when it comes to Vermont’s manufactured home communities. About 10% of the state’s manufactured home lots are in floodplains, according to preliminary research from the University of Vermont. And as with Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, it appears that these parks were once again hit hard.

Kelly Hamshaw, a senior lecturer in the Department of Community Development and Applied Economics at UVM, and a Ph.D. student focused on resilience and manufactured home communities, said there are a few reasons why that is. For one, these manufactured home communities largely pre-date regulations that might have prevented them from being located there. And second, the land was cheap.

“You have all of these late ’60s communities that popped up in places where, if it was going to be affordable housing, they weren’t necessarily going to put it on the most expensive land,” she said.

Even affordable housing developers, who are subsidized by public funds and private philanthropy (and aren’t trying to turn a profit), struggle to acquire property at reasonable prices. Marshall’s home at 87 Elm, for example, only came into Downstreet’s possession because of a prior flood. The nonprofit had been pursuing the North Branch apartments for years, but couldn’t get the owner to sell for a price it could afford until 1992, when a late winter flood devastated the capital’s downtown.

“We were concerned about gentrification of Montpelier — which actually was right on the money,” said Rick DeAngelis, who spearheaded the North Branch project as the then-head of the Central Vermont Community Land Trust, which later rebranded as Downstreet. The land trust was “so relieved” to finally acquire the housing, he said, that it “maybe didn’t focus enough” on future risks.

“We didn’t really think a lot about that — that we were going to be into this coming global warming crisis and it would flood every, you know, 10 years,” he said.

While Downstreet may have underestimated the risk at that time, it did not exactly ignore them. The buildings at 89 Elm — on the other side of the pocket park from Marshall — were so badly damaged from the 1992 flood that they were torn down afterward and rebuilt above the floodplain, according to DeAngelis. But because 87 Elm was merely rehabbed, flood resiliency work was more limited. 

Elevating 89 Elm largely worked. Only the basement flooded, and most tenants were not displaced, although an inspection this week found that three units would need to be vacated temporarily because of high moisture levels.

But at 87 Elm, flooding tipped over an oil tank, damaged four first-floor units and affected building systems located in the basement. The entire building has been emptied, and Marshall said she’s been told it could be weeks, if not months, before she can return.

A woman and a child looking at a sign on a door.
Krystal Marshall said the Montpelier townhouse is the first place that’s felt like “an actual home,” in part because she and her two kids each have had a room of their own. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Angie Harbin, Downstreet’s executive director, noted that the vast majority of the nonprofit’s housing stock was spared. Of more than 500 units, only 26 were evacuated, displacing 52 residents.  

Hanford, Vermont’s housing commissioner, said he’s actually far more worried about privately owned rental properties, which aren’t subject to the flood-resilient building standards that publicly funded affordable housing projects must follow. 

He pointed, for example, to a much newer Downstreet development, the Taylor Street apartments. It sits atop of Montpelier’s new transit center, and was completely unscathed by the flood — despite being sited just a block away from where the Winooski River meets its North Branch tributary. Floodwaters completely inundated the area, but because the housing units themselves were elevated, they weren’t impacted at all.

But the vast majority of renters don’t live in developments managed by nonprofits like Downstreet, he noted. Instead, they’re in privately owned properties rented out for profit. Those landlords will now have to take out a loan from the federal government to get their units back online.

“I’m fearful that some of these will not be quickly repaired, and make addressing our housing situation even harder,” he said. 

Josh Hanford from the Department of Housing and Community Development testifies
Josh Hanford testifies before the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee at the Statehouse in Montpelier in January 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

‘Where are they going to find the units?’

Vermont is in the midst of a well-documented and acute housing crisis. The state’s rental vacancy rates are among the lowest in the nation — and its rates of homelessness the highest. 

Hanford said Tuesday FEMA has already verified damage to about 850 residential structures. Even if most of those buildings are repairable, he said, the people who were living there need somewhere to stay in the interim. (Separately, some 4,000 Vermonters have already reported to 211 that their residences were damaged, with 750 saying their homes are uninhabitable.) 

FEMA will provide impacted residents temporary rental assistance, but the federal agency has been scouring for units and coming up empty. The agency even expanded its search to look for rentals at 150% of the fair market rents set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — and still could only find 149 units, according to Hanford.

“So if we’ve just displaced over 800 households or more, where are they going to find the units, when we have that sort of supply?” Hanford said. “How are those vouchers going to even work?” (At a town hall on Wednesday, one official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture offered this potential solution: Accept a publicly subsidized unit — out of state.)

At a special flood recovery hearing held by state lawmakers on Thursday, Sue Minter, the executive director of the anti-poverty nonprofit Capstone Community Action, noted that 300 to 400 renters have been impacted by flooding in Barre City, where more than half of all households are renters.

“We know that (there) is going to be a significant increase of people with nowhere to go,” she said. “And it isn’t going to be a quick fix because there (is) no housing to rent short term.” 

A man in a vest is delivering food to a house.
Salvation Army volunteers distributed meals on Tuesday, July 18, to a house on North Main Street in Barre that sustained flood damage. Photo by Auditi Guha/VTDigger

The state should advocate for short-term non-congregate housing from FEMA, she said, emphasizing that the problem would likely continue to reveal itself to be even more acute than initially estimated as more properties are inspected and deemed uninhabitable.

Emotional testimony a few hours later from Jake Hemmerick, the Granite City’s newly elected mayor, underlined the point. He emphasized that these were “fuzzy” and early projections, but as much as 10% of Barre City’s housing stock might have been impacted, he said. Even worse: The people who were flooded will have the hardest time bouncing back.

“My sense is the neighborhoods that were the hardest hit were the least resourced,” he said.

At Downstreet, Harbin said the plan is to get every single unit back online — including the ones that flooded. The nonprofit will look for ways to mitigate future damage, she said, but it “simply cannot lose the housing stock.”

Marshall, at 87 Elm, said she plans to move back in. She acknowledged feeling nervous about it, but said she sees no other options.

“If I left here, I would be at the B.O.R. with everybody else,” she said, referring to Barre City’s municipal auditorium, where the Red Cross has staged an emergency shelter to serve area residents impacted by the flood.

A woman in a black shirt standing in a room.
Krystal Marshall has had to move out of her flood-damaged apartment Elm Street in Montpelier. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Marshall is temporarily staying in a smaller apartment also owned by Downstreet, which happened to be vacant. She noted that, relative to many of her former neighbors who have also been displaced, she’s one of the lucky ones. Some are renting Airbnbs, couch surfing or staying in shelters. (One household has found a permanent alternative, according to Harbin.)

Indeed, DeAngelis, who is now co-director of the Central Vermont shelter network Good Samaritan Haven, told VTDigger that last week he ran into a woman he recognized at the Red Cross shelter. She had once stayed at Good Sam’s Berlin shelter, and after months of searching, finally found an apartment — at 87 Elm.

“What are you doing here?” DeAngelis recalled asking her. “And she said, ‘I got flooded out.’” 

She is now back where she started: a room at Good Sam.

Read the story on VTDigger here: The flood waters disproportionately hit Vermont’s affordable housing stock — at the worst time.

‘I don’t see how I can manage’: In Rutland, a motel resident struggles with uncertainty

an older woman standing in front of a car door.
a woman is walking her dog in a room full of boxes.
Susan Ladmer and her two dogs live at the Quality Inn in Rutland. They are seen on Thursday, June 29. As debates continued in Montpelier through the beginning of last week, Ladmer was unsure whether she’d be allowed to continue living there. Newly signed legislation allows her to stay, but she said she’ll have trouble meeting a new requirement to contribute to the cost of the room. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Susan Ladmer first wrote to a reporter in early June, asking for help.

“I am currently housed in a homeless motel. I am a 77 year old woman who suffered a stroke in December. Despite tremendous efforts to find out where I will be in July, at the end of the emergency housing program, no one can tell me,” she wrote at the time. “Just the stress of trying to find out and of trying to make certain I have somewhere to live is presently life threatening.”

Ladmer would not get clarity until last week. Two days before she was initially set to be booted from a pandemic-era program sheltering homeless people in motels, Gov. Phil Scott signed a measure that gives her and nearly 2,200 other people the option to stay where they are until April. (Participants will need to leave sooner if the state can identify alternate shelter for them.)

That extended help comes with new strings, including the requirement that motel residents begin paying 30% of their incomes toward the cost of their stays. The rule mirrors one that was included in the state’s pre-pandemic shelter program, as well as the federal standard for Section 8 vouchers. 

an older woman sitting in front of a tv.
Ladmer said a state worker calculated that she’ll owe about $300 a month, a third of her monthly Social Security check. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, who played a key role in negotiating the new law, argued it’s only fair to ask households to begin paying in.

“There has to be some reciprocity here between the household and their responsibilities and the publicly funded benefit,” she said.

But this latest news, which Ladmer received only days before she was told she would have to pay, has left her panicked and infuriated. She said a state worker calculated that she’ll owe about $300 a month, a third of her monthly Social Security check.

“I’m out of money now. I mean, I’m at the end of the month, and that was with the $300,” she told VTDigger last week. “I don’t see how I can manage without it. I mean — I know I can’t.”

Ladmer noted that those who are eligible for vouchers until April, such as herself, qualified for the help in part because they met certain special criteria. They are elderly, receive federal disability benefits, have children, are pregnant, or are fleeing domestic violence, for example. 

The state is “putting the load of handling the motels on the vulnerable people,” she said, “as if that answers the money problem, when the money problem is created by the overpayment to the motels.”

Back when the federal government was picking up the tab for the program, Vermont did, for some time, allow motels to name their price, although state officials later capped the monthly rate at $5,250. The state is now paying for the program, and the latest legislation instructs the Agency of Human Services to negotiate further reduced rates with motels.

But motel owners don’t necessarily have to accept lower rates. Ladmer, on the other hand, is now required to give a third of her income to maintain her shelter. She filed an appeal but predicted it will be an “exercise in futility.”

an older woman in a red jacket sitting in a chair.
Ladmer once worked as a museum administrator and, later, a horse trainer. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Ladmer’s road to the Rutland Quality Inn where she now lives with her two dogs has been long and winding. Born in New York, Ladmer once worked as a museum administrator and, later, a horse trainer. But a chronic pain condition called complex regional pain syndrome largely took her out of the workforce in the late 1990s. 

She found a doctor who helped her manage the pain through hypnosis, and, after relocating to New Hampshire, tried to find work again. But employers wouldn’t hire her, she said, because her medical condition threatened to spike their insurance premiums. 

Struggling to finish paying off her home and property taxes, and seeing no other options, she took out a reverse mortgage — a move she said she knew was a bad deal, even at the time she made it. She tried to supplement her income by selling antiques, but couldn’t make enough, and lost the house.

“I have accomplished things in my life, many things I’m very proud of. And it’s hard now to be stripped of everything,” she said. “I thought I could get out of it.”

Last spring, she moved to Vermont with her dogs, attempting to make it work in an RV on land in Cavendish. But then came the fall’s cooler temperatures, and in November friends insisted she move into a local hotel, where the state was sheltering people experiencing homelessness.

Her initial plan had been to return to the camper after the winter. But it has no running water, no electricity, no sewer hookup, and no cell phone service. Still recovering from a stroke, which struck her in December and hospitalized her for nine days, Ladmer no longer thinks she could survive in the RV.

a woman walks her dog in front of a building.
Ladmer takes her two dogs for a walk at the Quality Inn in Rutland. “Believe me, I tried every which way to make this thing work out,” she said. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

But neither does she think she can afford what the state wants her to pay. Between car payments, financing on the camper, credit card debt she took on during the move, insurance, and food, all of her money is already budgeted.

“Believe me, I tried every which way to make this thing work out. And as I’m sitting in this situation, I just wish there was some other way to make it work out because I hate this,” she said. “I truly, truly hate this.”

As she spoke to a reporter over the phone, a friend’s husband stopped by to drop off forms she needed to fill out to apply for housing and services. She paused for a moment to begin leafing through the stack of paperwork.

“God. You know, I used to write grant applications for the museum. And I swear they weren’t as involved as these applications are,” she said. “They were for a lot more money, too.”

Read the story on VTDigger here: ‘I don’t see how I can manage’: In Rutland, a motel resident struggles with uncertainty.

Frustrated rent control advocates say Fresno leaders aren’t listening, but the fight isn’t over

Community residents and housing advocates are regrouping after an unsuccessful push for Fresno’s new city budget to include a rent control program. 

“Community members are disappointed, and there really is this feeling that their narratives, their testimony aren’t being taken seriously,” said Marisa Moraza, a campaign director with Power California Action.

That fight, advocates acknowledge, is an increasingly uphill battle in Fresno, where the mayor and city council have said solving the statewide housing crisis means incentivizing development and courting reinvestment.

Rent control, they argue, would be counterproductive to building new housing units.

“In terms of rent control, I can tell you I don’t support that because I’ve seen what has happened in other cities,” Mayor Jerry Dyer said during a news conference Thursday following the budget’s adoption. “When rent control is implemented, ultimately, you have landlords making fewer dollars, and so they’re not investing in their property. And as a result, we end up with a lot of slums within a city.”

Despite lingering frustrations, housing advocates say they aren’t backing down on their demands.

In May, a coalition of advocacy organizations sent a letter to Dyer and the Fresno City Council, listing a series of budget requests on everything from transportation and infrastructure to housing and, specifically, a new rent control program.

In the letter, advocates said the city should establish a board to enforce rent-control policies, which, they say, would stabilize rents in Fresno.

“We wanted to also wrap in the opportunity to actually allocate funding for something like a rent control program,” Moraza said. “It would be a very low funding allocation, but just having that allocation then opens the door to conversation of building up a policy.”

Mayor, council push to build more affordable housing, remain opposed to rent control

Just before the city council approved the 2024 fiscal year budget Thursday, a group of community residents and housing advocates, with signs in hand, rallied inside the Fresno Council Chambers.

“What do we want? Rent Control!” The group chanted. “When do we want it? Now!”

About 15 seconds into the chant, Council President Tyler Maxwell put the city council meeting into recess for five minutes, and the city’s live feed and audio cut out shortly after.

The chant capped about two months of Fresno residents and housing advocates showing up to public comment before a city council – which they have noted is composed of a majority of landlords – to voice their concerns about rising rents.

“This is really like our final attempt to be able to speak directly to council members because the in-person meetings (with them) weren’t making a shift,” Moraza said. “We’re now seeing that public comment is not making a shift.”

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Dyer said the rent control issue was a nonstarter.

Dyer said passing rent control would send a message to housing developers to leave Fresno, which he said could lead to a lack of housing production and actually drive rents up. Dyer has maintained that the city can resolve its housing crisis by building more units, and rent control does not fit his vision.

Since 2021, 400 new affordable housing units have been built and are currently occupied in Fresno, city spokesperson Sontaya Rose told Fresnoland in May. She said the city plans to add 2,493 more affordable housing units by the end of 2025.

But when new affordable housing developments open up, applications pour in.

One 60-unit affordable housing development in Clovis recently received over 10,000 applications, and another 57-unit development that opened up in Fresno’s Chinatown received 4,000 applications, said Michael Duarte, the chief real estate officer at the Fresno Housing Authority, at a June 15 Fresnoland/CalMatters panel on housing.

Duarte added that the Fresno Housing Authority received 10,000 applications in less than one day for its Section 8 housing voucher waitlist. 

Rent control isn’t the only way to help tenants, leaders say

In an interview with Fresnoland, Fresno City Council President Tyler Maxwell said he sees both sides of the issue but said he believes rent comes down to simple supply-and-demand economics.

He added the best way to bring rent down is to increase the housing supply, and that means construction.

“These last three years, I can tell you that we have set a record when it comes to either subsidizing or helping initiate affordable housing projects here in the city of Fresno,” Maxwell said. “It’s a priority for not just this council but the mayor and his administration to really try to expedite as many housing projects as possible.”

In lieu of rent control, Maxwell said the council in recent years has taken steps to beef up some protections for tenants.

He pointed to the city’s Eviction Protection Program, which Maxwell co-authored in 2021.

The program, which provides legal representation for tenants facing eviction, wasn’t included in the proposed budget that Dyer released in May. 

Maxwell, the only city councilmember who rents his home, pushed to save the program with a budget motion to put $2 million towards the program’s third year. He said he hopes the program wouldn’t require a budget motion to get funding in the future.

“Going forward, my hope is that it starts getting baked into the proposed budget,” Maxwell said. “Ether because it’s a priority for the mayor or a priority for the city attorney.”

Maxwell added that another piece of legislation he authored, the Tenant Relocation Assistance Program, helps renters avoid getting displaced due to unhealthy or unsafe living conditions. The ordinance requires landlords to assist with the expense of relocating tenants to complete needed renovations or face fines.

However, the city’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, a key COVID-19-era effort that provided assistance with rent and utility bills to Fresno residents who met income requirements, is going away soon. The $54 million from federal and state governments that funded the program is almost depleted, and the remaining $2.5 million in funding remaining for the program will likely get spent in the next fiscal year.

With no city funding to keep the program around next year, it will likely end soon.

“There was a lot of community momentum and energy that really shows that folks care about this issue,” said Marisa Moraza, a campaign director with Power California Action. “We will continue to push for this rent control demand.”

The post Frustrated rent control advocates say Fresno leaders aren’t listening, but the fight isn’t over appeared first on Fresnoland.

Rising cost of living in northeast Wisconsin has many working families treading water 

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Shannon Pikka loves the work-life balance of her job in construction. She left an office job in insurance and now enjoys being up early and working with her hands as part of a drywall finishing crew. The single mother’s workday ends around 3 p.m. — just in time to greet her two children from school.

“Kids are coming home at that time, and we got the whole evening now together,” Pikka said. “Our job should not dictate our lifestyle.”

Despite changing careers nearly four years ago, she’s still earning apprentice wages due to setbacks during the pandemic when her youngest was in third grade and schools switched to distance learning. 

“I would be a journeywoman right now had I had a babysitting option so I could have still shown up for work and gained all those hours in the year — so that set me back,” the De Pere, Wisconsin resident said. 

The difference is a full $9 an hour. As it is, she’s making just shy of $27 an hour. But with two school-aged kids in her household, paying all of the bills is a stretch. Pikka gets no child support, and she relies on her parents who live nearby to provide child care for the days she needs to be at a remote jobsite for days or even weeks at a time.

“I’m just trying to make ends meet,” she said. 

But government statistics show many in the community earn a lot less than she does. 

The state Department of Workforce Development estimates that two adults working full-time earning $25.54 an hour each is just enough to be self-sufficient in a household with two children when factoring in the cost of housing, transportation, food and child care. 

The average wage in Green Bay, according to the most recent federal Bureau of Labor Statistics report, was $26.29 in 2022. But the median earnings were $21.84 an hour, meaning that half of workers earn less than that.

In other words, many workers supporting families in northeast Wisconsin are just squeaking by, especially at a time when the cost of living is increasing in Wisconsin and across the nation. 

“Self-sufficiency is attainable for the majority of full-time workers if children are not involved,” wrote DWD spokesperson Jennifer Sereno. “However, the situation rapidly changes when just one child is brought into the picture, let alone multiple.”

That’s because the cost of child care can rival tuition at a state university, the Wisconsin Policy Forum wrote in a recent report. A state survey of child-care facilities found the annual median cost for school-aged children starts at around $10,000 but can be as much as $40,000 a year for high-quality infant care in urban areas like Green Bay and Oshkosh. 

Earnings too high to qualify for benefits

Pikka’s household has no second income, yet she is still well above the level to qualify for many public assistance programs.

Her story represents a growing segment of Wisconsin’s working population: those earning too much to qualify for most public assistance programs but too little to afford anything but basic necessities. United Way studies this group of people known as ALICE: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. Its latest report shows 23% of Wisconsinites fit into this category.

Shannon Pikka is a single mother and a union drywall finisher. Like many in northeast Wisconsin, she dreams of owning a home but does not make enough money to buy. She hopes a promotion to journey status will allow her to become a homeowner. She is seen on a job site on June 2, 2023, in Ashwaubenon, Wis. (Sarah Kloepping / USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

Help such as food assistance through the state’s FoodShare program, subsidized child care under the Wisconsin Shares program care and BadgerCare Plus health insurance are not available to many such families, including Pikka’s. 

“These are people who are working,” said Trisha Witt, who works in advocacy for United Way Fox Cities in Appleton. “They’re earning more than the federal poverty level but less than Wisconsin’s basic cost of living.”

When you add in the 11% of people living below the poverty line, the percentage of Wisconsinites struggling financially is 34%, according to the United Way report.

In northeast Wisconsin, the figures are similar, except in urban areas, where the numbers are starker. In Oshkosh, for example 41% of residents are either below poverty or not making enough for basic needs. 

Barriers to prosperity

It’s not due to a lack of employment. Official unemployment is at record lows with federal agencies reporting Wisconsin at a record 2.4% in April. Northeast Wisconsin was hovering at 2% or less. 

But while very few able-bodied adults are outside of the workforce, lack of affordable child care and transportation can keep people from working and meeting their basic needs. 

“No matter what the economic conditions are like,” said Ryan Long, a regional economist for the state Department of Workforce Development in Green Bay, “we know for certain that there are going to be folks who face barriers to work.”

On paper, Pikka has been relatively successful. For 15 years she sold insurance but entered the trades after becoming disillusioned with a desk job. But a string of abusive partners who ended up incarcerated or moving out of state has left her the sole breadwinner for her family.

Her life had been full of hardship from when she was left at a hospital in Colombia where she was born and never picked up. Pikka spent the next three years in an overcrowded South American orphanage where she said she suffered physical abuse.

“I have scars on my body because the nuns could not control the orphanage, so they beat us up,” she said. 

At age 4, a pair of school teachers adopted her and raised her in northeast Wisconsin. If it wasn’t for her parents helping with child care, Pikka said she could never maintain her higher paying career in construction.

“I wouldn’t be able to do it,” she said. “I’d have to go back to my office job.” 

The dearth of affordable child care in Wisconsin is well-documented. The staff shortage in day care centers itself has a ripple effect. On paper, there are roughly 37,500 slots for children in the 19 counties in northeast Wisconsin. But a survey last year of 1,173 child care centers in Wisconsin found nearly half were below capacity. 

“It is important to note that this is licensed capacity and providers may not be using all slots due to staffing shortages, low enrollment, or other factors,” wrote Gina Paige, a spokesperson for the state Department of Children and Families, which licenses day care facilities.

Hot housing market constrained by supply, rising interest rates

Affordable housing is another key to family sustainability. But a shortage of supply has driven up rental prices across the board.

“It doesn’t really matter what the availability of jobs is like if young folks are getting priced out of certain areas because housing is too expensive,” Long said.

Real estate data show that housing prices across the state continue to rise even as sales slump due to constrained supply and rising interest rates that have added to the cost of borrowing.

In April 2023, the median house in northeast Wisconsin cost $260,000. That’s $23,000 less than the statewide median. But the median cost rose 7% across the region in the previous year, similar to the increase statewide. 

Rental housing is out of reach for many residents of northeast Wisconsin, according to U.S. Census figures analyzed by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. This for rent sign is outside a duplex in 2020 in De Pere, Wis. (Sarah Kloepping / USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

All this happened while real estate transactions slumped after interest rates spiked from historic lows at below 3% to around 6.6% for a fixed 30-year loan in May. 

The numbers are stark: There were more than 1,500 residential home sales in June 2022, just as the Fed hiked interest rates for a third time in response to inflation fears. Ten months later in April of this year, the region saw half as many closed deals at 777.

Property owners who are locked in with relatively low interest rates are less likely to list their homes now because they’d pay higher rates on their next property, said real estate broker Kevin Jones, co-owner of Adashun Jones in Fond du Lac.

“There are more people pursuing the few properties that are on the market,” he said.

Houses harder to find, more expensive to rent

The region has already faced supply constraints as Baby Boomers live longer and stay put, leaving fewer properties for younger aspiring homeowners.

“We have healthy Baby Boomers — I’m one of them — who are staying in their homes longer, and millennials who are clamoring to find homes and are at a disadvantage because they increasingly have to rely on borrowed money,” Marquette University economics professor David Clark said at a recent economics forum.

He said many millennials of child-bearing age — those born in the 1980s and ‘90s — “kind of got dealt a bad hand” coming out of the Great Recession with a weak labor market and so “logically and rationally stayed out of the market” during the time when working Americans would tend purchase first homes.

Jones, the real estate broker and Fox Valley landlord, said the rental housing market is also hot with rents increasing by 10% to 20% annually. 

“I think it’s because a lot of the rentals have been consolidated into a small group of investors — that’s one side of the story,” he said. “And the other side is there’s just not enough homes and developments that are being created.”

In 2022, the National Low Income Housing Coalition — an advocacy group — listed the fair market price for a two-bedroom unit in northeast Wisconsin at between $757 in rural counties to $889 in the Oshkosh area . The study, citing U.S. Census figures, also found the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in counties across northeast Wisconsin — for that matter, across the entire state — is higher than the recommended 30% of the average income renters in those counties make. 

Home ownership remains elusive for Pikka. For three years, she has rented a two-bedroom apartment for $875 in De Pere where she enjoys living despite the higher housing prices compared to neighboring Green Bay. Once she works enough hours for journeyman wages, she said she’ll try to buy something.

But Pikka, who is 41, said that’s at least three years away. In the meantime she is pursuing another dream. Pikka would like to visit Colombia with her kids to reconnect with her birth parents.

This story is part of the NEW (Northeast Wisconsin) News Lab’s series, Families Matter, covering issues important to families in the region. The lab is a local news collaboration in northeast Wisconsin made up of six news organizations: the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Appleton Post-Crescent, FoxValley365, The Press Times, Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Watch. The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s Journalism Department is an educational partner. Microsoft is providing financial support to the Greater Green Bay Community Foundation and Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region to fund the initiative. The mission of the lab is to “collaborate to identify and fill information gaps to help residents explore ways to improve their communities and lives — and strengthen democracy.”

Rising cost of living in northeast Wisconsin has many working families treading water  is a post from Wisconsin Watch, a non-profit investigative news site covering Wisconsin since 2009. Please consider making a contribution to support our journalism.

Olympia seeks proposals to study various ways to increase affordable housing for low-income households

Olympia is seeking proposals from qualified consultant teams to conduct research and provide recommendations, specifically in increasing the number of units permanently affordable to low-income …

Hollister Councilman Resendiz maligns colleagues again

What began as a discussion to consider a resolution to adopt an ordinance to increase the number of affordable housing units allowed by the city’s inclusionary housing program from 15% to 20%, quickly went off the rails when Hollister Councilmember Rolan Resendiz accused “the majority of the council” of taking money from developers.

Mayor Mia Casey told BenitoLink, “It is not my wish to waste precious council time on code of conduct hearings but what choice is left when an attempt to informally warn Councilmember Resendiz about the need to follow the rules of order, be respectful and adhere to our code of conduct has fallen on deaf ears?

“Councilmember Resendiz indicated Monday evening he intends to continue his disruptive and disrespectful behavior,” she continued. “I will do whatever is necessary to address the matter in accordance with our code of conduct and restore order to our meetings.”

In response to Casey, Resendiz told BenitoLink “Mia Casey warned me behind closed doors to not bring up any connection to her and the developers that she supported in public again, and if I did, she would have me censured and take me off my committees. This is an attempt from the mayor to silence my voice and not point out that her and Dolores Morales are funded by Anderson Homes.”

Casey told BenitoLink May 5 that if Resendiz “intends to continue his behavior, I warned that I would be forced to take formal disciplinary action for violations of our code of conduct. Our City Attorney was present and witnessed the conversation. Casey did not say what action she intended to take against Resendiz.”

According to the Hollister Elections financial statements website, five members of the Anderson family of Anderson Homes each donated $99 for a total of $495 to Casey’s campaign but she returned the money on Dec. 28. Bill and Michelle Lee, who are proposing a 141-unit subdivision on Fairview Road, also donated $250 each and Casey also returned the money. Casey also returned Andrew Lee’s $250 contribution. 

This is the second consecutive meeting where Resendiz inferred other councilmembers violated the city’s code of conduct. Resendiz has been accused in the past of similar behavior and was ultimately censured. He did say, though, that he was not investigated.

At the April 17 meeting the council voted to give Councilmember Rick Perez a verbal warning for violating the code of conduct. Resendiz, who wanted Perez censured and removed from committees, was the lone no vote to verbally reprimand him. 

During the May 1 meeting, as the council discussed and moved toward tabling the affordable housing resolution in order to hold a public meeting on the issue, Resendiz verbally attacked Casey by direct reference, as well as Perez by innuendo. 

At first, Resendiz spoke calmly about the resolution, saying, “We are way overdue with adopting an inclusionary ordinance for the City of Hollister. Developers have been coming here for years and making a ton of money. This is something that should have been done years ago.”

During the “years” he was speaking of, though, Casey, Morales and Perez were not on the council.

Resendiz continued, “But the fact of the matter is, there are politics at play here. And in a few minutes, she’s gonna bang her gavel because she’s not gonna like what I have to say, but a vast majority of elected officials here are funded by developers. Their campaigns are funded by developers. They have conversations with developers. Therefore—”

Casey did pound her gavel and repeatedly said, “Point of order.”

She appeared stunned at the outburst as he began a tirade of accusations without actually mentioning the names of those seated next to him and who he was looking at.  

Casey asked him to stop but he would not. She called for a five-minute recess and he continued to speak to no one in particular as she left the chambers.

During the recess, Morales called him a liar and he accused her of taking money from local businessman and former mayor Victor Gomez, which she denied. He asked if she took money from developer Bill Lee. She told him he was being ridiculous and said, “Let’s go back to government business.”

Victor and Anietra Gomez gave Morales $250 each in 2021. Bill and Michelle Lee donated $250 each that year. Michelle donated another $250 in 2022. Hollister has a $250 limit on campaign contributions to candidates by individuals or corporations per year. The ordinance does not affect contributions to separate committees in support of a candidate. 

Five members of the Anderson family of Anderson Homes also donated $495 to Morales’ campaign. She reported receiving $12,744. Morales also received a number of $250 contributions from several unions and private individuals. 

The Million More Voters, a separate election committee supporting her, reported a $5,000 contribution from Operating Engineers Local Union 3 of Alameda. In addition, the committee received $1,000 from Bill Lee, who is Martha’s Kitchen executive director. 

Casey reported $21,704.87 in contributions, with the majority mostly coming from professionals and retired individuals. 

Resendiz reported $7,215.95 in 2022 contributions when he ran for San Benito County Board of Supervisors. He received $857.55 from then-Hollister mayor Ignacio Velazquez. He also received two loans from Nelda Escamilla totaling $2,197.30, and a loan of $1,000 from The Vault (also Velazquez). And, though he accused Morales of accepting money from Victor Gomes, Resendiz received a $99 contribution from him.

Rick Perez self-financed his campaign by contributing $4,211.72. 

Resendiz then left the dais for a few minutes to talk to a KSBW reporter who was there to cover the housing element story. Shortly thereafter, Casey returned to the dais to join Morales and Councilman Tim Burns, who had managed to remain clear of the fray but was overheard by this reporter to whisper to Casey, “this should be in closed session.”

After Resendiz returned, a council majority agreed to table the resolution until a public meeting could be arranged and held on an upcoming Saturday at the Veterans Memorial Building.

Resendiz voted against the motion.

Related BenitoLink stories:

Investigation finds Councilman Rick Perez violated code of ethics | BenitoLink

Public speaks out against comments from Hollister Councilman Resendiz | BenitoLink

Hollister council vote to censure members Richman and Spencer fails | BenitoLink

Hollister Council censures member Rolan Resendiz | BenitoLink

Public speaks out against comments from Hollister Councilman Resendiz | BenitoLink

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