New Alliance Demands ‘Housing As A Human Right’ While Legislative Landlords Cut Low-income Programs
By Heidi M. Wegleitner
"There used to be a lot more help around here,” Latonya tells me. “Latonya” is not her real name, but one I made up to protect her privacy and prevent possible retaliation.
I couldn’t agree with her more, thinking about the proposed county human services budget I just reviewed.
“They’re making it hard to get by,” she tells me. “I used to be able to take my kids with me to appointments, but LogistiCare (the private company that recently took over Medical Assistance transit services) won’t let me take them in the cab.”
“What are you supposed to do? I don’t have a babysitter. A lot of people have family supporting them. I don’t,” she adds. “It is really hard."
For the last week, Latonya has been taking the bus all over town with her newborn baby because she's been told by a housing provider that she should pay $5 off of every debt she has listed on her credit report. It has been less than two weeks since Latonya had her third child, but she’s desperate to start repairing her credit because she can’t get into housing and has been in the shelter with her kids since June.
$680 Rent on $628
Latonya has had only one apartment to call her own and she had to move out of it last summer at the end of her lease. For someone supporting her family on a W-2 check of $628 per month, the $680 monthly rent was impossible, but she somehow scraped by with the help of churches and social service agencies.
Latonya is not being denied housing for a negative rental history, however. She’s being denied for a negative credit history. And yet most of Latonya's debts are small medical debts, completely unrelated to housing. She explains that she had medical assistance (MA) in Illinois, but she fled the state to escape a violent relationship. She found safety in the DV shelter and then had to seek medical treatment for complications with her pregnancy. Because she was treated in Wisconsin, Illinois refused to pay her bills and unbeknownst to her, she was left responsible for various medical debts related to this necessary treatment.
Latonya, like many others, and increasingly more in our struggling economy, simply does not have enough income to meet the basic needs of her family. An affordable rent (usually considered to be no more than 30 percent of your monthly income) for someone on W-2 is less than $195 per month, which is about $550 less than fair market rent for a one bedroom unit. Of course, with three kids, Latonya needs at least two bedrooms. Other folks surviving on a low, fixed income (like those on SSI and Social Security) face similarly high housing costs. Even though Latonya demonstrated an extreme need for federally subsidized housing and the purpose of federally subsidized housing is to provide housing to low-income families, she couldn’t get in.
Demand Up, Funding Down
Subsidized housing is hard to come by these days. I was born into a Section 8 multifamily housing project outside of St. Paul, MN. That's when federal spending on subsidized housing was about $80 billion. About three decades later, in 2006, federal spending for housing programs had plummeted to $34 billion.
In both Madison and Dane County, you cannot even apply to get on the waiting list for the popular Section 8 rent assistance voucher programs because they have been closed for several years and the public housing waitlist times range from one to three years.
Record-breaking levels of foreclosures have only exacerbated the low-income housing shortage in our community as families losing their homes in foreclosure are now looking for places to rent in what is already a tight rental market. The vacancy rate in the Second Quarter of this year is the lowest it’s been for several years at 3.54 percent in the Madison area. This has enabled landlords to spike rents 18 percent from May 2010 to May 2011.
While expanded tenant protections have been historically difficult to get through the State Legislature, Madison, with a 50 percent renter population, has a history of tackling landlord/tenant issues and housing policy at the local level.
When Landlords Attack
Not surprisingly, the current state legislature seeks to gut our years of hard work on housing policy—and compromise with landlords and developers—in their sustained effort to transfer wealth from the public to the private sector and from the working class to the wealthy class. This cynical attack on local control and equal opportunity is called Senate Bill 107 and it is being pushed by the Wisconsin Realtor’s Association, the Apartment Association of South Central Wisconsin and prominent Senators Frank Lassee (R-DePere) and Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) and Representative Robin Vos (R-Burlington), all of whom are landlords or realtors.
And while the Republicans are currently in charge, landlords sit on both sides of the isle.
SB 107 seeks to eliminate many ordinances which enhance housing access for low income folks in the City of Madison and Dane County, including those which restrict housing denials solely based on income (without regard to demonstrated ability to pay rent), arrest and conviction record (regardless of the length of time that has passed, the offense’s relation to housing, or whether you were actually convicted), and production of a Social Security Number.
SB 107 also rolls back reasonable limitations on a landlord's ability to show and re-rent the premises and additional protections for tenants from unlawful withholding of their security deposits. Madison's growing poverty rate and significant rental population make the proposed repeal of our landlord/tenant ordinances especially troubling.
“Housing rights (and funding) are under attack! What do we do? Stand up; Fight back!” That was a chant at a recent “Housing is a Right” rally in Madison.
It is because of my experience working with people like Latonya that I became involved with the Affordable Housing Action Alliance (AHAA). AHAA has drafted resolutions, in partnership with Progressive Dane,
Operation Welcome Home, Freedom, Inc. and Take Back the Land-Madison, recognizing housing as a human right in the City of Madison and Dane County.
We are asking for a joint City-County committee to create a housing plan that will reduce the number of homeless kids by 50 percent by September 1, 2014, increase by 100 each the number of single room occupancy (SRO) housing units and units available to families supporting themselves on SSI or W-2; ensure that no one seeking shelter will be denied shelter; and provide additional daytime shelter space in the downtown Madison area.
Responses to our campaign have been overwhelmingly supportive and the resolution has already been introduced to the City of Madison Common Council. This month the South Central Federation of Labor voted to support our campaign.
If you want to sign onto the resolution or get involved with our work, please email us email@example.com or join our Facebook group “Housing is a Human Right – Dane County”.
Heidi M. Wegleitner is a poverty lawyer representing low-income clients in housing matters. She is also Co-Coordinator of the United Legal Workers, NOLSW, UAW 2320 (which represents legal workers at Legal Action of Wisconsin, Inc.’s Madison office), a SCFL delegate, Labor Forward! Member, Board President of the Tenant Resource Center and Progressive Dane’s Housing Task Force Chair