Lately, you may have heard the term “workforce housing” being thrown around a lot. I decided to take a very unscientific poll and asked my friends and neighbors if they knew the meaning of the term. I wasn’t surprised by a lot of head scratching and sometimes humorous albeit wrong definitions. I’ll spare you the pain for the moment.
In Wisconsin, the term “workforce housing” applies to housing for residents with an earned income 80% or less of the area median income. Incomes at those levels are too low to afford the range of housing options in communities where they work and still afford other necessities.
In the recent past, “workforce housing” was plentiful in Central Wisconsin. But, with the current lack of inventory, inflation and mortgage rates on the rise, it is fair to say we now have a scarcity of “workforce housing”.
Why is this a problem? There is the obvious problem that businesses will have trouble recruiting employees to the area if affordable housing is unavailable. Won’t income capped subsidized housing provide a solution? Yes, it will for some. But, the vast majority of residents fall into a gap between not making enough money for an average rental BUT making too much for income capped properties.
Who are we taking about? According to a recent document put forth by the City of Sun Prairie, there are several occupations in Wisconsin, including those that require a college degree, that pay wages that would qualify workers for workforce housing units should they become available. They include elementary school teachers, social workers, postal clerks, office administrators, tool and die workers, construction workers, retail sales personnel, food servers, home health aids, security guards and the list goes on….and on.
What can be done? It would be easy to pin the blame on evil, greedy landlords and suggest they cap their rent. But, the answer is not so simple. In my experience, landlords are rarely evil or greedy. There is always that bad apple, but in most cases they are rarely in the business to make a monthly profit off the backs of their tenants. They are more typically in the long game of using the rental income to pay down their mortgage and rarely see any type of profit until the property is sold. Hence, the rent they are charging simply off-sets their costs. As their costs go up, so does the rent. It would seem unreasonable not to mention untenable to expect them to operate in the red. With that in mind, it seems clear that the solution lie in more housing starts, incentives and credits for builders to help keep their costs down, regulation reform, reinvestment in older housing stock and maintain and expand rental assistance programs where needed.
If you are still reading this blog post, congratulations! You now know a little more about “workforce housing” and why it is important to the well-being of Wisconsin. While one workforce housing solution I heard was to buy a small block of cheddar to build homes on -appropriately Wisconsin- I hope you’ll now be able to roll out a barrel of useful facts.