Sarah Wolf is trying to climb the economic ladder, trying to make a better life for herself and her two young children.
She works full time in an insurance office and picks up periodic extra cash watching another mother’s children. She works hard, she said, and spends money frugally in an attempt to maximize her earnings, which she said will total about $22,000 this year.
That’s more than Wolf, 30, of Eau Claire, made last year, she said. But it’s barely enough to cover the cost of food, clothing, transportation and the $650 in rent she pays each month.
“I’m working hard,” Wolf said Friday morning before heading into work. “I’m working and earning money. But it’s barely enough to pay my bills, much less put anything in savings.”
Wolf is among a growing number of Eau Claire residents struggling to pay for housing, according to statistics and officials who work on that issue. U.S. Census Bureau figures from 2016 show median monthly rent in Eau Claire at more than $800, a figure that has risen significantly in the past decade. During that same time, the incomes of many who rent in the city have grown far less.
Half of city renters’ housing payments total more than 30 percent of their incomes, a figure commonly used to determine those at risk of losing housing because it becomes too costly. In some of the city’s most economically challenged neighborhoods, most residents meet that standard, according to Eau Claire City-County Health Department statistics.
Fewer than one-quarter of those who own homes in Eau Claire pay 30 percent or more of their incomes for housing, figures show.
Those statistics are in line with a study released at the end of August that found 46 percent of Eau Claire households have trouble paying for such basic living costs as housing, food, clothing and transportation, based on 2016 data.
That report, the Asset Limited, Income Restrained, Employed, or ALICE, study conducted by United Way of Wisconsin, shows that many in Eau Claire and elsewhere across the state continue to struggle financially even as the economy performs well and at a time of historically low unemployment rates.
Affordable housing is an issue of increasing concern to many in Eau Claire and has prompted multiple public meetings during the past year. Now the matter has made its way to local government. City Council members are scheduled to hold a public discussion about the topic at 7 p.m. Monday in the boardroom on the first floor of the Eau Claire County Courthouse, 721 Oxford Ave.
City Council acting President Andrew Werthmann said the meeting was prompted by many requests for the event from community members. Affordable housing “is going to become a focus of this City Council,” he said.
“There is a growing recognition that this is an issue that affects a lot of people in our city,” Werthmann said, “and there seems to be a lot of people who want to be a part of helping work on this issue.”
Councilwoman Emily Berge said it’s important council members receive public input to learn more about issues impacting affordable housing. She works as a counselor and said she has been hearing about difficulties many face in affording housing in Eau Claire.
Councilwoman Jill Christopherson agreed, saying city officials and others already have started work to address the topic.
“This is an important issue in this city,” she said, “and this is the time to bring people together to try to address it.”
Health Department director Lieske Giese said her staff and others have become increasingly concerned about the lack of affordable housing for many. Addressing the issue is imperative, she said.
“There is a huge connection between affordable housing and health,” she said. “We can’t afford not to pay attention to this issue. It is too important to too many people.”
Susan Wolfgram is among those who support the City Council’s involvement on affordable housing. A social worker and community activist who works with people who have been jailed and with those experiencing difficulty finding housing, Wolfgram said it is important for policymakers to hear from those affected by challenges affording homes.
“The council needs to be informed by its citizens before it starts making any plans with affordable housing,” she said.
A small amount of available housing and continued redevelopment efforts are driving up housing costs, straining budgets and putting more people at risk of losing their homes, Wolfgram said. Many with court convictions or evictions on their record can’t find housing in a tight rental market, she said.
Sarah Ferber seconded that notion. The associate director for EXPO (EX-Incarcerated People Organizing), Ferber said many people released from jail and looking for affordable places to live can’t find them. Landlords don’t have to rent to them, given the short supply of and high demand for rentals, she said.
“I get contacted by people all the time saying, ‘Who will rent to me?’” Ferber said.
Ferber knows that situation all too well. She credits her climb from methamphetamine addict to working as a professional who is reunited with her two sons in large part to her access to safe, secure housing.
In May 2015, Ferber was accepted into the Housing First program operated by Western Dairyland Community Action Agency. She had successfully completed drug treatment court and had linked to other services to help turn her life around. But housing was key to her success, she said.
“I had been through treatment court,” she said. “I made good, positive connections in my community. I got involved with JONAH (Joining Our Neighbors, Advancing Hope). But none of that stuff would have mattered if I didn’t have housing at that time.”
Without housing, Ferber said, many people released from jail wind up back in bad situations. “Until we can provide more people in need with housing, we are going to struggle to overcome the drug epidemic,” she said in reference to a methamphetamine-fueled drug problem in Eau Claire.
Monday’s meeting will provide a starting point for possibly devising policies to improve housing affordability, but what that might look like remains to be seen.
The issue is complex, officials said, and plans to address it likely will involve multiple community partners. Wolfgram, co-chair of JONAH’s affordable housing task force, said she views mixed housing — with housing of differing costs in the same vicinity — as one way to improve affordability as opposed to entire areas being redeveloped and displacing those who can no longer afford to live there.
“We usually think of revitalization in a very positive way,” she said. “And there is value in that. But that mindset obscures the fact when properties are upscaled, it can change the dynamics of a neighborhood ... and the possibility of displacing people is high.”
Berge and Christopherson said they’re not sure what specific measures may come after Monday’s meeting, but they are optimistic the discussion will lead to further action.
“Eau Claire has the capacity to do something about this,” Christopherson said. “This is the time to figure out how we do that.”
» EAU CLAIRE CITY COUNCIL: Public hearing on affordable housing at 7 p.m. Monday in boardroom of Eau Claire County Courthouse, 721 Oxford Ave.