Dozens of people attested to an affordable housing shortage in Eau Claire at a special city meeting, attributing the growing problem to factors including a hot housing market, gentrification and prior decisions of leaders.
With standing room only in the county boardroom, the City Council held a listening session on Monday night to solicit stories and ideas before local leaders work toward strategies to deal with affordable housing.
Staci Roth said she lives with her husband at a house on McDonough Street that is “questionable at best” and they have been on a public housing waiting list for more than three years. She’s worried her husband’s heart condition means he won’t see the day they get into someplace nicer.
“I’m thinking he’s probably going to die before we get into housing,” she said at Monday night’s public discussion in front of the City Council.
Roth said housing in the city is “beyond crisis” due to many people who are “couch surfing” or standing outside of homeless shelters waiting for a bed to open up.
Nadine Jentzsch, who works locally for Catholic Charities, attested to that, noting that her employer and others that try to secure housing currently have a list of 140 people in Eau Claire who need a home.
Jentzsch also noted that when older buildings with apartments in them were cleared downtown for redevelopment, there was no plan for finding rooms for those who lived there.
She wasn’t the only one to point toward the lack of affordable housing — generally defined as costing less than 30 percent of a household’s income — as a side-effect of the recent transformation of the city’s center.
“Eau Claire has been on a gentrification path for a number of years, but accelerated with the Confluence Project,” said Susan Wolfgram, a social worker and community activist.
She warned that “hipster trappings” — new coffee shops, upscale apartments, wine bars and boutique hotels — alone aren’t enough to attract young workers.
“Many folks at the tables of power misunderstand the millennials they hope to attract,” Wolfgram said. She added that the generation has a social conscience that makes them want to live in a community that values people across a spectrum and would not leave people, such as those in poverty or homelessness, behind.
Affordable housing — including those for workers and senior citizens — is a topic that Eau Claire and other communities need to address now, said Bruce King, government affairs director for the Realtors Association of Northwestern Wisconsin.
“It may be incumbent on the City Council to be a little more open and flexible in your zoning,” he said.
Cody Filipczak, owner of C&M Home Builders & Real Estate, mentioned struggles he’s faced when proposing more modest homes considered affordable for new construction.
“The biggest thing is the neighbor opposition,” he said, noting that a few residents who don’t want new development nearby can sway the City Council.
And he said “affordable housing” used to be a taboo word in real estate development, but he said that’s changing because of increasing demand for more modest homes.
“There’s a lot more of the population that’s looking for affordable housing,” he said.
In addition to weighing housing need against neighbor concerns, Filipczak also suggested the city look into costs it charges for streetlights and consider more flexibility to allow smaller lot sizes.
County Supervisor James Dunning also implored the city to consider affordable housing in its downtown redevelopment projects, such as the Cannery District on the west bank of the Chippewa River. Affordable housing needs to stay close to schools, public services, bus routes and parks, he said.
“We can’t just push them to the edge of town,” Dunning said.
He and several others at Monday’s meeting lamented the recent announcement that the former Syverson Home nursing home in downtown Eau Claire will become upscale apartments, instead of more affordable ones.
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