Eau Claire City Council members pressured city staff to accelerate funding to address affordable housing issues, but some elected officials want a detailed plan before allocating money.
A week ago council members criticized how a long-range plan for city projects doesn’t put money toward Eau Claire’s affordable housing crunch until 2022.
“I just wanted you to know I heard that frustration,” City Manager Dale Peters said during a Tuesday afternoon work session with the council.
As proposed, Peters’ 2020-2024 Capital Improvement Plan puts $1.25 million toward affordable housing, but not until the last three years of that plan.
But to assuage frustrations expressed by some on the council, Peters said the city already is tackling the issue in other ways outside of its anticipated projects spending.
“There are things that are being worked on,” he said.
He then read a list that included follow-up work on last year’s regional housing task force’s recommendations, tenant and landlord education efforts, potential changes to zoning laws and coordinating with neighborhood associations.
But Councilman Andrew Werthmann said he feels the city already has fallen behind in addressing housing issues through capital projects spending.
“I do think we need to bring a larger focus to what can we do sooner to address this problem,” he said.
Council President Terry Weld said before allocating funds toward addressing affordable housing, he wants a concrete plan for how that money would be used.
“Right now we’re just saying let’s set aside some money, which is great, but it would be helpful to know for what,” he said.
Councilwoman Emily Berge agreed with Weld that funding toward the issue should be with specific goals in mind and ways to measure success.
“I want to know what it would be for and to have a plan,” she said.
As currently proposed, Peters’ plan states the $1.25 million would be used to “create and expand opportunities to assist with affordable housing,” which could include new homes, rehabilitating old ones or fostering homeownership. But the plan lacks specifics about the city’s role in those and exactly how the public’s money would be used.
Councilman Jeremy Gragert said the city may devise more detailed affordable housing project ideas next year, which means the funding for them could start in 2021.
“There are a lot of questions of how to best use the funds we have,” he said. “I think a lot of those will be addressed in the next year.”
Peters replied that a year from now, the city will be discussing its projects plan again and could include money for affordable housing ideas for 2021.
Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle, who along with Werthmann critiqued of the timing of the affordable housing funds last week, noted that the topic was a hot issue in recent city election campaigns.
“It seems like in the last two years most people who got elected made some commitment to affordable housing or poverty,” Emmanuelle said. “The public does have our back and wants to do it in a thoughtful way.”
She asked Peters if he would amend his proposed plan to hasten the timing of the affordable housing funds prior to the council taking its vote next month to approve the document.
The city manager replied that it would be unusual to change the proposal at this stage, but it is possible.
“I would be very open to that, even if that would be unusual,” Emmanuelle responded.
She then spoke about how the council’s usual process for changing proposed projects plans or budgets shortly before they take a final vote can be antagonistic.
Councilman John Lor said one thing the council should do is set a deadline for itself and goals for making progress on affordable housing.
“There is no timeline for us to work on,” he said.
Emmanuelle said she feels a sense of urgency to address homelessness in the city before winter strikes.
“It was terrible last year,” she said of the cold, snowy weather.