Scraping together a monthly mortgage or rent payment is hard when you don’t have much money.

In Dane County, most of the people who find themselves stretched by the cost of housing live in or closer to Madison. But not everyone.

The numbers are smaller out here, but the burden of not being able to afford a place to live feels just as real for households in rural areas like Cambridge and Deerfield.

That’s why we’re encouraged by a new affordable housing program announced last week by the United Way of Dane County — and by the United Way’s resolve that it will be a countywide initiative.

The new Affordable Housing Fund will be managed by the United Way of Dane County Foundation and kept separate from the United Way’s other programs that do things like provide rent subsidies and help people buy food.

The express aim is bricks and mortar — providing financing to developers and municipalities, the Dane County Housing Authority and others planning on or in the midst of constructing an affordable housing project, or rehabbing existing housing, who need a little more infusion of cash to get it done.

“It’s investing the last dollars of a project,” explained Sarah Ceponis, Director of Community Impact Basic Needs for United Way of Dane County.

This kind of “gap funding,” for housing projects will help increase the number of locally available homes and rental units, of which there is a severe need, Ceponis said.

Stabilizing someone’s living situation typically has to come first, and then other United Way assistance can kick in, Ceponis said. “Our programs won’t be able to keep working unless we have more (housing) inventory,” Ceponis said.

Ceponis said the creation of the fund came out of an ongoing conversation between the United Way of Dane County and other groups, including the Dane County Housing Authority, about affordable housing available countywide now and into the future.

Ceponis said the United Way recognizes that the problem isn’t just in Madison.

“One of our partners at the table is the Dane County Housing Authority, and they are very focused on making sure that affordable housing is available across Dane County,” Ceponis said. “All the research is showing that affordable housing is becoming a crisis everywhere.”

Research shows that there is a countywide need for different tiers of affordable housing — those earning the area’s median income for their household size, as well as those a little below that, and those significantly below that.

A 2015 Housing Needs Assessment produced by Kurt Paulson, an associate professor in Urban and Regional Planning at UW-Madison, examined the stock of existing housing across Dane County, breaking the numbers down by municipality. It also projected how much affordable housing might be needed countywide by 2040.

The study’s findings on Cambridge and Deerfield included:

  • In Cambridge, about 20 percent of households earn less than 50 percent of the community’s median annual income of $63,000 for a family of four. In Deerfield, about 20 percent of households earn less than 50 percent of the community’s median annual income of $65,000 for a family of four. “Households with income below 50 percent of AMI (area median income) are most at risk of housing-cost burdens,” Paulson wrote, adding. “Although the percentage of very low-income households is bound to be higher in cities where other services and public transit are available, these numbers do indicate a broad need for affordable housing throughout the county, not just in central cities.”
  • New housing construction in Cambridge and Deerfield over the past two decades has mostly been single-family, the most expensive type. Between 2000 and 2010, about 100 new single-family homes were constructed in Cambridge and about 40 in Deerfield. That’s about 75 and 55 percent, respectfully, of all housing constructed in the two villages in those years. And, between 2010 and 2013, Cambridge saw just three building permits issued — all for single-family homes. In Deerfield between 2010 and 2013, 49 of the 51 building permits issued were for single-family homes. The other two were for buildings with 2-4 units.
  • Just 0.9 percent of housing in the village of Cambridge and 1.4 percent in the village of Deerfield is affordable for households that earn 50 percent of the area’s median income. The Dane County average is 2.1 percent.
  • To meet projected coming needs, the village of Cambridge would have to add 149 units of affordable, multi-family housing between now and 2040, and the village of Deerfield 183 units.

Access to affordable housing is critical for families whose incomes are so low that they risk becoming homeless. But there’s another tier — people who don’t earn a lot or who have large families. The need for more housing for them has come up as Deerfield considers why workers are taking jobs in its Industrial Park but not choosing to live in the community. There’s a similar scenario in Cambridge — the options are limited if you can’t afford to buy a $300,000 home. The recent construction of apartments at The Vineyards of Cambridge is a start — but more is needed.

Often, the people who are looking to rent or buy affordable apartments and smaller homes are young people — who will upgrade as they age. They are the parents of future school children, and worth investing in. Another group, seniors who are downsizing, are just as worthy. We’re encouraged by the ongoing countywide conversation about affordable housing, and hope that some of that talk translates into financial investment in rural areas like Cambridge and Deerfield.

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