Editorial

There are some reactions that we know we’re going to get when certain stories run. There are going to be strong statements in response to courts stories, especially if the victims in a case are children. When there’s a story on road work, people will complain about the condition of other streets.

When there’s a story on new housing, people will question whether anyone can afford it. And on that, they often have a point.

Housing prices are rising far faster than incomes. A report earlier this month on winter home sales showed the median price for a home in Eau Claire County was up 11.7 percent compared to the prior year. That’s a substantial jump, but it paled in comparison to some others. Chippewa County was up 23 percent. Dunn County leapt by more than 26 percent.

Part of the issue is the remarkably low inventory for homes on the market. Basic supply and demand suggests that when there is a shortage of a desired commodity, the price goes up. Right now, homes are in short supply. New construction should help, but that’s months away from the date any project turns the first spade full of dirt.

The tight housing market is also driving people to apartment living. But when you have people seeking apartments who, under normal circumstances, might buy a house, that creates pressure there, too. And people know it.

In mid-March we wrote an article about a proposed development near the Cannery District. Most of the comments wondered about the cost, and the commenters generally agreed there is a lack of affordable housing in the area. One person wrote that rent “is just too expensive for anything half way [sic] decent” near Eau Claire.

The concern isn’t new. A May 2020 article about a developer getting nearly half a million dollars to ensure affordable rents drew positive responses from readers. Almost a decade earlier, in February 2011, the Leader-Telegram ran an article about hopes for construction of new homes that were slightly smaller than most new builds, with a correspondingly lower price tag.

But that 2020 article also noted two other projects in Eau Claire had their prospects significantly dimmed when they lost out on similar credits. The system of credits the three developers applied for was competitive. Projects were weighed against each other, which meant when a project received funding others could not.

The pressure on people who can’t afford market-rate housing shows up throughout Wisconsin. A report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition showed there were approximately 82 homes available AND affordable for every 100 Wisconsin residents who earned 50 percent of the area median income. The description is critical. The raw number of affordable housing units doesn’t mean much if none of them are available to people who need a place.

Solutions are not going to be easy to come by. When housing is built, it is generally part of a business plan. While not every company puts profits ahead of all other concerns, all for-profit entities certainly need to be aware of the bottom line. You can’t reasonably ask a company to voluntarily put itself out of business in the name of the common good.

That likely leaves a continuing need for credits in some shape or form to defray the effects of a lower income from sales or rentals. Both the state and federal governments have such programs. But there are also cautionary lessons to be learned from well-intentioned but flawed efforts to develop large-scale public housing in the latter half of the 20th century.

The question is whether the will exists in either legislature to expand such programs. Wisconsin’s need is real. There is clearly pressure on the housing market, and the prices reflect that shortage.

Wages aren’t all that defines the middle class. Comfortable housing has long stood as a symbol of it, too. Preservation of that ideal may not be simple or easy, but it remains essential.

Note: This editorial appeared in the March 28, 2021 issue of the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram.

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