A few months ago, Madison Ald. Maurice Cheeks received a call from a constituent who was living in an apartment without a working toilet, stove or landlord willing to address the problems.
Cheeks talked with the constituent about ways that he or other organizations could help her but, ultimately, the constituent asked him not to do anything because she feared being evicted and ending up homeless.
“This is better than nothing,” she told him.
“This is the reality in Madison, Wisconsin, in 2017,” Cheeks said. “We are living in a scenario where housing is wildly unaffordable.”
Cheeks was one of several speakers at a public hearing on Sunday addressing federal threats to funding for the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. The housing situation in Madison, Dane County, and the nation is already bleak for many, they said, and any cuts, such as those outlined in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, would be devastating to low-income families.
HUD provides funding for programs like public housing and Section 8 vouchers. Trump’s proposed budget would cut $6.2 billion from HUD, which would mean $4 million less for Madison housing initiatives. Trump’s budget request was “was the most austere and bold cuts that we’ve seen since President Reagan’s first budget in the 1980s,” said Joe Lindstrom, senior organizer for housing advocacy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Since then, the House of Representatives has released a budget proposal that generally makes smaller cuts or maintains current funding to HUD. But Lindstrom urged the audience to remember that “flat funding is always a cut” because programs get more expensive to operate every year.
“The House of Representatives budget is pretty good compared to the president’s budget. But if you compare it to a budget from any year previously, especially 2010, it’s pretty horrible,” Lindstrom said.
The bad news began before the current budget, speakers said.
At a national level, only one in four low-income people who qualify for housing assistance receive it, said Lindstrom. And locally, the situation isn’t much better. For extremely low-income renters, there’s a housing shortage of over 120,000 homes in Wisconsin. In Madison, a minimum wage worker would have to work 102 hours a week to be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent, he said.
Dane County Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner said there are about 1,500 homeless children, as identified by Madison schools.
“We know every week, dozens this summer are being turned away from our family shelter,” she added.
Dane County Housing Authority only serves 4 percent of households that qualify for its programs, said Rob Dicke, its executive director.
“We’re not making a dent in the need that is out there,” he said. He called the current funding levels “atrocious.”
Wegleitner said the last few years in Dane County have created a “perfect storm” of housing problems including increased poverty, attacks on tenant protection laws and a growing demand for affordable housing as contributing factors.
“And then you add this type of threat to that perfect storm and it is really scary,” she said. “People are suffering so much.”
Wegleitner said Trump’s budget would cut $2.7 million from the city’s Community Development Block Grants funding, and $1.5 million from home funding.
“That would not only hurt our ability to invest in affordable housing, it would hurt our ability invest in reducing homeless,” Cheeks said.
Trump also would have cut the funding entirely for legal services corporations, which is where low-income individuals often go if they are in danger of eviction. The House budget would cut this funding by 20 percent, Lindstrom said, “at a time when evictions are a veritable epidemic.”
Wegleitner is a legal aid attorney “working every day with families who are homeless or about to be homeless because they are facing eviction,” she said. Her position is almost exclusively funded by the legal services corporation. She is the sole lawyer who represents eviction cases in nine counties.
“We believe that housing is a human right,” Wegleitner said. “Unfortunately, that doesn't mean we can provide a housing unit to everyone … but we will work to achieve that goal.”
The speakers urged the small group of attendees to let their legislators know this is an important issue.
“We have seen so much evidence in the past six months, in the past 60 days, that our voices can make a difference,” Cheeks said. “The resistance is working.”