In the battle against homelessness, United Way of Dane County officials say they're seeing results. Over the last 11 years, the organization has helped house almost 1,600 families. With its housing-first strategy, officials say they have seen 82 percent remain in stable housing after a year.
But that progress is running up against a problem: the “total lack of affordable housing inventory in Dane County,” said Sarah Ceponis, United Way director of community impact: basic needs.
“We can’t fulfill our housing-first mission if there isn’t housing to place people in,” Ceponis said. “We anticipate our progress is going to come to a shrieking halt if we don't talk about this.”
On Wednesday, United Way of Dane County launched an affordable housing fund. The details of the fund are still being hashed out, but the goal is to raise $3 million to help end family homelessness in Dane County.
The fund will be an addition to United Way’s current strategies to address homelessness, which include funding efforts like case management to help over 2,000 families a year navigate issues like housing searches or eviction prevention, advocating for better landlord-tenant relationships and helping about 200 low-income families find, pay for and stay in housing every year.
There’s been a 40 percent decrease in acute family homelessness in Dane County from 2013 to 2017, from 140 families to 84. But there are still around 600 housing-insecure families in temporary or uncertain living situations, doubled up with friends or staying in hotels.
The goal is to use funds as “last piece of the puzzle that can get projects done,” said Darrell Behnke, chair of the 2018 United Way Foundation Board of Trustees.
The hope is that as developments are refinanced, the money could be re-circulated to fund future projects. They could potentially provide funding for their first project this year.
Donors have already expressed interest in contributing to the fund, said Martha Cranley, senior director of strategic collaborations at United Way.
“I think people are excited about a way to do something really tangible to solve the problem of homelessness and affordable housing that we have in this city,” she said.
The details of how projects will be selected and prioritized are still being worked out. But for now, United Way is open to a broad range of projects, from sizeable new affordable rental housing (projects like Rethke Terrace or Carbon at Union Corners) to rehabbing existing housing, currently accomplished by organizations like Housing Initiatives and Common Wealth Development.
New affordable housing developments are often impossible without federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits, distributed through the Wisconsin Housing Economic and Development Authority. Applications for WHEDA funds are given higher scores for projects with local financial support, said Jim O’Keefe, director of the city’s community development division.
The city’s affordable housing fund has been main source of that local support. The $25 million fund was created in 2014 with the goal to build 1,000 units of affordable housing in five years. Thus far, 10 city-backed projects have received WHEDA credits, and those projects will add 650 rental units of housing, and 570 of those are affordable.
O’Keefe said in December that “everybody understood going in that 1,000 units wouldn't solve the affordable housing shortage.”
As United Way pointed out, a 2015 Dane County housing report predicted the community would need to add between 16,000 and 32,000 units of affordable housing over the next 26 years to keep up with the demand.
There’s also a Dane County Affordable Housing Development Fund, alloting $2 million a year from 2015 to 2018.
United Way officials emphasized that they don’t want to compete with or replace existing sources of funding like the city and county funds, but rather add to them.
“We want to piggyback off of existing infrastructure, we want to pool existing resources,” said Rajesh Rajaraman, former chair of the United Way Basic Needs Community Solutions Team. “We would be working with everybody who want to work with us. The idea of the fund is not to exist on its own. The idea of the fund is to make affordable housing happen.”
Behnke said United Way is not looking to duplicate efforts, but accelerate them.
“The United Way is uniquely positioned to do this. It’s got a long history of partnership. There’s a lot of people who’ve but a lot of effort and time and blood sweat tears into housing, we’re not replicating any of that. What we’re trying to do is how do we help them be more successful,” Behnke said.