It’s not news that the Cambridge area, a patchwork of tiny villages and unincorporated towns 20 miles from Madison, could use more affordable housing.
We’ve talked for years in our coffee shops, meeting rooms and church vestibules, formally and informally, about that unfulfilled need.
Workers of modest means punch in daily in our industrial parks and patronize local restaurants and taverns. They belong to our fire departments and other civic groups. They give back, if not via deep pockets, in countless other ways.
These individuals and families deserve a greater selection of quality workforce housing, defined as homes and apartments with modest rents, and small houses for purchase.
Sadly, the stock of quality workforce housing is limited here.
It’s not just a local problem.
Last week, the rural workforce housing discussion went statewide.
On Aug. 31., Gov. Tony Evers’ new Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity held is first statewide virtual listening session.
Citizens and officials from all corners of Wisconsin spent several hours in virtual break-out rooms discussing rural issues, from the lack of broadband to the changing makeup of emergency service departments, to questions of racial equity in agriculture, to the need for more workforce housing.
The meeting followed a year in which promising statewide workforce housing legislation came up, but then didn’t advance.
Late in 2019, the state Assembly adopted AB 544, that would have created a new workforce housing tax credit program administered by the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority. It was, unfortunately, never taken up in the state Senate before that body adjourned in the spring of 2020.
Not that this particular bill would have helped us here in Cambridge and Deerfield.
Applicants would have had to meet population density rules to prove they were in a sparsely-populated rural area. Because the entire Deerfield area and most of the Cambridge area lie in Dane County, where the countywide population density skews high due to Madison, we would have been ineligible.
Both the Deerfield and Cambridge Zip Codes, if considered independently, would have met the criteria. Anyone who has ever ventured out of Madison on U.S. Highway 12-18, past Cottage Grove, should have recognized the flaw in that formula.
It’s not the first time in recent years we’ve been encouraged — for a little while — by new affordable housing initiatives.
Early in 2018, for instance, the United Way of Dane County created a new Affordable Housing Fund, separate from its programs that do things like provide rent subsidies and help people buy food.
The aim was 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. United Way officials pledged at the time that the impact would be countywide.
Dane County also has a Housing Authority, a Housing Initiative and a Dane County Affordable Housing Fund whose goal is to “encourage the development of affordable housing in Dane County.”
But the existence of all that private and public effort has not seemed to move us closer, out here on the county’s rural edge, to having a greater stock of quality affordable housing.
What is holding us back?
Maybe the broader economy has limited things. There are only so many dollars to go around, and there have been other clamoring priorities in 2020.
Perhaps the problem is our small rural voice, or a lack of local municipal political will.
Whatever the culprit, statistics demonstrate the need.
Cambridge and Deerfield are historically working-class communities, and residents of modest incomes continue to be our core demographic.
The area has a current annual median household income of about $80,000, just above the Dane County median of about $70,000.
Households just above the median county income can’t afford $500,000 homes. And yet, higher-end single-family homes have been the primary focus of most new local neighborhood construction in recent years.
We recognize the benefit higher-end new neighborhoods have on the local tax base, and the contributions made by their residents. But a healthy community offers housing for people across the financial spectrum.
Perhaps increasing the local stock of quality workforce housing will require local, county and state officials to work together.
Perhaps Gov. Evers, in initiatives expected to come out of his series of Rural Prosperity task force meetings, will help bring all levels of government together to collaborate on housing change.
We owe individuals and families who live and work in Wisconsin’s rural areas, including in our area, more housing choices that fit their financial circumstances.
They are more likely to stay, and continue contributing to our communities, if we offer housing that works for them.