The sharp racial disparity in homelessness has quickly become a prominent issue in Madison politics — and city officials offered varying explanations and solutions for the imbalance.
Historically, homelessness has always been present in the city, but it does not hit everyone proportionately.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provided a comprehensive look at homelessness across the U.S. in January, with blacks accounting for 40 percent of the homeless population but only 13 percent of the country overall. And this trend is not improving with time, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
It’s even more acute in Madison.
On top of experiencing racism and disparities in poverty, unemployment, school achievement and incarceration, Madison has a highly disproportionate rate of homelessness, and among those seeking housing assistance, within black communities.
Despite making up only 5.1 percent of the population of Dane County, black people make up 53 percent of those seeking services for homelessness, according to statistics in the Wisconsin State Journal.
The disparity is happening just as a housing crunch hits the city. Madison is Wisconsin’s fastest-growing city, with more millennials migrating to the state capital than ever before.
But as the city grows, housing struggles to keep up in volume and affordability. The State Journal reported over a thousand affordable housing units would need to be built to match the rate of growth.
In fact, rent in Madison is 43 percent higher than the state average, according to Wiscontext.
“There are bad actors taking advantage of state law,” Tierney said of landlords selectively evicting tenants based on race — like giving month-to-month leases.
Not only does this give landlords greater power over their tenants, but also allows for them to hike up rent on a whim, essentially. Consequently, landlords have more frequent opportunity to deny tenants a chance to reapply for leases, removing the need to evict the occupants completely.
On top of all this, it is more difficult for black people to receive a lease — or buy a home — in the first place.
The Washington Post found that African American testers posing as home buyers were often denied information about special incentives that would make purchasing housing easier.
Additionally, Tierney examined how people, especially those of color, become homeless in the first place. He stated that in order to fight homelessness, the city needs to fight its causes — like medical costs.
One of the leading causes of bankruptcy in the U.S. is medical expenses. Tierney proposes that investing in affordable health care could greatly reduce homelessness because it would relieve costs that force people to choose between housing and their lives.
Ald. Sheri Carter, District 14, serves on the council for Madison’s Community Development Authority, Madison’s housing authority, and is the president of the board of directors for Porchlight, a homeless shelter downtown.
Carter highlighted additional tactics landlords use to target people of color for eviction, such as reaching a certain credit score or face eviction. She pointed to another factor that may contribute to the racial disparity in homelessness.
“The eviction rate among people of color is very high,” she said. “We need to find out what’s going on there.”
The CDA is currently seeking $1 million to put toward the affordable housing fund to build more affordable units and other strategies to combat homelessness. But the future is uncertain.
“Can we build our way out of it?” Carter asked. “That’s hard to say.”
There have been some steps to make Madison more affordable. The city’s Finance Committee recommended $4.1 million of Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway’s 2020 operating budget to affordable housing projects earlier this month. The money will be allocated to three affordable housing developments and create about 200 affordable housing units.
Though affordability is not a challenge unique to Madison, it is amplified here, said Matt Wachter, the city's housing initiatives specialist. The Mayor echoed a similar sentiment.
"It's a huge challenge," Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway told the State Journal. "We've produced a lot of housing units, a thousand in five years. It's not enough."
Both Alders Carter and Tierney, as well as Porchlight’s executive director Karla Thennes, emphasized that those suffering from homelessness — or on the brink — should reach out for help.
“The squeaky wheel is the one that gets the help,” Thennes said.
Additionally, they all underscored the stigma surrounding homelessness and urged citizens to rethink stereotypes. Thennes emphasized how anyone can be affected, regardless of gender, age or background.
“Homelessness is an equal opportunity tragedy,” Carter said. “It doesn’t care who you are.”