My duties as the President of the Wisconsin Apartment Association have taken me away from Wausau for a few days. I am currently in La Crosse at the Wisconsin Collaborative for Affordable Housing’s annual conference. This year’s theme is: A Home for Everyone, Opening the Door to Opportunity.
I have yet to decide if I am happy I am here. The morning general session demonstrated a bias toward home ownership (versus renting). And the morning class that I thought would help me on something coming up in Wausau didn’t mention any benefits of rental housing when it came to affordable housing at all. The main lunch speaker did give me some hope though.
There were a number of speakers for the morning general session (or the Opening Plenary as they call it). One thing that bothered me was a comment from someone whom I otherwise have had a great deal of respect for. This one comment doesn’t change that level of respect, but it raises… let’s call it a “level of concern”. The speaker was Mike Theo, who is the Vice President for Legal and Public Affairs of the Wisconsin Realtors Association. His comment was from an article in this morning’s Washington Post (I have not had the time to find it or read it). Mr. Theo stated that per that article, after the federal government gets the financial reform bill behind them, one of the next things that the Obama administration wants to focus on is housing policy. And, as a part of that housing policy, focus more on rentals and less on home ownership. Mr. Theo spoke negatively about that change in focus.
To be honest, that change in focus is long overdue (and yes I know that I speak from a bias). I do worry about the federal government getting more involved in rental housing because let’s face it, the federal government is not known for making life easier. However, the “Home Ownership at Any Cost” policy that has been in place for many years hasn’t worked, and instead was a major contributing factor (in my opinion) to our current economic situation. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think for one minute that rental properties are what will save us. I believe a housing policy that is one-sided toward rentals will be just as problematic as a housing policy that focused too heavily on home ownership. The country needs a BALANCED housing policy, and if the federal government is looking at a more balanced approach instead of focusing primarily on home ownership, my gut reaction is – It’s About Time!
It is starting to look like I may have some meaningful involvement in Wausau’s Housing Task Force. Therefore, when I saw a session labeled “What’s Up La Crosse?” that had the following description: “Communities in Wisconsin can learn and replicate local efforts – as represented in the City and County of La Crosse – to create and expand affordable housing. … this session will provide examples and case studies of successful projects and insight of what to avoid in the pursuit of your housing goals.”
I thought GREAT… I can learn something that may carry over to suggestions for some of Wausau’s issues. What I got to sit through was a small presentation on rental = bad, owner-occupied = good and examples of projects that created owner-occupied housing. However, there was still some interesting information put out in this session (though nothing that would encourage cities and landlords to work together when there are a large percentage of rentals). One of the interesting concepts has been around in Madison for a while, and is now being tested in La Crosse, and that is a Community Land Trust to help keep housing affordable. They didn’t go into great deal, but basically the Land Trust owns the land and the home owner owns the house. It helps keep housing affordable and ensures the property does not revert to rental use. I could see this being a small piece of a larger, BALANCED policy to address blighted housing.
The lunch speaker was Stan Gruszynski, who is the State Director of the USDA – Rural Development. I liked his speech, he is very passionate about what he does and about meeting affordable housing needs for rural communities. What really hit home is when he pointed out that he liked the theme of “A Home for Everyone” and was quick to remind people that a “home” is not always a house. And that rental housing is also “home” to many people and an important piece of the puzzle.
Of the after lunch sessions, none of them were really screaming my name so I came up to the room to post this quick blog post. There is a 3:45 session labeled “Building Healthy Neighborhoods” that is going to discuss “… the strategies and approaches used in leveraging housing rehabilitation and ‘place-based’ anti-poverty initiatives and the lessons learned to date”. I am hoping that there is information here that I can take back and offer as some ideas to city leaders in Wausau.
This conference does continue tomorrow, and I will not be back in time to do a radio show. I apologize for that, but no Dr. Rent radio show tomorrow.