By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
The housing crisis in Wisconsin was in existence long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and when it did arrive, it took a bad situation and made it worse. Now that the American Rescue Plan is in action, housing experts are hoping to see a change.
Opportunity Wisconsin, a statewide coalition group, released a report on Tuesday, May 18, which detailed how the American Rescue Plan is helping Wisconsinites keep their homes.
The report showed that Wisconsin received $306 million from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program to help renters cover their backlog of rent and make sure landlords get paid. It further reported that Wisconsin received grants totaling $90 million to go toward homelessness reduction programs.
These are critical amounts as Opportunity Wisconsin also noted that as of April 2021 about 13% or 155,000 of Wisconsin renters are behind on rent.
In addition to the report, earlier this week, Opportunity Wisconsin along with Black Leaders Organizing Communities (BLOC) and Citizen Action of Wisconsin held a roundtable discussion regarding Wisconsin’s housing crisis, the moratorium, eviction and the American Rescue Plan.
The panelists included Kathy Beeksma, executive director of City of Ashland Housing Authority, Joanne Lipo Zovic, a mediator with Mediate Milwaukee, and Debra Gary, a Milwaukee County resident.
Kyle Johnson, an organizer with BLOC, moderated the conversation.
“Housing is generally the largest item in a Wisconsin family’s budget,” Johnson said. “Housing and homelessness have been challenges for Wisconsin residents and communities for years. As the cost of living and housing has continued to rise, wages have stagnated and while housing for many folks was a struggle, COVID-19 has further compounded that struggle to current on their mortgage and their rent.”
No one should have to decide between putting food on their table or keeping a roof over their heads, he said.
“The state of housing [in Milwaukee] is precarious,” Lipo Zovic said. “It seems to be getting a little better with funding and the new wave of funding is helping.”
She said the goal is to get people stabilized, but it is a slow-moving process. Lipo Zovic stressed that the situation is affecting not only tenets but landlords as well.
It is not uncommon to see mom-and-pop landlords in Milwaukee. These people are relying on these payments, she said.
While people could apply to the various program such as housing assistance or unemployment benefits, there was a delay. The panelists also noted that if someone lacked money for rent payment, they were probably unable to cover their other bills such as utilities or broadband.
“The impacts of housing insecurity and eviction stick with people for a lifetime, in some cases, and certainly for a number of years,” Beeksma said.
The group discussed the eviction moratorium and the essential role it has played in helping tenets remain in their homes.
“It has given time for people to come up with a Plan B and C,” Gary said. “I wish, I hope, I pray that this can get extended.”
Johnson noted that there is a delicate balance between landlords and tenets. He said the American Rescue Plan is critical because it doesn’t just focus on tenets but on landlords as well.
Gary noted that sometimes when someone is evicted, they double up or triple up with a friend or family member. That means they move in with someone, even if the space doesn’t accommodate everyone.
Another option is to go to a shelter. Gary pointed out that prior to the pandemic, shelters in Milwaukee were already at their limit and wouldn’t have been able to accommodate people.
Through funding from the American Relief Plan, tenets receive assistance and landlords receive the payments needed to maintain their property.
The moratorium is scheduled to end soon. At the moment, no one is sure if it will be extended. If not, landlords will be able to continue to file evictions.
Lipo Zovic hopes that there won’t be an increase in evictions, partly because the civils courts are already backlogged.
She hopes that landlords and tenets instead make a concerted effort to communicate. If a landlord wants someone to move but they file for eviction, they make it that much harder for someone to move.
Eviction is seen as the first tool in the toolbox when it should be seen as the last, she said.
While the housing problem in Milwaukee and Wisconsin is far from over, the panelists expressed hope for an improved system in the future. For now, funding from the American Rescue Plan is giving people a chance to catch their breath and figure out their next step.
The full roundtable discussion can be found on Opportunity Wisconsin’s Facebook page.