At a public hearing last week for a proposed affordable housing project off East Washington Avenue, one resident asked a city representative where all the city's other affordable housing projects are located.
Natalie Erdman, executive director of the city's Community Development Authority, says there is affordable housing all over the city. But what counts as "affordable housing" has changed over time.
Erdman says the city owns 886 apartment units in 37 locations operated with a subsidy from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. (See a map of these locations.)
In these units, residents pay 30% of their income in rent. But if you'd like to land one of them, you'll have to wait a very long time. The waiting list has 2,892 people on it and is currently closed to most new applicants (the elderly, disabled and people with large families can still get on the list). Last year, only 136 of these units had vacancies.
The CDA has control of another 235 apartment units, which have been financed in partnership with other entities and have used tax credits. Rents for these units are also capped. And there's a waiting list.
The city also administers Section 8 housing vouchers, which enable poor people to find housing in the private market, with the tenants paying 30% of their income toward rent and HUD paying the rest.
Erdman says Madison has 1,600 vouchers. The city has the authority to issue up to 1,800 vouchers, but it has limited cash from HUD to distribute for those vouchers and is now tapped out.
There are also a variety of programs that help private agencies build affordable housing. The city has proposed helping Chicago-based Heartland Alliance construct 50 to 60 units near the Aloha Inn on East Washington Avenue, but Madison wouldn't own the property.
Advocates worry about the lack of affordable housing here. With apartment vacancy rates so low, it's clearly a landlord's market, which pushes rents even higher.
In the last quarter of 2013, the apartment vacancy rate in Madison Gas and Electric's coverage area was 2.05%. Some zip codes in Madison had a vacancy rate closer to 1%.
Brenda Konkel, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center, says a 6% vacancy rate is what housing experts consider ideal, a rate that puts landlords and tenants on equal footing.
Further complicating matters is that many federal programs are based on median income levels. Since Madison's median income level is high -- currently $56,700 for a single person -- even people with moderate incomes can have trouble paying the rent.
"There's a huge gap between 30% and 60% of the area median income," says Ald. Marsha Rummel, who sits on the city's new Housing Strategy Committee, which is studying the issue. "We live in a really wealthy area, so even if you're making 50% of the median income, you're only making about $30,000 a year."
Erdman says the Community Development Authority will consider building more public housing, depending on the circumstances. But affordable housing projects tend to be constructed under complicated formulas that use various tax credits, federal programs and private partnerships.
Konkel says every little bit helps. "We have a high-end market, and our rents have always been the highest in the state," she says. "I don't see it changing now with a 2% vacancy rate.
"We have over 500 chronically homeless people in Madison. Most of the programs available have a waiting list for months to a year," she adds. "We clearly have to do something for that population."