Lack of affordable housing continues to affect poverty in the Chippewa Valley


According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the nation is facing one of the most severe affordable housing crises in history, and it continues to affect Chippewa Valley residents. © 2018 Evan Hong

By Evan Hong 

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the nation is facing one of the most severe affordable housing crises in history, and it continues to affect Chippewa Valley residents. © 2018 Evan Hong

At an old worn-out building on Putnam Street, about a dozen people sit, bundled up with ripped jackets and worn out backpacks. They look tired, hungry, as if they don’t want to be there.

The people spend a majority of their time at Positive Avenues, a non-profit resource center for those who need shelter and/or struggle with mental disabilities. Although many have a place to live, some are scraping from the bottom of the barrel, doing everything they can to pay the rent for their shelter.

“The rental rates have gone up in recent years,” said Keith Johnathan, executive director of the Eau Claire housing authority.

They struggle with poverty, a major issue that has struck the Chippewa Valley. Much can be attributed to a lack of affordable housing, especially in the City of Eau Claire, according to city officials. While the nation’s housing market continues to recover from the significant crash in 2008, many homeowners and renters still struggle to pay for a place to stay, and some rely on non-profit services to get them back on their feet. With a lack of labor workers to take care of homes in the area, and prices beginning to rise for the materials, erecting new homes can be a challenge, while housing authority officials say many of the older homes remain unsafe. Through it all, the city and the housing authority is working tirelessly to fix the issue.

Just not enough

Poverty and homelessness have become a significant issue not only in Eau Claire, but across the nation. According to 2017 data from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a nonpartisan organization committed to preventing homelessness in the United States, morre than half a million Americans were living without a home.

The organization says often, the issue can be attributed to a lack of affordable housing, as they say the nation is facing one of the most severe affordable housing crises in history. This is especially true in Eau Claire, as on average a two-bedroom housing unit costs around $800 per month, according to city statistics. The minimun wage remains at the federal minimum of $7.25, while statistics show that the living wage for one adult should be over ten dollars per hour.

Although rent prices for the Eau Claire area are much lower than some of the larger metropolitan areas close by, it also comes down to a person’s annual income. According to the latest ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) report for Eau Claire County in 2016, 28 percent of households live above the poverty line, but less than the basic cost of living for the country. 14 percent of households in Eau Claire county live below the poverty line. The rest of the county is listed above the ALICE guideline. The U.S. Census Bureau says the average household income as of 2016 is more than $57,000.

For many, it is not an issue of finding a place to stay, it’s about finding the money to pay for it.

Tackling the Issue

The Eau Claire Housing Authority works to place low-income residents into affordable homes that doesn’t require a large chunk of that income. The government organization owns over 300 housing units within the city, including the Park Tower Apartments on South Farwell Street and the Owen Rust Memorial Apartments on William Street. Keith Johnathan of the Eau Claire Housing Authority says the authority provides these homes at affordable costs, where each person pays about 30 percent of their income towards the rent.

The Authority provides subsidized housing to 358 low-income persons, elderly persons, and families currently. However, it takes many more units to house everyone who falls under the ALICE guidelines.

“With around 29,000 out of 65,000 people in Eau Claire under the ALICE guidelines, that’s about 340 units that are needed,” said Johnathan.

Johnathan says many people continue to apply for these housing options, and the waitlist to move into these homes fluctuates often.

“The wait can take one year to 18 months, but can also be as low as a month,” said Johnathan. “The waiting list sits around 340-350 applicants right now, but it varies.”

The Housing Authority considers every applicant who applies, and applications are available online or at the Eau Claire City Hall.

Regarding homes outside of the public housing system, some of them in the area remain unsafe for patrons to live in.

“This is an old city,” said Johnathan. “Some of the homes have not been taken care of and contain lead and asbestos. It costs money to fix it, and lots of it.”

Christina Thrun, executive director of the Chippewa Valley Home Builders Association, says home construction in the area remains steady, while national construction numbers continue to decline. According to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, home construction nationwide is at its lowest level in six decades. In Eau Claire however, many new homes are being built, but many of them are higher-end apartment complexes, especially in the downtown area, that people near the poverty line cannot afford.

It also comes down to the cost of labor and materials to build a home in 2018. In September, President Donald Trump imposed a tariff on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods. The next wave of tariffs will increase from 10 percent to 25 percent on Jan. 1, according to Reuters.

“With the new tariffs being imposed, this could mean a significant increase in the cost of home building materials coming from China,” said Thrun.

Regarding the labor force, it is not news that there is a lack of construction workers nationwide.

“Many construction companies are paying 18…19…20 dollars an hour out of high school to try and bring kids into the workforce,” said Thrun, who says the Chippewa Valley Home Builders Association will be giving seminars at local high schools pushing for young adults to join the workforce.

Thrun says even if someone were to try and build a home themselves, the price to do so would be steep anyway.

“If you went to Menards and bought materials to buy a home at the minimum price, without considering the cost of the land, electrical fixtures, plumbing, and other things, there’s no way you can go without paying at least $80,000,” said Thrun. According to city statistics, the median price for a home in Eau Claire is $149,000.

Of the homes being built in Eau Claire, the majority are high-end apartment complexes. Thrun says these are not the homes that should be being built.

“More families can be affected and helped if we build more multi-unit homes rather than single family homes,” said Thrun. This means that if town homes and duplex home structures are built on a lot rather than a single unit, it would create space for more tenants to find shelter.

Thrun believes that the lack of affordable housing can still be attributed to the housing market crash in 2008.

“Home building has not been able to keep up with the demand for the homes due to the economic downturn, and everyone trying to get back into the market,” said Thrun. “The economy is strong, but the impact is mostly coming from the workforce.”

For those who remain on the waiting list for subsidized public housing, or do not have the funds to afford a different home, Eau Claire is filled with other viable options for shelter.

Services Available

Across the Chippewa Valley, there are countless non-profit organizations geared to help those who are struggling to get by. One non-profit Beacon House, an outlet of Family Promise of the Chippewa Valley that serves as a shelter for those with nowhere to stay. The Beacon House prioritizes sheltering families with children and works with them at all costs to make sure they find a permanent home.

“We work with each family individually, identify their strengths, their barriers, how they can use those strengths to overcome those barriers, and develop a plan with them that they can use that could hopefully lead to permanent housing,” said Kelly Christianson, executive director of Family Promise of the Chippewa Valley.

The shelter is cozy, with toys for toddlers spread out and a comfy lounging area with a television and magazines for adults. The fridge is packed with all the essentials, and the pantry is stocked to the max. Signs are posted on the doors reminding patrons to finish their chores.

The bedrooms are small, with one little window looking out to the busy streets of downtown Eau Claire. Patrons sleep in twin beds with woven quilts and have a small closet to store their necessities. The bathrooms are tight, with wood chippings off the side of the sink and rusty utilities. Many patrons stay in these conditions for extended periods of time.

“We say we’re a 30-day program,” said Christianson “…but as long as a family is working towards their goal of permanent housing, then we will continue to work with them.”

Christianson says the longest a tenant has stayed in the past is around three months.

There are many different scenarios when a person could be displaced from their home, or other reasons attributing to why a person can’t afford to live in an affordable home. Christianson says often, a person may get kicked out of a home, or a person may leave a home for one single tenant who cannot afford to pay for it.

“Typically, it’s a relationship ending that’s the bigger issue,” said Christianson, “but it could be a number of things like a loss of jobs, mental health issues, or physical stuff.”

In Eau Claire, loss of jobs may not be the main issue. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in Eau Claire was 2.2 percent as of May 2018, which is below the Wisconsin average of 2.9 percent and the national average of 4 percent. Mental health, however, could play a major factor, as mental health was named a top health priority in both Chippewa and Eau Claire counties in their respective community health assessments.

Patrons who still hold steady jobs often are not earning enough from their jobs also. Christianson says most of the patrons she works with are working entry level jobs, leaving them underemployed with not enough wages to support themselves or a family.

If a person is looking to enter the rental market, it may be hard to secure a home due to their finance records, criminal records, work history, among other things.

“We are finding landlords are able to pick other people,” said Christianson. “I don’t blame the landlords, it’s just supply and demand and economics. If one person looks better on paper than the other person, you’re going to take the better person.”

Other shelters that provide for those in poverty include Hope Gospel Mission and Sojourner House, which sits across the way on Lake Street near the Beacon House. Christianson says that individuals typically stay at Sojourner House while families go to the Beacon House, and that Sojourner House provides storage for some Beacon House necessities and they work together to pursue a common goal.

Making progress

To provide affordable housing to those who need it in the Chippewa Valley, there are several steps that could be taken to create homes for low-income residents. Outside of home construction, many members of congress and local government are pushing to raise salaries and wages across the country.

Thrun says many of the issues need to start at the local government level first before expanding across the country. The Chippewa Valley Home Builders’ Association contacted local representatives from western Wisconsin to hear their input about how to create affordable housing.

Many of the candidates, including Rep. Rob Summerfield of State Assembly District 67, expressed the issues discussed earlier about a lack of labor workers in the construction field and the high cost of materials in the industry currently. Most of the candidates agree that a major educational push is needed to get young people into the work force right out of school, by imposing more curriculum at technical colleges and other levels of education.

According to many other candidates, such as Rep. Warren Petryk of State Assembly District 93, Wisconsin is not the most appealing place for labor workers to move to. Due to competing wages in other states, high property taxes, and high costs of healthcare, many workers would rather look elsewhere to earn more money. Thrun says it is important to address other major issues first that will create a chain reaction and create more affordable housing.

Overall, homelessness continues to be a priority for many governmental candidates, as well as other members of the Eau Claire community. There are services available to those in need, and organizations are working together to provide shelter and a safe space for low-income residents.

Kelly Christianson has worked in non-profits for over thirty years, and says it warms her heart to be able to help others like her patrons at the Beacon House.

“I do what I do because I care about others,” said Christianson. “I care about people that sometimes other people think don’t deserved to be cared for. But those people need to have a voice. But they need to have a voice and they need to have somebody advocating for them, and if I can do that, that’s a good thing.”