I have been asked to justify my vote to approve a housing development proposed by Core Spaces for Bassett, Johnson, and Dayton that came before the Common Council last week, which was ultimately voted down by the majority. I’m happy to provide this justification, as elected officials are accountable to the people they represent.

For context around my decision, it’s important to understand that Dane County is the only area of the state that is growing in population, and we are at least 10,000 housing units behind where we need to be. Currently, the rental vacancy rate in Madison is around 3%, while a 5% vacancy rate is considered economically healthy; the vacancy rate for owner-occupied housing is even worse. As such, we have a significant supply problem, with very high demand. This economic environment is what has contributed to rental rates increasing substantially. While this problem must be addressed holistically, additional building is critical to creating more supply.

Luxury vs. Affordable Housing

In this particular case, the decision before us was to demolish approximately 70 units of housing to build 232 new units – a net gain of over 160 units. Furthermore, many of the new units were destined to be larger, so the new development would have housed an additional 350-400 individuals. That’s what I voted for – housing for more people. Many have suggested this development pitted naturally occurring affordable housing against luxury housing. A quick review of the housing that would have been demolished suggests that only about 30 beds in that area are significantly more affordable than the market-rate rents the developers were proposing. So, yes, I voted for adding housing for 350-400 people to the detriment of about 30 beds in the area that are lower cost. I saw this as an opportunity to substantially increase housing supply, which is desperately needed. And my vote, along with those of 5 others on Council, did not prevail.

Students are an integral and valued part of our community; they do not need or always want luxury housing. But calls for the City to “do something” to build affordable housing are unfortunately very difficult to implement. If the Common Council could require affordable housing, or rent control, we would. But state statutes preempt us from doing so. That leaves us with carrots, such as the height bonus for affordable housing downtown that was recently passed, the permitted height increases in the transit-oriented development overlay, and contributions to the City’s affordable housing fund. But we don’t have sticks to require affordable units. Because of state preemptions, I am concerned the City will be liable if the developers decide to sue based on the Council’s decision, which means taxpayers will have to bear the costs of this decision. Such a scenario would only worsen our current City budget outlook, which is increasingly challenging with the anticipated expiration of federal funds, and the minimal relief (view 2:16-2:34) provided by the state legislature’s recent increase in state aid to municipalities.

The Future of Downtown Housing and its Affordability

It is important to also put the development proposed at Bassett, Johnson, and Dayton in context with the several others that are coming to the area. The oLiv building, also from Core Spaces, will provide both significant market rate AND affordable beds for students, and it will be available fall of 2024. The City has also recently approved a housing development that will be placed atop the Lake Street parking garage, which will be rebuilt starting next year. That development too will include affordable housing for students. Core Spaces WAS also proposing an additional complex at Broom and Gorham with 448 units, housing over 1300 people, with 10% of those beds devoted to affordable housing for students. The June 20 decision denying the rezoning of the site at Bassett, Johnson, and Dayton, however, caused the developers to pull back from their current plans for this larger complex at Broom and Gorham. While we’re hopeful Core Spaces will come back to the table on this larger complex that includes affordable housing, if they don’t, the City will have lost potential housing for upwards of 1000 additional people as a result of the Council’s June 20 decision.

Why Isn’t UW Doing More?

Multiple people have commented that UW is part of the problem, by admitting more and more students, and not building more housing. It’s important for people to understand that the legislature is generally antagonistic to the University, despite the University’s role as a major economic engine for the area and the state as a whole. As such, the legislature has made clear they have no interest in allowing UW to improve the campus, denying both the construction of new dorms, and campus resources, such as the expansion of the School of Engineering. But UW is doing what they can, by developing public-private partnerships. The West Campus District Plan lays out significant investments in housing, albeit designed more as workforce housing than for students. Nonetheless, providing housing availability on the West Campus will relieve supply pressures on housing demand in the area overall. Conversations on the future of Eagle Heights are also in the beginning stages.

Housing Quality

Many students have written about the challenge they face in finding any housing – period. And when they do find options, they generally have to choose between high-end, high-priced spaces, or slightly lower rent, very low quality options. Many have described mold, insects, poorly secured buildings, etc. I want to be clear: the City of Madison’s Building Inspection unit takes these complaints very seriously. But Building Inspection actually has to receive a complaint in order to follow up. If inspections show properties in disrepair, Building Inspection will work with landlords to improve the situation, and render citations as needed. No one should have to live in unsafe or unsanitary conditions.

A Revolution?

Some of my colleagues suggested it was time for a revolution regarding housing in Madison. If we truly want to be revolutionary, there are multiple policy options that we can legally take on with the potential to increase affordability. These include: removing height restrictions for new developments, outside of the Capitol view shed and the view shed of our lakes; removing parking minimums and creating parking maximums for new developments; eliminating the Urban Design Commission; and, as other Alders have suggested, eliminating single family zoning. Any of these changes have the potential to reduce costs for developers, which would, theoretically at least, ultimately reduce rental rates for consumers. Whether my colleagues, and our residents, have the appetite for such policy change remains to be seen. Until then, it is incumbent on the Council to act logically and rationally for the overall long-term good of our City. That is my commitment to all of you.