Madison’s alders are boxed in on development, but they’re also chickenshit

The failure to put up a fight against high-end development is not going to get us anywhere.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

The failure to put up a fight against high-end development is not going to get us anywhere.

Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.

The Madison Common Council showed rare signs of having a spine in late June, when it voted 13-6 to reject the rezoning that developer Core Spaces needed to move forward with another of its “luxury” student housing projects. 

The project would raze 10 older residential buildings with a total of 145 actually affordable beds and replace them with one 12-story building with 232 beds. On the first vote, Alders pointed out that yes, we need more housing, but the point of adding housing to the market is for housing to become affordable. 

The best-case scenario with this project is at least 145 people get displaced and then have to pay more to return to their current neighborhood. The more likely scenario is that at least 145 people will lose access to affordable housing and the city will lose more ground to overpriced “luxury” (whatever that means) housing that most students will not be able to afford. 

But then City Attorney Michael Haas told the council that Core could file a lawsuit, because state law says that affordability cannot be taken into consideration when a local government considers a project. Note that Core did not actually sue; Haas said the company could sue. Still, it was enough to spook some enough council members to flip their votes when the measure was brought before them a second time in July; it was approved 17-2.

It’s disappointing but not at all surprising that the council caved at the slightest whiff of potential conflict. Despite the widespread public support of liberal, even leftist, ideas, this city, state, even country, continues to backslide because moderates—and in this case plenty of self-described progressives—refuse to fight. 

They seem to believe that if they play nicely the other side will capitulate and play by the same rules, despite over 30 years of counterevidence. Since the rise of Newt Gingrich, the right has shown they are not concerned with public opinion, good governance, or even their own purported values. The Republican party, particularly in Wisconsin, has spent over a decade clamping down on local control. Market actors have every incentive to take full advantage and throw their weight around.

The law Haas cites requires municipal governments to provide a legitimate reason for denying an application, which Haas argued Madison’s council did not do. Local governments cannot require developers to include affordable units as a condition for approval. 

Which is unfortunate, because one of the only mechanisms Madison has undertaken to address its housing crisis is building more housing. Wisconsin’s landlord legislature has set strict limits on local control over housing, preventing local governments from setting limits on rent or tightening regulations on landlords. Electeds closest to the people they represent (especially compared to the hostile distance of a safely gerrymandered legislature) are stymied from addressing their constituents’ real housing needs.

Arguably the city could look for creative workarounds to these regulations, but there doesn’t seem to be much appetite to do so. Our state’s strict revenue constraints means we don’t have a bunch of money sloshing around that could go to more public housing or funding affordable projects.

So unless the council pushes back, we are at the mercy of developers, letting them build whatever they want instead of pushing them to build what we need. According to supply and demand, building more housing should bring down the cost of housing. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but real-world supply and demand is much more convoluted and confusing than in Econ 101. Will a housing complex built for “luxury” prices drop down to something affordable? How do we know we won’t end up with a bunch of half-empty “luxury” apartments and a glut of unfilled working-class jobs downtown? If my affordable building were torn down, there’s no way I would commute into the city for less than $25 an hour.

But here’s what’s driving me nuts: they can push back. The Madison Common Council is not a powerless entity adrift in a sea of restrictive state laws. It has the power to challenge the legality and constitutionality of these restraints.

On Aug. 1, we will have a rebalanced Wisconsin Supreme Court, which gives local governments the perfect opportunity to push back against these excessive, constrictive laws and try to regain control of our communities. But that would require Madison’s city officials to come to terms with our political reality and look at where “playing nice” has gotten us. Moderates and progressives have reinvigorated voting, but voting is the bare minimum; if people are going to turn out in record numbers to vote, the least elected officials can do is fight for policies that will improve our communities. Look at what Minnesota’s legislature has done with only the slimmest of majorities despite desperate squawking from the right.

And what’s Core going to do? Sue and endanger a relationship with a city where it has multiple projects in progress? What’s the state going to do, cut our funding? It already has and will continue to do so as long as Republicans only see Madison’s value as a punching bag. 

The right has shown it’s willing to waste everyone else’s time and money to overturn an election, fight public health safety measures, squeeze workers, and roll back everyone’s rights so they’ll stay in power. If moderates acted like they have some skin in the game (which they do), those of us who oppose the right could be a formidable force. But that’s only if.

Who has power and what are they doing with it?

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