Madison’s housing debate gets worse

We can’t afford a “no choice” mentality.
An illustration shows a small figure walking through a maze of identical, seemingly interconnected apartment buildings. The perspective of the illustration is from above at an angle, such that the windowed fronts of the buildings are visible as well as the tops of the buildings and an olive-drab expanse of ground.
Illustration by Andrew Mulhearn.

We can’t afford a “no choice” mentality.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

The Madison Common Council’s decision this summer to block, then reconsider, then approve, another downtown project from high-end dystopian hellscape developer Core Spaces has pushed Madison’s housing discourse to a new low of brokenness. 

Tone Madison’s Christina Lieffring already wrote in a July 19 Capitol Punishments column about the cravenness and lack of vision this reversal shows. While I edited that piece, Christina and I had a debate in the Tone Madison Discord: Just how much wiggle room does the Council have to strike down a development without (possibly) inviting a lawsuit? Is City Attorney Michael Haas correct to assert that the Council can’t reject a project on the grounds that rents will be too high? And even if we accept Haas’ limiting interpretation of the law, could alders have found a more legally safe path to rejection?

We couldn’t seem to see it in quite the same light. Christina is no-nonsense and pragmatic. If an argument just amounts to “but it should be this way and not the way that it is,” it’s not gonna get past her. (This is a good quality in an editor.) I’m always trying to insist, perhaps naively, that there’s got to be some other way, a better approach beyond the confines of what we consider practical or possible. There’s a healthy tension there. 

Christina and I agreed on one thing: Just giving up and refusing to fight is no kind of solution at all. 

Sure, it’s practical to work within the constraints of your current reality. When you’ve exhausted that and still don’t have an adequate solution, it’s practical to start asking how you can remove those constraints and change that reality. We’re going to have to step out of this box we find ourselves in, get creative, take risks, and probably endure a lot of trial and error.

I’ll say it again: Local governments should take advantage of the new liberal majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court to launch an all-out litigative assault on preemption. The shift on the court is official as of August 1. It’s a generational opportunity. Any sitting liberal justice who wants to get reelected has a powerful incentive to throw Wisconsin cities some big wins. How is there not already a battery of these lawsuits headed up the chain?

For now, liberal elected officials are obeying state preemption laws as meekly and cautiously as possible, rarely daring to push the envelope. Meantime, the right increasingly just does whatever it wants without troubling itself much about legalities. This is a worrisome asymmetry. All the options for dealing with it are ugly, messy, unsatisfactory, and uncertain. 

Look, literally drop a 60-story apartment tower on top of me where I stand. We need lots of new housing units, and fast—I’ve got no patience for anyone who disputes that. Just don’t tell me that Madison has to be completely indiscriminate and hands-off about who builds that tower, how units are priced, or, god forbid, other factors involving its construction, design, aesthetics, or likely effects on the social and economic fabric. Don’t tell me that it doesn’t matter if it’s too expensive to live in that building because the market, in its wisdom, will eventually level things out. That is just not the pragmatic mindset a growing number of people seem to believe it to be.

“No choice.” That’s the narrative alders have created, as captured in The Cap Times’ July 13 headline about the council’s 180 on Core Spaces. No. Choice. That this quote comes from District 4 Alder Mike Verveer, who has been in office for 28 years and plays such an important role in shaping downtown Madison, makes it that much more galling. 

In fairness, he said this in a context of reluctance. “I believe that the state law and city ordinance really leave no choice but for the council to approve this rezoning, as frustrating as it might be, because of the lack of affordable housing and the fact that existing housing units would be replaced,” The Cap Times’ Francesca Pica quoted Verveer as saying. It’s still dispiriting to hear this from the Common Council’s longest-serving and arguably most powerful member. To constituents, this says “You’re on your own.” To developers and landlords, it says “Barge in! Walk all over us!” I think Verveer and most of his colleagues want to do better. It’s the posture of defeat I take issue with.

Republicans at the state level have backed Madison and other cities into a corner. Rather than fight or sneak their way out of that corner, Madison’s elected officials have preemptively wedged themselves into the corner as tightly as possible. They’ve molded themselves, Bonsai kitten-like, to fit the corner. The corner costs $3,000 per month but at least it’s sunny and near amenities.

State preemption laws bar local governments in Wisconsin from enacting rent control or strengthening tenant protections. A 2006 state appeals court ruling tightened the restrictions, essentially arguing that requiring developers to include a certain percentage of affordable units in new buildings was a form of rent control. Years of austerity make it hard for cities to directly fund public housing or rental assistance (which is what we need, on a massive scale). A package of bills Governor Tony Evers signed in June does expand some funding and incentives for affordable housing. One of those bills arguably weakens local governments’ authority to restrict developments—partially a complement to the direction cities are already going with zoning, partly a preemptive/deregulatory poison pill. I can understand why local policymakers would feel demoralized in the face of these obstacles.

For a good while now, we’ve been convincing ourselves that practically the only thing Madison can do to fix our housing crisis is to add as many new housing units as possible. And that we have to do this as rapidly as possible, by letting private developers build whatever they want, as much as they want, on any terms. This narrative has become too rigid, too fast. The Core Spaces vote just cemented it in the discourse.

Alders and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway do deserve credit for making progress on initiatives that address the problem in other ways, including increases to affordable housing incentives, much-needed updates to backward zoning rules, and the ambitious redevelopment of the Triangle neighborhood on the western edge of downtown. All of these demonstrate that the city has options other than waiting for private developers to build. But unless the city massively increases the scale of such efforts, the market-driven addition of new housing stock will remain its primary solution. It’s a strategy for a city in a bit of a pinch, but Madison is a city in an emergency. 

That’s a word I’d like to hear more often in our housing debate. Because this is indeed an emergency for people across the city struggling to keep up with rent increases and searching for their next place to live. We won’t help those folks very much if we confine ourselves to framing our options with terms like “market-rate” (good lord, the market got us here!), “workforce housing” (don’t even get me started), and even “affordable” itself (affordable is good, but let’s aim for more housing that’s free or very, very cheap). We’ve managed to push bullshit objections about “neighborhood character” and “preserving single-family zoning” to the periphery, at long last (with help from the very YIMBYs I often find myself arguing with!). Let’s keep shaking up our vocabulary and our approach. We have no choice.

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