Madison’s housing debate is dangerously underdeveloped

The fight between NIMBYs and developers leaves most of us with no side at all.
An illustration shows a rendering of a proposed apartment development on Sherman Avenue in Madison. The rendering is distorted through various filters, washing out the colors and creating a grainy effect.
Photo illustration (by Scott Gordon) that uses a rendering of a proposed apartment development on Sherman Avenue in Madison.

The fight between NIMBYs and developers leaves most of us with no side at all.

Madison residents were treated to another dose of toxic NIMBY-ism (Not In My BackYard) recently. The condemnation that followed was representative of an ongoing conflict around housing in the city. It’s a fight between two sides—NIMBYs and developers, or their Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY) allies—and it allows the city-wide concerns that will affect the most residents to fall by the wayside.

In this latest episode, the NIMBYs’ target was a housing development proposed for 1617 Sherman Avenue, just North of Tenney Park. The Wisconsin State Journal reported that Madison’s Urban Design Commission were “aghast” at Chicago-based Vermilion Development’s project, which would add 445 apartments spread across four buildings ranging from three to six stories. 

It is hard not to be instantly dismissive of all the hand-wringing. Commission member Christian Harper’s remark, “I just don’t think the city should be sacrificing what the potential is for this site for 50 or 60 people to have beautiful sunset lakeside views,” feels nonsensical, given the high proportion of single-family houses on Lake Mendota, which allow far fewer people to take in the sights. An apartment building with lake-facing balconies, even at market rate, feels practically democratic compared to much of Sherman Avenue.  

Reading through the public comments from neighbors and other residents doesn’t help. Many of the comments are laced with anti-renter sentiment from people who secured their homes decades ago in a wildly different housing market, and are therefore out of touch about the reality that renters face in the year 2022. Anyone who refers to renters as “transient,” for example, reveals that they believe that people who care about their city and want to stay long-term will simply buy a house or condo. In reality, home ownership is and will continue to be financially out of reach for many Madison residents—including a lot of people who have no intention of leaving Madison or their current neighborhoods. 

Meanwhile, this latest development proposal is great in a number of ways. The prospect of 445 new units is exciting at a time when the city needs to be adding thousands a year to keep up with its growing population. The fact that the proposal includes two- and three-bedroom apartments more suitable for families is also a major positive. 

But as I watched Madison Twitter respond to this latest outburst of entitlement from some city homeowners, I noticed more of a worrying trend: a tendency to be dismissive of all public input, and to treat the debate around specific projects as a chief barrier to solving the housing crisis. This is not relegated to social media, but is already reflected in changes made to processes at the city level. Last spring, the city passed changes to its zoning and permit process, allowing for more housing to be approved more quickly by city staff, and eliminating some opportunities for public input on new development. 

More recently, the Madison Common Council passed an ordinance amendment eliminating “protest petitions.” Previously, if 20% of property owners or registered voters within 100 feet of a proposed development signed a petition in front of a notary, it raised the threshold for the Common Council to approve the development to a three-fourths majority vote instead of a simple majority. 

I agree with some of what Madison Alder Juliana Bennett (District 8), who sponsored the amendment along with Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway,  wrote on her blog about how the protest petition system favors homeowners over less privileged residents. It is a flawed arrangement.  For starters, 20% of property owners or registered voters is a smaller hurdle to clear in less-dense neighborhoods, i.e. neighborhoods full of single-family houses rather than multi-family housing. I don’t believe property owners should be afforded more of a say than renters about their neighborhoods. 

But as someone who wants government to be more accessible and democratic, I would have preferred a solution that extended rights to more people instead of achieving equality through less democracy all around. And I reject the underlying sentiment: that vocal residents are a problem to be sidelined in order to solve the housing crisis. 

I understand what’s driving these attitudes. The housing market in Madison is awful. Many people, especially those who subscribe to the YIMBY movement, believe that adding new units now, as fast as we can, will drive down the price of housing. Uncritical support of housing developments has taken on the veneer of a social-justice cause. Those who speak out against a given development are cast as enemies of justice and affordable housing. Their concerns are treated as hysterical drivel and again, a lot of times it is

But what concerns me is that the legitimate concerns raised in the melee around new housing developments in Madison also get dismissed out of hand, in service of developers who don’t need our help and whose projects almost never include actual affordable housing. 

Take this latest development, for example. While some residents shared their disjointed fears about crime and too many new residents, others worried that the development might worsen flooding. A number of people who submitted public comments specifically reference the 2018 flood which impacted the entire isthmus, but especially the neighborhood in question. It’s undoubtedly true that some folks will latch onto any argument to justify their opposition to housing developments, while privately motivated by bigoted ideas about apartments and renters. But in the stack of public comments, there were also some gems—like folks writing knowledgeably about stormwater runoff, from a place of genuine concern about future flooding on the isthmus in the face of climate catastrophe. I am admittedly not a stormwater expert or an engineer. But their fears don’t seem absurd, actually.

The site of the proposed development is adjacent to the Yahara River, very close to the Tenney Park Lock and Dam. Here’s a picture of that area during the 2018 flood (the site of the proposed development is out of shot, just beyond the bottom left corner) Paving over rain-absorbent green space can make flooding worse. If you look at an aerial view of the lot currently and compare it to the proposed development, it does appear that the proposal would reduce the amount of green space.  (Note: After publication, Madison is for People pointed out that the proposed development does include 29,000 square feet of rooftop greenspace, which is not represented in the below images but would mitigate flooding).

An aerial photo shows the proposed site of a new apartment development on North Sherman Avenue. The site boundaries are marked in blue.
A rendering shows an overhead view of a proposed apartment development on Sherman Avenue.
Images from Vermillion Development’s application to the Urban Design Commission.

How might that impact future flooding if it moves forward, especially knowing that climate change increases the likelihood of extreme weather events in this area? This is an imminently reasonable thing to wonder about and to push city officials to take into consideration. If you believe that a proposal will make flooding worse, it’s even reasonable to oppose it and push for something different that better takes flooding into account. Meanwhile, simply trusting that these concerns will get a hearing without an engaged citizenry pushing for them is deeply naive.

Increased traffic is another concern raised by opponents of the proposed development. It’s a concern raised frequently in the housing debates. Here, too, we should recognize that when neighbors fret over increased traffic, some are operating from self-centered and even hypocritical motivations. 

Isthmus neighborhoods have limited street parking and a lot of old houses with one-car garages or no garages or driveways at all. Long-time residents who rely on free street parking worry that new apartment dwellers and their guests will increase competition for street parking and make it even more scarce. And they’re probably right! But of course these long-term residents and homeowners are no more entitled to the free street parking than anyone else. 

However, selfish motivations from some still don’t make traffic a totally bogus concern. Adding even more cars to Madison streets is a bad idea that will lead to more congestion and more pollution. More cars means more demand for car infrastructure, including parking spots and lanes, which actually undercuts our ability to increase density and can make flooding worse. 

Moreover, isthmus neighborhoods are arguably the most walkable and bikeable in the entire city, with excellent infrastructure for walking and biking, solid public transit access, and schools, grocery stores, restaurants, bars, and parks that are readily accessible to residents. It is wrong to add hundreds more cars to these neighborhoods where people are better equipped than anywhere else to do without. We should push for housing developments that include fewer parking stalls while also limiting free street parking in the surrounding neighborhoods for all residents. In these increasingly affluent parts of the city, it seems very appropriate to push residents to go car-free and car-light by making it difficult and expensive to own and store a car. We should also make it easier to get around by other means—and areas like this have a head start compared to much of the rest of the city. 

Right now, though, with any critics of development cast as shrill NIMBYs and developers heralded as heroes who will deliver us from the housing crisis, I am afraid that these issues don’t get a hearing at all. There’s not enough space for reasonable criticism or for people to push for better, more thoughtful proposals. There aren’t enough people who support density who are also willing to do the work of identifying people’s legitimate concerns and collaborating with them for progressive and equitable solutions. We’re collectively not doing enough to engage the majority of the public who are neither homeowners focused solely on their own property values or developers. I get it. This is all a lot harder and more time-consuming than simply saying that you support all the housing, dismissing concerns and objections as overwrought bullshit, and moving on. 

But this leaves the legitimate concerns unaddressed. The only people still in the room are developers and the loudest NIMBYs. Shockingly this collaboration does not lead to brilliant conclusions. When it comes to traffic, for example, developers appease residents by pointing to the large number of parking stalls included in their designs. The Vermillion development boasts 587 parking stalls for its 445 expected units, a ratio of 1.32 cars per unit. Presumably all of these cars will eventually leave their stalls and add to the crush of traffic already burdening the isthmus. Problem not solved! Meanwhile, a plan that reduced or even eliminated the 245 surface parking spots might address both the traffic and flooding concerns. But arriving at such a solution would require us to take these concerns seriously in the first place.

Even more worrying to me is the question of who benefits when sectors of the public are pitted against each other and encouraged to view one another’s needs and concerns as silly. When the Wisconsin State Journal’s reporting almost gleefully accentuates the hysteria of a recent Urban Design Commission meeting, what are readers not critiquing when they instead (understandably) respond to the offensive comment about “too many people” from a woman who owns a $2 million house on Sherman Avenue? In an article that left both a local government body and area residents looking bad, only the developer comes out looking reasonable. And when we shape the planning process in alignment with this perspective, developers also emerge with more power. 

Writing for Tone Madison in April 2021, Olivia Williams argued convincingly that the line between more new units and affordable housing is a lot thornier and more indirect than many believe. I think we should remember this in our rush to smooth the way for developers, a group that has already been empowered by a state government that strongly favors landlords and industry over local control. As for the power city and county governments do still have to shape housing policy in Wisconsin, developers also wield too much influence in Madison’s local elections. In the middle of a housing crisis, the interests of developers might overlap slightly with the interests of those of us who favor density and affordable housing, but only to an extremely limited degree, and their ultimate goal—maximizing profits—is entirely at odds with affordable housing. 

In fact, housing as a for-profit venture is completely incompatible with the idea that housing is a human right. And that’s the main reason this crisis is so tricky—not our neighbor’s shitty opinions. Accordingly, we should remember that capital loves a crisis and be mindful of how capital might exploit this one. 

Renting is a permanent state of affairs for Madisonians of all ages. We need high-quality, affordable housing in desirable neighborhoods, and we need to make more neighborhoods desirable. But getting there will require us to remain clear-eyed about what most new housing developments proposed in Madison will really get us. We need to stop and ask whether it’s worth it to rush the process by sidestepping critics and trimming away at the democratic process instead of working to expand it. In our rush to view developers as allies, I’m afraid we’re skipping over the work of winning ideological battles about density, cars, and the future of Madison. We’re missing opportunities to connect and collaborate with our actual neighbors and fellow residents in pursuit of a better city. 

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