Madison housing market hell

Crushing unaffordability embodied in Zillow’s million-dollar Willy Street listing.
Hayley Sperling snaps a few photos from her tour of the Willy St house. Clockwise from the top left: a signature bathroom selfie, a shot of the patio with several chairs and umbrella stand, and finally the kitchen stove and countertops.
Touring the ins and outs of the overpriced place at 825 Williamson Street.

Crushing unaffordability embodied in Zillow’s million-dollar Willy Street listing.

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.

There’s no denying it’s a beautiful house. 

Three bedrooms, three bathrooms, fully updated everything, and it’s on Willy Street.

The kitchen’s minty cabinets stand out against white brick walls and the rose-gold appliance accents are a beautiful touch. The living room is a bit small—the whole house is only 1,980 square feet—but lemon-colored walls and sleek sliding barn doors that open to the kitchen give the space a much more open feeling.

The bedrooms are nice, but the bathrooms are truly amazing. Each has its own unique design, and the master en-suite has black-tiled floors and metal accents that make my emo heart sing.

I can picture a family of three (four if you’re OK with getting close) being very happy here at 825 Williamson St. 

But to afford this home’s $899,900 price tag—down from an initial list price of $949,900!—that family would have to have a household income much, much, much higher than the city’s average of $70,466.

As a late twentysomething in Madison, I spend a lot of time on Zillow, just looking. (I know I’m not alone.) The thought of buying a home and putting down roots in Madison is nice. But with a hot market, crazy interest rates, and extremely limited options, the thought remains just a thought for now.

Recently, as I’ve watched more of my contemporaries struggle to escape from the rock-and-hard-place scenario that is attempting to break into Madison’s housing market or sign up for yet another year of sky-high rent, the beautiful house on Willy Street moves from tangible thought to pure fantasy.

So how did we get here? A property that was valued at $580,000 this year is on the market for almost $1 million, while more than 10,000 households in the city are considered cost-burdened by rent.

According to the city’s latest Housing Snapshot Report, Madison is growing at a rapid pace and can’t add housing units fast enough to keep up. What’s more, these new residents are high-income earners who have the ability to buy and rent homes on the high-end of the market.

Don’t get me wrong, growth in the city comes with a lot of good things for everyone. New businesses and restaurants! Apartment buildings with pools! Public market!

But the housing units that have popped up in the past decade to serve this new market don’t serve the average Madison renter.

The vast majority of new housing units built over the past several years have been multifamily buildings with five or more units. The median rent for these units (built 2010 or later) is about $1,466. According to the aforementioned snapshot report, the average Madison renter can afford $1,171.

This isn’t to say these big new apartment buildings are bad—more units are a good thing, right? And to its credit, the city has recently taken some creative steps in zoning to incentivize developers to add affordable units to these buildings.

But there’s only so much room on the isthmus. 

The number of single-family homes and permits for smaller multi-unit buildings has been on the decline since 2019, according to the city. While of course it makes sense to put big buildings downtown, it leaves lower- and middle-income residents stuck between that rock and a hard place again.   

The subject of housing can be a touchy one in Madison; and is often boiled down to a case of NIMBYs vs. YIMBYs. But truly, it’s a vast, deeply rooted, and multi-faceted issue that’s going to take a lot of talk and action (mostly action) to figure out.

At the end of the day, I hope whoever moves into the Willy Street Dream House loves it and also doesn’t mind when their front yard turns into a construction site for new apartments.

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