A look behind a Madison development meme.
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.
Construction photo in illustration by Allen DeWitt on Flickr.
We live in a time of brutally precise political and societal commentary, but it usually isn’t featured in the opinion pages of the newspaper. Nor is it featured on news networks, with their endless supply of shouting, questionably professional heads, and it is certainly not to be found on talk radio, with its own endless supply of shouting, decidedly unprofessional heads. The most thoughtful and focused political and societal commentary will not even be found on podcasts, populated as they often are with beards, broey bonhomie, and bloviation.
No, in this day and age, one finds the best political and societal commentary in the easy-to-access, preferred online format of the people: memes. And, once this idea is accepted, one can find all sorts of points made briefly, accurately, and scathingly that the studied, bland word counts of op-eds forbid, the theater of news broadcasts can obfuscate, and the aggrieved soliloquies of talk radio ignore or shred and leave for dead.
Madison resident Lisa Lauren has distilled years of runaway housing development conversations, policies, protests, and general disgruntlement into a five-by-five digital Bingo board fit for Madison meme hall of fame:
Jokes aside (as much as an entire article written about a satirical meme can put jokes aside), Lauren’s work neatly and entertainingly compiles a legion of complaints that have brewed amongst all sorts of Madisonians about the seemingly endless parade of new local high-rises over the last few years. It’s all there: the uncomfortably persistent truth that mostly only Epic employees can afford to live in the new apartments, the perceived lack of engagement that the new residents have with the established community at large, the way none of the new buildings have any character or personality, and the way that developers and investors always sell these projects to the general public. This meme is so successful because it leaves almost no stones unturned.
The underlying point of the meme is, of course, about money—or rather, lack of it, since much of Madison cannot afford local rent period, much less the cost of living in a new high-rise. It is necessary to note that the economic anxiety behind the meme is not comic at all. Many people who live here are worried that they will eventually be pushed out of the city they’ve made a home in, due to Madison’s constantly accelerating housing market. (Memes, if you haven’t learned by now, are deeply rooted in expressing cultural dread, economic and climate anxiety, and general discontent with social issues around the globe.)
It’s not just about high rises, either. Property values across the board are skyrocketing. A recent report from NBC15 describes the Dane County housing market as “red-hot” and notes that sometimes homes are selling for far more than the asking price. (And, incidentally, the author’s rent is raised every year.) The presentation might be a joke, but the concerns are very real.
“I feel like people just think more money = better, and that can be true in some cases, but not all,” says Lauren, who also runs a jewelry business called Kettle Black Silver, in a private message.
In addition to this, Lauren clarified any potential meme misunderstandings.
“It’s not like I want to stop people from moving here. I understand that people are going to move here, and somehow space is needed for them,” says Lauren.
Luxury developments do sometimes include affordable units, and the vagaries of affordable-housing tax credits make the discussion about affordable housing even more complicated. It’s not only understandable, but worthwhile to wonder who can live in “affordable housing” that is placed in a bracket far above what many Madisonians can even think about affording, and what it will mean for those less wealthy Madisonians in the future. In light of these concerns, Lauren’s questions are thoughtful: “Where is the money going? Back to the community?”
Perhaps this quote from Lauren is the best summary of the thoughts behind the meme: “I would love more people, but if we are only catering to people who have money,” says Lauren, “we are going to lose what makes Madison desirable.”
Correction: The initial version of this article included an erroneous reference to the relationship between property taxes and affordable housing.
Help us publish more stories like this one.