News 8 Now Investigates: Black, Hispanic households more likely to experience severe housing problems in La Crosse

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT)–La Crosse’s second virtual town hall Wednesday night focused on homelessness, homeownership and rental disparities. City leaders have looked at these issues extensively, with a 2019 study that found significant disparities between people of color and white residents. That’s especially true when it comes to finding a safe and affordable place to live.

Home to about 50,000 people, La Crosse is an idyllic community for many. But for some, issues with housing are hidden behind closed doors.

“What the study found was that there are definitely racial inequities when it comes to basically your race and ability to live or access affordable housing and quality housing,” said Caroline Gregerson, the community development administrator for the city.

HUD says a household faces a “severe housing problem” when:

1. Monthly housing costs (including mortgage payments, property taxes, insurance, and utilities for owners and rent and utilities for renters) exceed 50% of monthly income.
2. A household is overcrowded if there is more than 1.5 people per room, not including kitchen or bathrooms.
3. A housing unit lacks complete kitchen facilities if it lacks one or more of the following: cooking facilities, a refrigerator, or a sink with piped water.
4. A housing unit lacks complete plumbing facilities if it lacks one or more of the following: hot and cold piped water, a flush toilet, or a bathtub or shower.

“There’s no reason for that. That’s a health issue. And during a time of a pandemic and crowding and families taking care of each other, that should not be an issue,” said Jonathan Maye-Cates, a citizen member of the Human Rights Commission.

The 2019 study found that Black and Latino households are more than twice as likely to have a severe housing need compared to white households.

“I can image a family not wanting to cause a problem with their landlord just to maintain a roof over their head,” Maye-Cates said.

Jonathan Maye-Cates is part of the city’s human rights commission. The group is dedicated to investigating discriminatory practices and working to build a more equitable La Crosse, especially with housing.

“I’d like to think that the HRC, along with the other partners in the community, along with city government that we will try to drive this train a little further now that these discussions have come to the forefront,” Maye-Cates said,

It’s not for a lack of trying. Over the years, organizations like Couleecap have tried to address these issues. A few years ago it launched a pilot program in partnership with the city through its Community Development Block Grant program, according to the nonprofit.

“What we wanted to do was offer a loan program to local landlords in the city of La Crosse to help them finance repairs on their properties,” said Ashley Lacenski, community development director for Couleecap.

Lacenski said only a few landlords signed up, even after the interest rate on the loans were lowered to zero percent.

“It definitely did make some impact on these properties,” Lacenski said.

While the program ended, the organization still supports low-income families through affordable rentals.

“They are two bedroom, one bathroom units, priced significantly below fair market rent,” Lacenski said.

HUD says up to 30% of your monthly income should go toward your housing costs. Any more than that and it becomes difficult to pay for other expenses like food, clothing, transportation, and medical care.

“If you’re only making $15,000 or $20,000 a year, that’s not a lot of money to go toward rent each month,” Lacenski said.

Which further complicates finding a place to live because good, affordable housing goes fast.

“Especially in a rental nature, it’s gone in a minute. You’d be surprised how quickly properties are going,” Maye-Cates said.

In La Crosse, many households are putting more than 50% of their monthly income toward housing. This “severe cost burden” impacts 32.1% of Black households and 27% of Hispanic households. That’s compared to 16.8% percent of white households.

“If you can’t afford as much rent, you’re likely going to be living in a place that is not as nice as if you could afford more rent,” Lacenski said.

Part of the problem might be an issue with meaningful employment. Maye-Cates said he knew people who went to work in Minnesota because of the higher wages.

“That does affect your ability to secure housing here in La Crosse,” Maye-Cates said.

City council member and landlord Jessica Olson said the another part of the problem is the housing supply.

“When the city enacted the multifamily housing design standards in the early 2000’s, that really cut off the spigot as far as new large construction housing that was feasible to build in the city,” said Olson.

Over time, she argues, that would have aged and provided more affordable housing to more people.

“If it never got built to begin with, it shouldn’t be a surprise that we now don’t have it available on the market today,” Olson said.

La Crosse is changing. She worries that as older buildings make way for the new, it’s squeezing residents out.

“When we come in and tear down an older house to build a brand new house, that’s going to be at the higher end of the market,” Olson said.

And with trying to improve neighborhoods comes unintended consequences.

“You price people out of their options, that’s just further squeeze on a class of vulnerable people who have to rely on rents for a roof over their heads,” Olson said.

She said free market competition can solve some of these issues but you need to have enough supply.

“The only viable solution I see is scaling back regulations to let people to come in and build as much as possible so that 30 years from now we correct the problem 20 years ago,” Olson said.

To make sure all residents have a good, affordable place to live, it might take time. For Lacenski, the solutions have to be partnerships between the government, nonprofits and other stakeholders that want to help.

“It’s a larger problem than one entity in and of itself can handle,” Lacenski said.

News 8 Now has been looking at issues of systemic racism and how they impact our area. That includes education, homeownership and policing. To see those investigations, click here.