By Jeff Bollier and Nusaiba Mizan
Green Bay Press Gazettte
GREEN BAY – The search for affordable housing can stall lives, keep families apart, sting with rejection and add stress to the lives of even the most determined housing hunters.
In interviews, local residents told reporters their months searching for an affordable place consumed time, energy and resources with no guarantee of success.
An eviction, criminal conviction or poor credit can drag the search out even longer.
So can owning a dog or cat.
Application fees and security deposits eat into savings, while renters expect only a portion of their prior security deposit back.
Families who want to buy a house quickly feel worn out by rising prices and the heavy competition for the few properties on the market.
The pace can be furious with homes snapped up within days, and the need to go big with an offer well above the asking price and includes risks like waiving inspections.
These are the consequences of a critical shortage of affordable housing across Wisconsin.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates 188,000 renter households in Wisconsin earn less than 30% of the state’s median wage, but only 69,000 housing units are affordable at that income level.
The gap of 122,000 affordable units means people face fierce competition for existing affordable units.
Some of these households earn less than the federal poverty level ($26,500 for a family of four), but most are known as ALICE households, which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained and Employed.
These working families struggle to afford the basic household survival costs of housing, food, transportation, technology, health care and child care.
In Brown, Outagamie and Winnebago counties, home to more than 250,000 households, about one-third cannot afford the basics, according to the United Way’s 2020 ALICE report.
These are the stories of just a few of the thousands of Northeast Wisconsin renters and homebuyers struggling to find suitable, affordable housing and a look at how the search has impacted their lives.
Tired of moving
Marco Nelson found a unicorn in Green Bay’s housing market: A two-bedroom apartment that costs $600 per month.
The apartment he was approved for in early June is a little smaller than his current one, but the price means he and his girlfriend might have more money for other bills and the chance maybe save some cash for a down payment to eventually buy their own home.
“We could be set for a while, then we wouldn’t have to worry about moving,” Nelson said of the new apartment. “I definitely hope we can get in.”
They move later this summer.
Nelson, 30, was apartment hunting after a new landlord bought the building they live in and notified them in May that the rent was increasing from $100 to $830 per month.
In addition to the rent increase, Nelson suspects tenants will soon have to pay for heat and water, which are currently included in the rent.
The rent increase and utility bills would have pushed their monthly costs from barely affordable to unaffordable, Nelson said.
This summer’s move will be his fourth since he moved to Green Bay seven years ago.
“I’m getting tired of moving because places are just not affordable,” Nelson said.
The smaller-yet-cheaper apartment is a rosier prospect, though than an alternative the couple considered in the past as they struggled to afford the $730-per-month rent in their current place near downtown Green Bay.
“I asked if we should go live with our parents (for awhile) and then go back out there,” Nelson said. “It’s a serious conversation we’ve had. I don’t like it.”
Nelson makes a decent wage at the full-time customer service job he’s held for three years and his girlfriend works part-time, but they still struggle to keep up with rent, medical bills, student loans, a car payment, technology he needed for his job, renters insurance and saving for their future.
It leaves little for small pleasures like a nice dinner out or a chance to spend a little on their hobbies.
“I feel guilty spending $80 on a meal. No one should have to feel that way. It’s not, ‘OK, but should I really be doing this?’ either. I have the money, but should I treat myself or put money in my savings?” Nelson said. “If people are just surviving, they’re not going to enjoy life. They’re going to get burnt out. They’re going to get depression. Then what’s the point?”
‘I lucked out’
Paige Grube’s new landlords in February notified her rent would go up to $170 on April 1.
Grube, now in her late 20s, had enjoyed her downtown Green Bay apartment’s hardwood floors, tiny porch, 1920s kitchen fixtures and $550 per month rent, heat included, since 2019.
Her old landlord allowed her to adopt her dog, Max, and she could afford the one-bedroom unit working part-time jobs in restaurants, as a freelance wedding florist and as a freelance video producer.
At the time she got the notice, Grube’s life was still in a state of upheaval brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Her hours at restaurants had evaporated and her first unemployment check took 12 weeks to arrive.
She qualified for BadgerCare and FoodShare assistance while NEWCAP, a community action agency that helps people experiencing poverty in a 10-county region of northern and northeast Wisconsin, paid three months’ rent.
“Coming out of the (coronavirus) pandemic, this caused a lot of sleepless nights for me personally,” Grube said. “That’s a big jump, especially after the year we’ve had.”
Grube might have been able to afford the $720 per month rent, but the pros of staying there slowly began to disappear: The new owners didn’t allow pets at their other properties, which worried her.
Her porch was deemed unsafe and torn down.
She wasn’t offered a lease and she feared it wouldn’t be long before the rent went up again, so her search began.
Things got a little brighter in March when the video production company she freelanced for hired her full-time and hours began to pick back up at the restaurant where she works.
The full-time job does not include benefits, but she makes enough now that she expects to lose eligibility for FoodShare and BadgerCare this summer.
“I’m more successful on paper and can’t live comfortably,” Grube said. “I don’t want help from anyone. I work multiple jobs. I went to college. It shouldn’t be this hard in Wisconsin.”
Grube hoped to find another apartment for close to the $550 she was paying until April, but there was nothing.
A one-bedroom in the newer apartment buildings started at $900.
She was pretty sure she earned too much to qualify for a rent-controlled unit in Broadway Lofts, a new affordable housing project on North Broadway that opened in November, so she skipped it.
In early May, she found a one-bedroom apartment for rent for $700 per month plus utilities on the edge of downtown Green Bay.
Not finding many other options out there, she became one of five people who applied for it.
“He chose me,” Grube said. “I lucked out. I’m just sad for the others and hope they find something.”
‘Find solutions and give them hope’
To Elisa Mandarim, the key to addressing homelessness is fostering healthy relationships and allyship.
Barriers to developing healthy relationships are the foremost barrier to addressing homelessness.
That may sound straightforward, but it made a dramatic difference in Mandarim’s life when she had been homeless with her daughter.
She continues to work to make that same difference for others as a home care coach at the Ecumenical Partnership for Housing (EPH) in Green Bay, where she helps struggling families transition to stability.
“Most of those families are coming from a traumatic situation,” Mandarim shared in her office at EPH. “And that traumatic situation is linked to them having unhealthy relationships that led them on that path resulting in homelessness. That has happened to me, I mean, that’s exactly what happened to me, and my unhealthy relationship was with my spouse.”
Then, she became homeless with her daughter at age 7 June 19, 2019.
She went to Golden House, an emergency shelter for survivors of domestic violence.
There she and her daughter lived for one month before moving to a more stable house with EPH’s help.
While living in an EPH transitional home, Mandarim was able to take some time to better understand the relationship she had moved away from.
Learning the lexicon and becoming educated about abuse as a survivor was important in that transition from unhealthy to healthy relationships.
“One thing that helped me in my journey was learning about abuse because I was clueless,” Mandarim said. “I know I suffered, I sucked into it, but I was very clueless about the dynamics between the victim and the perpetrator, you know I didn’t understand that. I had a misconception of love. I didn’t understand the red flags.”
Relationships at the organization Circles Green Bay, which helps residents rise out of poverty, were critical for her, too.
The program includes connecting Circles members with an ally – someone who will take them step by step through the processes that will get them out of poverty and to economic stability.
As she worked part-time at the YMCA, Mandarim was offered a long-term rental unit and opportunity in January 2020 to work part-time for EPH to take care of the homes the partnership owns and makes available to families – cleaning the homes, painting them, maintaining them.
Mandarim saw the benefit of taking on an additional part-time job, which gave her flexibility as she took care of her daughter as a single mother.
She fostered that relationship with EPH, and it grew into something more: after applying and interviewing, she was offered her current job as a home care coach.
This position as a coach allows her to work more closely with EPH families and help families with life skills.
The coaching opportunity also allows her to channel that passion for teaching and for people. When she worked on a master’s degree in design in Iowa, she became a teaching assistant as part of her scholarship.
“I fell in love with teaching. I began to give more attention to my students and my teaching than I would in my own projects,” Mandarim said with a smile.
Coaching helped her channel that passion; she changed her career.
“I found it was an opportunity to help families going through similar barriers and difficulties that I went through and help them overcome that and find solutions and give them hope because one of the things that I see happening with families is their lack of hope. Them not seeing that they will overcome it and there will be a better future.”
While there are many barriers to families getting out of homelessness, be it the need for trauma-informed services, budgeting for emergencies, transportation, or child care, building the networks to address these issues is hugely important.
In connecting with families, Mandarim shares her story so that families know she went through this, too.
She said she builds trust through honesty, vulnerability and support.
“This is why I embarked in coaching, life coaching,” Mandarim said. “Because it’s kind of like teaching, you know, motivating. I wanted to learn more tools in motivating people and getting results and helping them make reasonable, attainable goals and keeping them motivated.”
This story was produced by the NEW News Lab, a collaboration of newsrooms that focuses on issues important to Northeast Wisconsin.