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Milwaukee rental households deal with rising rent costs

Reports see mixed trends throughout city, suburbs

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A rental sign is posted in front of an apartment complex
A rental sign is posted in front of an apartment complex Tuesday, July 14, 2020, in Phoenix. Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo

Rent prices are up in the Milwaukee metro area, according to a recent report. A researcher says it’s worsening issues of inequality.

A report from the financial app Stessa found median rents in the Milwaukee-Waukesha area have gone up by around $100 since 2019.

And in an area like Milwaukee County, which is renter-majority, that can have a big impact.

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According to a 2018 Wisconsin Policy Forum report based on Census Bureau data, 50.6 percent of the area’s households at the time rented rather than owned their homes.

Yaidi Cancel Martinez, a social scientist with University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development, said low rental availability and increased demand have both potentially driven up prices. Low home supplies and increasing home prices also play a role.

“That is putting some potential buyers to stay a little bit longer in the rental market, so that then can constrain that supply,” Martinez said. “People are staying a little bit longer (whether they) want to stay longer in the rental market or they have to.”

Inflation and increased costs of living are also making a difference, especially for the area’s marginalized and low-earning households. Martinez’s research finds incomes haven’t kept up with the cost of rent in the region.

“For … moderate and low income households, there’s still a lot of stress, you know, in terms of affording their home and trying to afford other things as well,” Martinez said.

‘No greater crisis’

Where help exists, it often only goes so far. Andy Heidt, the housing policy and programs manager for the Wisconsin Community Action Program Association, or WISCAP, said the Wisconsin Emergency Rent Assistance program has an eligibility limit of 18 months.

He said rent assistance is “both easy and hard.” According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, more than 187,000 renter households in Wisconsin are extremely low income.

“There’s no greater crisis,” Heidt said. “Keeping people stable in their homes is essential to everything in terms of being foundational.”

Heidt said different landlords are resolving issues with tenants in different ways.

“There are definitely landlords with empathy and understanding,” Heidt said. “They know their tenants, they’re taking chances on their tenants, they’ll wait for their tenants who are in a temporary crisis to navigate the support and services to hopefully be able to stay in their units … you flip the coin over, and there’s the rapacity, greed, turmoil, intention that informs so many aspects of our life in this day and age.”

Martinez said systemic solutions depend on creating a better supply of affordable homes, as well as ensuring wages keep up with the cost of living.

“Housing is a basic human right,” Martinez said. “When we’re trying to ensure that we can pay for rent or pay for our home, it’s very important.”

Heidt said WISCAP is engaging in work to help people stay in their homes in the short term while creating a better stock of affordable housing across the state.

We’ve got our hands full,” Heidt said. “We’re really scared, because as we come out of this pandemic, the rents are so much higher.

Heidt said reckoning with income inequality and ensuring the availability of stable housing will also help ease the troubles marginalized groups face.

“The challenges are like climbing Mount Everest without any equipment,” Heidt said.

Within Milwaukee County, rent trends can vary from city to city.

In Milwaukee proper, data from rent.com shows rent prices down from last year to this year, with the decline varying from 4 percent for studio apartments to as much as 24 percent for a three-bedroom apartment. Meanwhile, suburban areas have seen some average rents rise dramatically. According to rent.com’s data, average studio rents in Wauwatosa have risen by almost 90 percent year-to-year.

But Martinez cautions those sorts of reports should be taken with a grain of salt.

“They base the prices and the research on their listings,” Martinez said. “It’s not capturing the whole picture of the rental market.”

Martinez said she doesn’t expect rent prices to increase at “an exorbitant pace” in the near future.

“Overall, I don’t foresee this being a gloomy future for renters,” Martinez said. “Things might get a little bit more expensive, but really not that much.”

Heidt said there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to reckoning with housing issues.

“We have to be bold, innovative, collaborative and not afraid to change if what we’re doing isn’t working,” Heidt said. “If we fail, we learn from those failures, get up and try something else that has to work for these households, because the stakes are too high.”

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