Eau Claire City Council Considers Forming Commission on Housing Affordability
The issue of affordable housing has moved to the forefront in community conversations in recent years, and now the Eau Claire City Council is considering forming a permanent body to advise it on how to ensure all city residents are able to put roofs over their heads.
“Most of us can imagine what it feels like to be homeless, but we can’t really relate to it. But most of us can probably remember a time in our life where we had a hard time paying our rent.” – Eau Claire City Councilwoman Kate Beaton
Councilman Andrew Werthmann has proposed an ordinance creating an 11-member Housing Opportunities Commission, which would include one council member as well as people with backgrounds in property management, real estate, and social services, as well as those who have faced trouble paying for housing themselves.
“We hope that group of diverse people can help us come up with creative solutions to the affordable housing crisis,” said Councilwoman Kate Beaton, the proposal’s co-author.
According to the proposal, which is expected to be voted on Jan. 28, the commission would work on policy regarding “affordable housing, expanding housing diversity, and promoting greater awareness and understanding of housing needs and opportunities throughout the community.” Its proposals and actions would be advisory to the City Council.
“The City Council has been taking a really hard look at this,” Beaton said of the issue of affordable housing. “We’ve been both looking at ways to change policies toward housing, but also looking at ways at involving the public.”
Beaton and Werthmann pointed to studies and media reports in recent years that have highlighted the rising cost of housing in the Chippewa Valley. For example, a United Way report found that 42% of Eau Claire County households have incomes low enough that they struggle to meet basic needs (the so-called ALICE threshold stands for “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed”).
“I don’t think that five years ago we would have formed a commission like this, but given what’s happening in our community there’s a need,” and forming a commission will keep the issue at the forefront, Werthmann said.
The proposed ordinance creating the commission was brought up for a first reading at the council’s Jan. 14 meeting. It is expected to be the subject of a public hearing on Jan. 27 and vote on Jan. 28.
The creation of the commission follows on the work of the Chippewa Valley Regional Affordable Housing Task Force, which offered a slate of recommendations adopted by the City Council last year. That group and the JONAH Affordable Housing Task Force have helped provide momentum for City Council actions, which have included a vote in July to put $500,000 in the city’s capital improvement budget to create incentives for affordable multifamily housing.
Werthmann and Beaton agreed that housing affordability is part of a much larger set of economic issues, including low wage growth and the high cost of childcare. Ultimately, Beaton said, her goal is that the commission can help the City Council build a community that is naturally less expensive to live in and where people don’t have to rely on public assistance to afford housing.
“When we talk about ‘affordable housing,’ it opens up the conversation where people can more easily relate to it,” she said. “Most of us can imagine what it feels like to be homeless, but we can’t really relate to it. But most of us can probably remember a time in our life where we had a hard time paying our rent.”