Rental housing affordability and equity are critical issues now more than ever

By Yaidi Cancel Martinez

Rental housing affordability is becoming an increasingly prominent issue in advancing the state’s and Milwaukee area’s regional economy. In fact, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s “state of the city” speech on Monday emphasizes the importance of this issue on the local policymaking scene.

As this year’s Norman N. Gill Fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Forum, I am exploring the current rental housing landscape in Milwaukee County by analyzing pre/post-recession trends in demand, supply, and the affordability gap in the county, region, and state. My analysis also will look at the extent to which disparities exist — primarily regarding income and race/ethnicity. This analysis will help uncover whether Milwaukee County currently has sufficient affordable and adequate rental housing options for its diverse renters.

My research expands upon the Forum’s 2009 report, Give Me Shelter, which found that most low-income renters in Milwaukee County who do not receive rental subsidies are heavily cost burdened and squeezed into very limited affordable housing options. Also, more than 40 percent of the private rental housing stock was found to be of inadequate quality to meet the needs of a growing renter population.

While the 2009 report discussed rental market disparities in terms of income and housing quality, the upcoming report will add information on other key factors such as housing tenure, rental housing type and size, and renter characteristics (age, race/ethnicity, and employment status), which influence the provision of affordable rental housing.

The new report will focus on the private rental market, where most renters reside. Slightly more than half of Milwaukee County’s households reside in private rental housing, and per our most recent data derived from the U.S. Census, the post-recession trend suggests some shifts in renter demographics occurred.

Thus far in my research, I have found a mix of positive and negative trends in Milwaukee County’s rental housing landscape.

On the positive side, for example, data shows Milwaukee County has:

  • Relatively low median rents compared to surrounding counties — except Racine County;
  • Experienced a decrease in extremely low-income renters; and
  • Seen an increase in renters who are employed.

On the flip side and at a granular level, the data reveal gaps that should not be overlooked, including some that pertain to an increase in racial and income disparities within Milwaukee County and between the county and its neighbors.

This research is intended to provide a timely re-assessment of current rental housing challenges, as well as recommendations for strategies to increase supply and access to affordable rental housing that go beyond public assistance. Stay tuned for its release this summer!