Building Blocks

Understanding and responding to Waukesha County’s housing affordability challenges

July 2023


Video Summary

For many years, Waukesha County’s relatively high housing costs have created substantial challenges for low- and moderate-income households seeking a home or apartment. Recent economic changes generated by the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors have exacerbated those difficulties, causing the cost of renting, buying, and building homes to increase sharply and elevating housing affordability to one of the most prominent public policy issues both locally and nationally.

In this report, we examine Waukesha County’s housing affordability landscape, including market characteristics and trends, barriers to affordable and “workforce” housing development, and potential solutions. We consider this issue both from a countywide perspective and through a narrower lens using four municipalities (the cities of Brookfield, Oconomowoc, and Waukesha and the village of Sussex) as case studies.

The primary research questions guiding our analysis include the following:

  • How do the incomes of those who live in Waukesha County – or work there — compare with housing prices in both the rental and owner-occupied housing markets?
  • To what extent has affordable housing been built in Waukesha County in the past decade, where has it been built, how has it been financed, and what populations has it targeted?
  • What barriers may be impeding housing affordability and the development of new affordable and workforce housing in Waukesha County? Are local government policies limiting the supply?
  • Are there best practices for improving housing affordability that leaders in Waukesha County and its municipalities could consider?

To help answer these questions, we rely on numerous data sources, including the U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA), Wisconsin Department of Administration, and Wisconsin Realtors Association. Our analysis also involves a review of local zoning ordinances, local and national housing affordability plans and reports, and actions being taken to address housing challenges in similar counties and states nationally, and a series of interviews with local government officials, development leaders, and Waukesha County employers.

As local governments and businesses in Waukesha County grapple with how to meet the housing needs of current and prospective residents and employees, we hope this research enhances public understanding of the county’s trends and challenges and potential strategies for improving affordability in the future.