From the Field: Wisconsin Advocates Explore Intersections of Housing and Inequality

The Wisconsin Collaborative for Affordable Housing (the Collaborative) hosted their 20th annual A Home for Everyone Conference on July 13-14, focusing this year on the crucial importance of affordable housing in efforts to address racial and economic inequality. Plenary speakers addressed the historical context and current state of Wisconsin’s alarming racial disparities, ending with a discussion of the path forward. This year’s conference was the first to merge with the annual gathering of the Wisconsin Fair Housing Network. A Home for Everyone 2016 was coordinated by several housing development, finance, and service agencies throughout Wisconsin, with leadership from the Wisconsin Partnership for Housing Development (WPHD), an NLIHC state partner. The 2016 event achieved a new attendance record.

The theme of the conference was highlighted at the opening plenary by Dr. George Lipsitz, who addressed the importance of fair housing in the context of the current racial turmoil in the U.S. Dr. Lipsitz discussed how generations of housing segregation have cultivated moods of racial hatred and misunderstanding that inevitably lead to incidents of race-based violence and community outrage. He referred to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri as a 90-second incident with a 90-year history, urging advocates to be mindful of policies that contributed to the tragedy. Specifically, Dr. Lipsitz reviewed how the “Fair Housing Act of 1968” has been very loosely enforced and violations bring small penalties, while the “Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968” has, conversely, been rigorously enforced, bringing severe penalties for the low income people of color who have been targeted under the law. 

Attendees also learned about racial disparities in the current labor market in Wisconsin. Dr. Laura Dresser, a labor economist and co-director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, illustrated the uneven nature of Wisconsin’s recovery from the Great Recession. In nearly every measure of racial outcomes and opportunity, Wisconsin ranks at or very near the bottom of all states. Dr. Dresser showed that as recently as 40 years ago, Wisconsin performed at about average with regard to racial disparities. But the decline of manufacturing devastated incomes and wealth for people of color, particularly in Milwaukee and Racine, and there have been no efforts to correct the growing inequality. To address disparate racial opportunities and the problematic wage gap, Dr. Dresser urged significant changes in workforce policies like the minimum wage, fair work weeks, and paid sick days.

A Home for Everyone 2016 closed with remarks from NLIHC President and CEO Diane Yentel. Ms. Yentel connected issues such as fair housing and higher wages to the broader movement for affordable housing. She discussed how ever-increasing cost burdens for renters decrease opportunity and economic mobility. She stressed that federal housing policy currently drives inequality by heavily favoring subsidies for higher income homeowners, especially through the mortgage interest deduction. Ms. Yentel reminded advocates that they can make a difference by participating in the legislative process and providing input to Wisconsin’s first national Housing Trust Fund allocation plan.

“I am grateful for the great turnout this year for A Home for Everyone,” said WPHD Executive Director Kathy Kamp. “I think we all learned that, because housing is a cause of inequality, housing advocates need to be leaders in the effort to address economic inequality in Wisconsin. I believe our actions could lead to significant change.”

For more information about housing advocacy in Wisconsin or the A Home for Everyone Conference, contact Kathy Kamp at [email protected]