Housing Injustice And Inequity In Madison, Wisconsin: A Personal Experience

Recently, within the last three weeks, I attempted to relocate to “progressive” Madison, Wisconsin as a thriving professional looking to continue to make the Midwest his home. The aspirations I had to call Madison home — for the second time — were lofty, yet obtainable, because of my connections there; because of my familiarity with the city. Never had I tried so hard to acquire housing in a place where I had work or business in.

Rockford, Illinois — where I was born and raised — does not compare to the blatant and very obvious ways that Madison, Wisconsin is using to keep the city, especially downtown and the east side, predominantly white. I had heard a few years back about this but to see it, to experience it, definitely taught me a lot. You hear news about the unaffordable housing in California or Nashville or Chicago — Madison, a city of only 200,000 people — has achieved that same status.

I am glad that I can relate back to my years studying and speaking about gentrification some six years ago as the more recent foundation of my learning about housing injustice and inequity in this country. Yes, I am a student of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, but this current trend in gentrification and corporate money flooding desirable cities like Madison, Wisconsin makes the understanding more proximate to my learnings. You have to live in, you have to visit or go to these places, in order to see what is really going on.

There is a very small movement there addressing “affordable housing” but it is indeed that: small. I do not know of a real effort to address the injustices of pushing Black and Brown people to the outskirts of the city. I had not heard about any conversations about the questions that realtors put in the way to keep housing there only for the affluent or the blessed. The steps you find on a lot of the applications where you are applying for an apartment or a condominium in Madison that get in the way of equity or progress are as fellows:

What is your rental history?

How much money do you make?

The first question, I am not sure if these entities know, that some people do not have a rental history because they have been living in a home or an apartment where the rent is shared by everyone — or while one person might pay the rent the other residents of the house or apartment are paying the light or the gas bill. The people who are not necessarily paying the rent are contributing to the living conditions of the house that keeps everything together ultimately.

Of course you have to be able to pay the rent, but when the person behind the calculator or has a certain monetary equation or formula in their head, your chances of being able to “afford” the apartment or condo is less and less. Instead of a decent tenant they are pushing away people who need not be a piece of a formula or an equation that is robotic and harsh. Why do we humans have to be numbers in this whole game? It makes no sense at all but their methods do not care. It is a system set up that is very imbalanced, inhumane, unjust.

Affordable housing and housing inequity are two different things. Affordable housing can be approached in these two ways: Only well to do white people or middle class Black or Brown people can afford certain apartments or homes. Or two, affordable housing can mean government funded housing where usually, especially these days, single women mostly qualify for. Housing inequity is when the housing market is only meeting the needs of the people who can afford condos and high priced apartments and like, excluding anyone else. The latter is significantly the problem but for that problem not many people are willing to slow down and address it.

It was tumultuous, the process of applying for apartments in Madison. It was tumultuous, time consuming, tiring. No one should ever have to face so many obstacles when they are seeking a primary need. The outdated formulas used to basically say, “Okay, we cannot rent you this apartment because your current salary is not XYZ”, needs reconsideration and readjustment. I am very sure that in this heavily unemployed society we live in today where credit scores are not at their highest that we need those formulas. Mechanical hurdles like them only continue the cycle of discrimination practices that has always existed in this country — especially when it comes to Black people and people of color.

How can a so-called “progressive” city even claim this term when the housing injustice and inequity there is so evident? How can Madison, Wisconsin be “progressive” when Black and Brown residents have to live outside of the city? How can Madison be “progressive” when there are no real, honest attempts to even address the overall issue? I will not call it progressive when I know what is going on there; when I know what I experienced there.

These amazing models of a more democratic and just movement towards housing equity and justice are what I am hoping people who want to move toward real action learn from, utilize:

I have had conversations about how Wisconsin is a woman friendly state, of course that would include Madison. And when we were speaking about Wisconsin being woman friendly that meant that it welcomed women who could add or capitalize off of the resources it provides for women who might be single parents and in need of jobs and the like. That equation never mentions men, especially Black men who Black women could attract or bring along with them to Wisconsin. This says a lot when it comes to creating community, considering a state’s resources, and their perspective of the labor or the welfare it hopes to provide “needy” people. Do Black people, in order to achieve some form of equity, need be labeled “needy” in order to even be considered in the overall outlook of the state’s future?

I emailed some of the realtors who I was in communication with after I left Madison. I spoke from my heart and my own experiences when it came to my housing search. I hope I provided them with a perspective that was clear, full of humility, and ideas to think about as they move forward with housing units that make up its lovely, active neighborhoods. I am glad to have halted my attempt to live there. I will not allow my spirit to be consumed by monetary movements which can derail a person’s focus when all we are trying to do is live; when all we are hoping to is gain; when all we want is a decent place to call home.

Christopher D. Sims a marketing, communications, and social media strategist and specialist. His writing covers the intricacies of the field.