Watertown Mayor Emily McFarland is meeting at the White House this week with 34 other mayors from across the country to shine a light on the housing challenge facing Wisconsin and other parts of the United States.
The meeting takes place Wednesday. Mayor McFarland is one of five Wisconsin mayors invited to the roundtable.
Ben Carson, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is leading a group of key administration officials and policymakers in this roundtable with local leaders.
“We have had a lot of conversation in recent years about the need for housing of all types in Watertown,” McFarland said. “In my time here, we’ve begun to evaluate and adjust our processes with development and zoning to make sure that what is in the city’s control is both protecting our interests and keeping us competitive. We will continue to do so, but we are the only players in the housing game.”
Housing is a challenge for nearly every city and village in Wisconsin. According to a report commissioned by the Wisconsin Realtors Association and written by Kurt Paulsen of the University of Wisconsin, the state is producing fewer housing units than it needs.
It says in the years following the Great Recession, Wisconsin has seen 55% fewer housing units produced annually than the 20-year pre-recession average.
This has helped fuel a lack of supply that impacts both fast-growing and slow-growing Wisconsin communities. Mayors and village presidents across Wisconsin routinely rate lack of housing as one of their most pressing local concerns.
The lack of housing is both a social and an economic problem. Communities with an inadequate supply of homes and apartments often struggle to attract workers, which leaves local employers unable to expand. A critical shortage of affordable rental units (the highest in the Midwest) has led to 158,000 Wisconsin families paying more than half their monthly income in rent; a dangerous economic situation, according to a city statement.
“I’ve met with many businesses and the one thing I hear from all of them is that they need employees,” McFarland said. “The city is working many different angles in order to attract people to live and work in Watertown, but once we do, we need to be able to have homes for them to live in.”
A statement from the city indicated there is no single solution to the housing problem and local governments are looking at their zoning policies as well as looking for state and federal governments support in making sure financing is available for housing. The White House Roundtable is an opportunity to bring all those challenges together and brainstorm new solutions.
“I am hopeful that we will be able to not only represent the needs of the city, but also have tangible steps forward that will aid our efforts to have an adequate housing stock. I promised our city that I would advocate for us and our needs on every level of government, so I am honored and grateful to have the opportunity to highlight Watertown, both what we have to offer, and what we need. We are a partner in this discussion on a national level; and that is where our city deserves to be,” McFarland said.