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Tuesday, October 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 44.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Why Ludell Swenson can't live in downtown Madison anymore
Rising rents are pricing out people with disabilities
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Swenson (right) and his live-in aide, Swansbro, have about a month left to find other housing.
Credit:Carolyn Fath

The living room in Ludell Swenson's downtown apartment is purposely sparse. There's a small table where he and his live-in aide share meals and a desk. The furnishings sit flush with the wall, leaving most of the floor space open so that Swenson has a large turning radius for his powered wheelchair.

Swenson was born with cerebral palsy and cannot walk. But he does get around. He's been a familiar sight downtown for decades, cruising around in his wheelchair, often without shoes or a shirt.

He also moves with ease around his two-bedroom apartment, thanks to such features as a barrier-free shower that can accommodate his wheelchair.

Swenson, 55, loves his third-floor apartment, which sits at the corner of West Washington Avenue and Bedford Street, both for its accessible features and proximity to downtown. But his lease has not been renewed and he has been told he must move out by Aug. 30. It is the last thing he wants to do.

"Ludell enjoys being as close to downtown as possible," says Guy Swansbro, who has been Swenson's live-in aide for about five years. Swenson cannot talk, though he is able to communicate by pointing at letters, words and expressions on a board attached to his wheelchair. "All his support is downtown," Swansbro adds. "And it's his area of familiarity."

Frank Staniszewski, president of Madison Development Corporation, which owns and manages the apartment building where Swenson lives, confirms his tenant's fate.

"He is really being forced to move," says Staniszewski. "We've been working with him on that for over a year."

Adds Staniszewski: "He should be aware there is good reason for that."

Staniszewski says Swenson, who receives housing assistance in the form of Section 8 vouchers, must move because the building elevator needs to be replaced and the property is undergoing a $1 million renovation.

He says it will be a minimum of four to six weeks for the elevator work, with no service during that period. "It's not safe for him or anybody else who is mobility-impaired."

Rents, he admits, will be going up "because of the investments."

Madison Development Corporation, a nonprofit, provides affordable housing in Dane County and makes loans to "hard-to-finance small businesses." It owns and manages 224 apartment units, mostly low-income properties. Some are duplexes and some four-units. Most are in Madison, except for a 76-unit apartment building in Middleton.

Staniszewski says his organization has tried to relocate Swenson, including to a two-bedroom, ground-floor apartment in the 400 block of West Mifflin Street. He says it might be a bit smaller than Swenson's current place, and some turns might be tighter. But, he adds, "It was built and designed as accessible" and is only about seven years old. It also has an in-unit washer and dryer.

Swenson was also offered a spot in an elevator building at 1900 E. Washington Ave.

"No reasonable offer has been accepted by Ludell," says Staniszewski.

But Swenson and Swansbro have a different take on the Mifflin Street property. "It is in the middle of the student ghetto," says Swansbro. "That would have been a terrible place. Too small and cramped for anybody in a power chair."

And he says the East Washington property is too far from downtown for Ludell.

One thing both Staniszewski and Swansbro agree on is that the urban core is out of reach for most people like Swenson.

"The rents in the downtown are really pricing low-income people out," says Staniszewski.

He says it's "unfortunate and unwise" that Swenson did not grab the Mifflin Street property, which has now been rented to others. "I'm not sure what else is available."

Currently Swenson's monthly Social Security income of $959 is just barely more than his rent of $875.

"The big problem is that people on disability income don't get raises," says Swansbro. "And so-called affordable apartments are no longer affordable. People with Section 8 vouchers are getting pushed out of the high-rent districts to places they can afford."

Accessible, not affordable

When informed that his lease would not be renewed, Swenson asked the city's Department of Civil Rights to look into the matter.

"Originally we thought it might be a case of discrimination," says Jason Glozier, the department's disability rights and services program coordinator. The department had been notified around the same time that a member of the city's Commission on People with Disabilities was also not getting her lease renewed by Madison Development Corporation.

While no wrongdoing was found, Glozier says the plight of both individuals is "evidence of a larger problem: The subsequent [difficult] search for housing."

Glozier calls nonrenewals "a loophole in eviction law," but nevertheless standard practice. There is also no guarantee of housing for Section 8 voucher holders, he adds.

Swenson's inability to find affordable housing downtown is part of a national trend, says Glozier. A report released a couple of years ago, "Priced Out in 2012," found that the majority of metropolitan areas are unaffordable to people with disabilities who receive Social Security Income (SSI).

The report compared the SSI payments received by more than 4.8 million non-elderly Americans with disabilities to the fair market rents established by HUD for efficiencies and one-bedroom apartments. According to the authors -- the Technical Assistance Collaborative and the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Housing Task Force -- "people with disabilities receiving SSI needed to pay 104% of their income to rent a one-bedroom unit priced at the Fair Market Rent."

Glozier says the maximum SSI payment in Dane County is $795.53 a month. The average fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $734.

"That's over 90% of an individual's income," he says. "That is one of the biggest barriers."

Glozier says the city's low vacancy rate is not helping matters. "It's causing rent to rise a lot faster than it would otherwise."

There is some good news in the number of new accessible units that have been built during the recent apartment boom in Madison. Due to a revamping in 2008 of building codes, a minimum of 5% of new construction must be accessible to people with disabilities. The problem, says Glozier, is that these new developments are not affordable.

"If you're receiving SSI, you're not going to be able to look at those as potential housing opportunities," says Glozier. "It's unfortunate because those are likely the most accessible."

Public housing

The city does offer some accessible units in its HUD-subsidized housing projects.

Agustin Olvera, division director for the Community Development Authority (CDA), says that 5% of the city's public housing is handicapped accessible. That amounts to about 40 units.

Olvera says the city tries to disperse these units throughout the city, but most are located in the Triangle, the neighborhood bordered by West Washington Avenue and Regent and Park streets.

Olvera says the city added a few new units when rehabbing its Truax Park Apartments along Wright Street on Madison's east side. It also provided funding for handicapped accessible housing in the Royster-Clark redevelopment on Cottage Grove Road.

While the near-downtown location of the CDA apartments on West Washington Avenue might appeal to Swenson, he could not apply for residency unless he gave up his Section 8 voucher. That would restrict where he could live in the future and be risky. There are waiting lists for Section 8 vouchers.

"It's not a good option," says Glovier.

'Old and tired'

Though Swenson cannot communicate easily, he reads and writes and has penned some of his life story. It's a brutally honest look at his desires, struggles and disappointments. Of the black-and-white Boston terrier bulldog his dad got him when he was 7, he writes: "Sometimes I felt better with a dog than with my mom and dad." In 2011, Isthmus profiled Swenson in a series on local "heroes."

Swansbro, who is 63, is sticking with Ludell as he continues to search for housing. "We're just old and tired and didn't want to move again."

"We're desperately looking for somewhere to move to," he adds. "They've already rented this place."

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