After four years, the city of Madison may finally reopen its waiting list for Section 8 housing, which has been closed since 2003. At its peak there were 2,000 people on the list who needed a voucher to help pay for housing. Now, that number has dwindled to about 300.
'The list is years old,' says Lisa Subeck, a housing advocate for the YWCA. 'They can't find the people on it anymore.'
Under Section 8, the federal government pays a portion of the housing costs for low-income families. But years of budget cuts made Madison's waiting list so long that most families moved away, doubled up with friends or family or became homeless. Some have housing for which they are paying as much as half their income.
Currently, about 1,400 people in Madison receive Section 8 housing vouchers. Agustin Olvera, Madison's housing operations director, says that number is likely to remain about the same. While the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has proposed cutting Madison's $9 million Section 8 program by about 12%, Congress could still add more funds.
'The indications are we will get our full allocation,' says Olvera. And with only 300 people still on the list, there could finally be room to add more.
The city has begun discussing how to accept new applications in a fair way.
'If we suddenly just reopen the list, you know we're going to have a storm of people coming to apply,' says Subeck. 'Suddenly we'll have thousands of people on the list again, with no hope of getting housing.'
Olvera says there are 'horror stories' from other cities that opened up their waiting lists. One city decided to take applications only on Mondays. 'There were huge lines of people camping out over the weekend,' says Olvera. 'People got into fights over their place in line. That's something we want to avoid.'
Madison is considering holding a lottery each year, with preferences for people who are homeless or victims of domestic violence.
'I like the idea of a lottery system because it gives everyone a chance,' says Subeck. But she also wants the 300 people currently on the list to get served first. And she notes that no matter what Madison does, someone will always be left without housing.
'The real unfairness is we don't have the resources to help,' she says. 'It's hard to make something fair when you're dealing with such an unfair situation.'
Investing in success
TomoTherapy Inc. has had a good year. The Madison company, which manufactures large-scale radiation machines to treat cancer patients, reported a profit of nearly $4 million in the first nine months of 2006. Now the company could raise more than $200 million in a public stock offering.
All of which makes Ald. Brenda Konkel wonder why the city of Madison agreed to give TomoTherapy a $700,000 loan.
'It doesn't seem like the kind of investment the city had to make,' she says. Konkel was one of only two alders who voted against the loan in December 2005. 'How do they go from 'desperate' to 'Merrill Lynch thinks they're wonderful' in less than a year?'
TomoTherapy CEO Fred Robertson says the loan helped pay for a $4 million expansion of the company's headquarters on Deming Way. 'Part of our success has been because we were able to expand our operations,' he says, noting the company added 300 jobs in the past couple of years. (It now employs about 500 people, mostly in Madison.)
Robertson says the low-cost loan ' 4% interest, to be paid back over five years ' was 'part of the equation' in the company's decision to stay in Madison.
But Konkel says the city was so eager to keep TomoTherapy that it bent its own rules. The money came from the city's Capital Revolving Fund, which generally limits loans to $250,000. And the $700,000 loan drained the fund, which at the time had only about $800,000. (The city has since put in another $240,000 to build it back up.)
'Was that loan the smartest investment we could make?' asks Konkel. 'The words 'economic development' just make people go, 'Oooh! Okay!' to anything.'
The East Isthmus Neighborhoods Planning Council has had a rough time lately. Its executive director, Lilly Irvin-Vitela, quit after only three months on the job, citing concerns over the group's finances and sustainability. She felt the council's ambitious budget goals would require it to fund-raise constantly. And there was talk of laying off staff and becoming an all-volunteer organization.
Now the council's financial woes have prompted it to back out of acting as the fiscal agent for the Stoughton Road Revitalization Project. The group had been using the council's nonprofit status to accept tax-deductible contributions for a Stoughton Road redesign study.
'I don't know what we're going to do now,' says Supv. Tom Stoebig, a member of the group, which is seeking a new fiscal agent. He adds that the council's decision also complicates efforts to redevelop the old Royster-Clark fertilizer plant.
'We're trying to raise some private dollars to do a market analysis,' he says. 'We were hoping to use the planning council as the fiscal agent.' As he sees it, the planning council has 'lost sight of these things they were meant to do. It's a mess.'
Gov. Jim Doyle has proposed that the state of Wisconsin offer domestic partner benefits to all its employees. About time, says Fair Wisconsin's Josh Freker.
'You even see defense contractors offering the benefits now,' he says. 'To me, it's clear they don't have a gay rights agenda.' Offering benefits to domestic partners of employees 'is a mainstream business practice now.'
Fair Wisconsin keeps a list of state employers who offer these benefits. Of the 130 companies, 44 are based in Dane County ' not counting the national chains, including The Gap and Starbucks, that offer benefits to employees throughout the state.
Freker says Madison has a competitive job market, so employers here must offer the benefits. But he says the practice is becoming common even in conservative places like Green Bay, which has seven companies on the list.
'It comes down to, what's controversial here?' he says. 'If all of these companies now offer this, what is the real argument for the state not offering it?'
Ald. Austin King won the pool on Tuesday night. He correctly predicted, often to the percentage point, the primary election results: That Marsha Rummel would win by a huge margin (68% of the vote) in Dist. 6 on the east side. That Brian Solomon (72%) would do the same in Dist. 10 on the west side and Julia Kerr (74%) in Dist. 13 on the south side.
King's online pool with friends won him drinks for the night. 'There's no money involved,' he says. 'It's not like March Madness.'
King also predicted, along with nearly everyone else, that Mayor Dave Cieslewicz would handily defeat his challengers (58% of the vote): 'Mayor Dave's crushing of his opponents ratified the conventional wisdom that he's been doing a good job.'
Of course Ray Allen, who will face Cieslewicz in the April 3 general election, begs to differ, So does Peter MuÃoz, who came in third with 10% of the vote. 'I don't think I had an opportunity to make the case of the mayor's fiscal irresponsibility,' he says.