RACINE COUNTY — A study from the Wisconsin Policy Forum, a policy research organization with offices in Milwaukee and Madison, has identified Racine as the seventh most heavily rent-burdened county in the state.
According to the study, which was published on Tuesday, 49.7 percent of renters in the county are devoting more than 30 percent of their incomes toward paying rent, and thus are considered “rent-burdened.”
Racine County has the fifth-highest population in the state. There were five counties with smaller populations that had higher frequencies of rent-burdened households. Only Milwaukee County has both a bigger population and higher rent-burdened rate than Racine County.
“Racine has challenges, but there’s a number of other counties that also do,” said Joe Peterangelo, a senior researcher with the WPF.
Not just in the cities
“We hadn’t looked at the issue of affordable housing for a number of years. How have things changed since the recession? And now that we’re out of it, how has that impacted the housing landscape?” Peterangelo said of why the WPF conducted this study.
For Peterangelo, the biggest surprise found in the study’s results was how common rent-burdened households were in some rural counties. He was expecting to find that rent-burdened households would be concentrated almost exclusively in urban counties, like Racine and Milwaukee.
According to the study, half of the 16 most rent-burdened counties have populations below 50,000. Racine County’s population was 195,080, as of 2015.
“We found it interesting that it’s not just an urban issue,” Peterangelo said. “We went into it thinking that Milwaukee and Racine would stand out statewide, but we found that it was prevalent in some of the more rural counties.”
The county with the highest rate of rent-burdened households was Langlade County, where 55.8 percent of renters are paying more than 30 percent of their incomes on rent. The population of Langlade is less than 20,000, and 23.8 percent of residences are rentals.
Milwaukee had the second-highest rate of rent-burdened households at 52.9 percent. Milwaukee is the only county in the state where the majority (50.6 percent) of residences are rentals.
The other counties with higher rates of rent-burdened households than Racine are Kenosha (51.6 percent), Walworth (50.8 percent), Iron (50.4 percent) and Eau Claire (49.9 percent). Across the state, 46.7 percent of households living in rental properties are considered rent-burdened.
What causes high rent burdens?
As far as solutions go, Peterangelo said that it’s more important to make sure that counties have the right amount of rental properties, versus trying to control incomes and/or rental prices. This is because weighty rent burdens can be sparked by either problematically low incomes or high rental costs.
For example, the median renter monthly income in Iron County is only $1,444, while in Racine it is $2,578. That’s more than a $1,000 difference, but Iron County only has 0.7 percent more rent-burdened households per capita than Racine County.
“Rents aren’t particularly high, and I think you see that across the state,” Peterangelo said, adding that it’s easier to create new affordable housing than it is to change current residences into becoming more affordable. “Income seems to be the bigger problem, it points to the difficulty (of making rent).”
Dane County has the highest median monthly rent in the state at $942, but that’s still below the national average of $949, according to TownCharts.com. Dane’s rent-burdened household population is 48.8 percent, the ninth highest in Wisconsin, according to the WPF study.
Amanda Kostman, a UW-Extension family living educator based in Walworth County, said that a vacancy rate around 10 percent is healthiest for a community. Higher rates leave too many empty homes, while too few homes allow for rent prices to go up.
According to Department of Numbers, an independent online repository that aims to contextualize public data, Racine County’s vacancy rate was 5.74 percent as of 2016. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the current national rate is just shy of 7 percent.
The biggest difference between someone who easily can pay their rent each month and someone who struggles, according to Kostman, is the ability to save money and be prepared for emergencies. And those problems can be intensified if the household includes children who don’t generate income but oftentimes carry greater expenses than single adults.
Kostman offered the scenario of someone’s car breaking down. If they pay to fix their car, they might not be able to make rent. But if they devote more savings to making rent and not fixing the car, they could miss work and thus lose income.
“That’s also added stress for those folks… if something is to happen,” Kostman said.