PRESS EDITORIAL: Our communities should not be gated by economic barriers

Even local elected politicians can learn from their mistakes. The Grafton Plan Commission proved that last week by supporting a project that will give the village a start on filling its affordable housing void.

The action came almost exactly a decade after village officials mounted implacable opposition to a Habitat for Humanity plan to build affordable housing with three modest-sized homes on a one-acre lot behind a supermarket.

At its April 26 meeting, the current Plan Commission voted to approve rezoning and a conditional use permit to allow construction of apartments for low-income residents qualifying for assistance from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority.

The Woodside Prairies development, located a short distance south of Grafton’s main commercial intersection of Port Washington Road and Highway 60, will have a total of 40 units, including some designated for adults with autism, as well as units for low-income individuals and families.

Village President James Brunquell voiced hardy approval for the project, noting that the village has few housing options that local workers can afford.

Woodside Prairies represents an epiphany of sorts for the village president and other Grafton officials, who in 2012 did not grasp the importance of housing diversity that allows people of all income levels to live in the community.

It took years for Habitat for Humanity to get village permission to make its important contribution to that diversity. Brunquell and the Village Board relented only after four Grafton religious congregations wrote a public letter, which was published in Ozaukee Press, beseeching officials “to embrace this project and all of its positive effects.”

The stubborn allegiance to zoning that requires unnecessarily large lots for single-family homes that hindered Humanity’s good work continues to stand in the way of affordable housing initiatives. So too does that old devil NIMBY—the not-in-my-backyard syndrome that leads homeowners to oppose lower-cost housing out of fears it will decrease their property values.

The Grafton Plan Commission got a harsh dose of NIMBYism at last week’s meeting from a resident who said he represented “owners of expensive condos” and spoke against the low-cost housing in Woodside Prairies because it would “ruin my property value.” To their credit, commission members were not deterred from approving the development.

There is a humanitarian imperative to make it possible for people of all economic means to find a place to live, of course, but beyond that affordable housing lifts the entire community in practical ways. In Grafton’s case, the village’s strong industrial base has thousands of manufacturing jobs to fill. When the workers needed for that, both blue collar and white collar, can afford to find housing near those jobs, it benefits both the employers and their employees. The community gains as well, with the vigor of a strong local economy and the vitality of a diverse population.

The roots of communities such as Grafton and Port Washington spring from affordable housing. Neighborhoods that were the foundation of these towns were built with compact houses on small lots populated by families of local workers who supported schools and other institutions and contributed to the character of the community in various ways.

As the communities grew, zoning adapted in ways that encouraged larger houses on more spacious lots, which is fine; that contributes to diversity too. Yet when it reaches the point where people with modest incomes cannot afford to live in a community, it’s gone too far.

Several Ozaukee County communities are there, and the surging inflation in the prices of existing homes, new home construction and rentals is making it worse.

The Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, an agency that is an important resource for Ozaukee municipalities, recognizes the problem as a housing crisis partially caused by “local zoning ordinances that preclude the development of housing affordable to lower-income households.”

SEWRPC recommends that communities provide areas for single-family homes of less than 1,200 square feet on lots of a quarter of an acre or smaller. The agency also recommends that communities accommodate the development of multi-family housing with a density of as much as 18 units per acre.

It will be a steep climb for Ozaukee communities to heed that advice, but with its endorsement of a small multi-family housing development for low-income residents, the Village of Grafton has taken afew steps in the right direction. Other communities should follow.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494
 

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