In Door County, Wisconsin privilege, middle income and poverty share zip codes. Average annual income across the area is artificially inflated by a significant population of retired individuals, many with healthy pensions. Average annual median income is under $40,000 reflective of an economy dependent on tourism and agriculture. Thirty to forty percent of school kids are eligible for free breakfast even with many parents reluctant to apply.Poverty may not be obvious like in disadvantaged city neighborhoods, but signs in gas stations offering free gift cards to those who can’t afford travel for doctor appointments tells the story.
I grew up in Door County’s neighboring county in a skinny old house on Main Street in one of those farming communities. My father had a good job, my mother worked seasonally. Our grade school didn’t charge for hot lunch. That tells the same story.
Affordable housing is a pressing issue. On an average annual median income of $40,000 minus expenses like healthcare or a car payment, ideal rent is $600. Traditional calculations for how much house a $40,000 income covers suggests less than $100,000. Good luck finding either of those. Homelessness is not visible, but people do live in buildings never meant to be housing, in trailers without water or power, in crowded apartments with too many roommates, or rotate through campgrounds from May through October.
At an informational meeting one township presented purchasing a land tract for about $2 million with intention to develop part into affordable housing. In the packed room emotion and fact clashed. A housing builder wanted first dibs on the space promising $340,000 “affordable” units. Neighbors shared what they were promised about the vacant land when they purchased their homes. More than one person asked why affordable housing was taxpayers’ responsibility.
A social worker and a skilled craftsperson spoke of their inability to find places to live or house their families. One thirty-something white collar professional said he has lived in thirteen places in about ten years, most of them crap holes. His employer often loses employees after they spend months looking for any kind of apartment. He reminded everyone that affordable housing does not only mean home ownership, but also decent apartments. There are jobs to be filled here, but not places to live. Business owners are nervous about being able to keep their doors open.
Privilege, middle-class, and poverty share this zip code. No telling who in the blue jeans and t-shirt crowd shared a two bedroom former cottage with five or more people, commuted one hundred fifty miles daily, or lived alone in 3,000 square feet. Dictionary.com defines community as a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage. If this township, rooted in European ancestry, cannot accept responsibility for the need to house its members, what is its future?
For someone whose primary home is in a city with homeless individuals living in tent villages, sleeping on mass transit, or huddled in too few shelters, this feels like a no brainer. Taxes support communities, communities are made of members residing in a specific locality, localities require teachers, shop owners, EMTs, shop workers, builders, children to have a future. And all those people need healthy places to live. This is why we live in community.