Some WI Statutes Affecting Public Housing

September 1, 2022

I had written to Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau to learn what State Statutes determine what may be allowed or not allowed with respect to municipalities and counties in Wisconsin building, owning, and operating their own public housing. This seemed an important question given what I am hearing from citizens on a low income–or even a moderate or middle income–regarding the lack of affordable housing in communities all over the state of Wisconsin. The widespread opinion is that there is far too little housing available for low- and moderate-income workers which they can afford, and very few new housing units which they may be able to afford are being built at this time.

Researching the subject using a search string such as “affordable housing crisis” will provide you with more reading material than you might want to read in one sitting. It’s good to start with a large overview piece of writing such as this piece by Michael Hobbe s in Huffington Post four years ago–America’s Housing Crisis Is A Ticking Time Bomb
A new report reveals rising rents and surging inequality — and it’s only going to get worse.

By Michael Hobbes
Jun 19, 2018, 05:45 AM EDT|Updated Jun 19, 2018

Below is the reply which I got from Richard Loeza, Legislative Analyst at the Wisc. Legislative Reference Bureau.

You asked about statutes either explicitly permitting or prohibiting a county to build, manage, and own affordable housing. We cannot directly answer that question, as it would constitute a legal interpretation. However, here are some relevant statutes I found which may help you as you look into this question.
First, what you’ve described would seem to be a “housing project” of the sort that can be constructed and operated by Local Housing Authorities (Wis. Stat. Ch 66, subch. XII). A “housing project” is defined as “ all real and personal property, building and improvements, and community facilities acquired or constructed pursuant to a single plan either to demolish, clear, remove, alter or repair insanitary or unsafe housing or to provide safe and sanitary dwelling accommodations for persons of low income, or both. “Housing projects” includes the planning of buildings and improvements, the acquisition of property, the demolition of existing structures, the construction, reconstruction, alteration and repair of the improvements and all other related work.”

Among other powers, local housing authorities are empowered to:
·        Repair, carry out, acquire, lease and operate housing projects approved by the council; to provide for the construction, reconstruction, improvement, alteration or repair of any housing project or any part of a housing project (s. 66.1201 (9) (a)).
·        To lease or rent any dwelling in a housing project and to establish and revise the rents or charges for the housing project (s. 66.1201 (9) (e)).
·        Issue bonds on which the principle and interest may be paid by the revenue of the housing authority (s. 66.1201 (13) (a)).
Portage County already has a housing authority. The housing authority statutes only refer to their creation by “cities,” however, the authority to create housing authorities is extended to counties by Wis. Stat. § 59.53 (22). The primary limitation of a housing authority is that the statutes stipulate that housing projects should provide housing to “persons of low income,” defined as “persons or families who lack the amount of income necessary, as determined by the authority undertaking the housing project, to enable them, without financial assistance, to live in decent, safe and sanitary dwellings, without overcrowding” (s. 66.01201 (3) (m)). This definition does not refer to a set income limit, however, the statutes also define “persons of moderate income” as “persons or families who qualify as having moderate income, as determined by the authority. The authority may not consider a household to be a person of moderate income if the household’s income exceeds 120 percent of the median income for the area, unless an applicable guideline or regulation of the federal department of housing and urban development permits the household to qualify as having moderate income” (s. 66.0101 (3) (mg)). “Persons of moderate income’ and “persons of low income” may be exclusive categories.
Second, counties (and municipalities) are empowered to create an “urban homestead program” (s. § 66.1013). County programs would only apply to townships where an urban homestead program did not exist. The program allows local governments to convey properties “at cost” on the condition that the buyer bring the property up to code within two years and reside in the property for at least three years (s. 66.1013 (2)). Local governments can directly appropriate money for the program, and can use property that has been declared unfit for habitation, otherwise noncompliant with housing codes, and acquired due to tax delinquency, but is not limited to property acquired with those methods (s. 66.1013 (1)).
Third, counties have the general power to acquire property “for public uses or purposes of any nature” (s. § 59.52 (6) (a)). Several purposes for which a county can acquire property and construct buildings are listed in the statutes (s. §§ 59.52 (6) (a) and (d)), but counties are not limited to those specified purposes (note the word “including”). However, counties are not explicitly authorized to construct and manage affordable housing directly. Relatedly, cities and villages have the power to acquire property for any public purpose, and “may construct, own, lease and maintain buildings on such property for public purposes; and may sell and convey such property.” (s. § 61.34 (3) (a) and 62.22 (1) (a)). The Town of Beloit, using village powers under s. 60.10 (2) (c) and 60.22 (3), expended tax monies to develop and sell a subdivision for housing. That use of tax funds was upheld by as constituting a public purpose in Town of Beloit v. County of Rock, 657 NW 2d 344 (2003).
Please let me know if you have any other questions.