Housing discrimination rooted in Madison’s history

Jeremy Gundlach, Izwan Khirularziman and Michelle Ledesma Ceron, Contributors

Throughout its history, the Wisconsin State Capitol and the rest of downtown Madison, has been home to many demonstrations of activism. Activism like the rallies against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s and, more recently, the protests against Act 10 that brought 100,000 protesters.

Due in part to national media coverage of these demonstrations, Madison has earned a reputation as a hotbed of outspokenness.

Just one mile from the Capitol is the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a major research university. Madison College and Edgewood College help round out the city’s advanced educational opportunities, helping to make Madison’s population one of the most educated per capita cities in the Midwest, and earning the city another title — a bastion of progressive values and policies.

In fact, one of the top seven reasons to live in Madison according to, Business Insider is, “It’s a college town where students actively support the community.”

The image of Madison as a champion for liberal politics and progressive culture is in stark contrast with the realities of racial and class disparity that exist. These disparities become more evident when looking at the side effects of what it means to live facing different sides of the capitol.

In 1862, the Federal Homestead Act distributed around 80 million acres of public land as incentive for people to move west. This primarily benefitted white people and especially those with money.

This legislation enacted nearly 162 years ago, has lasting effects on housing in Madison to this day. Housing discrimination in the city is systemic and not anything new or even recent.

About 70 years after the Homestead Act came, the Homeowners Loan Corporation, a federal agency, helped structure what can be traced on maps by separating cities into colored zones that described the status of the neighborhoods.

Areas in green were considered the best and areas in red were labeled as hazardous, thus began the practice of redlining. Banks and developments deliberately ignored those red areas. Many of these red territories included historically lower-income families of color.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 was passed to end this type of practice, making it unlwaful to discriminate “in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale of a dwelling because of race or national origin.”

But Madison neighborhoods today continue to be nearly as segregated as they were then, matching those original maps almost exactly. Neighborhoods that are nearly all low-income neighborhoods, still fall largely along racial lines.

A newer, more refined version of redlining is called gentrification — the process of pricing residents out of areas to bring in new developments and wealthier residents. This process not only helps keep the division between neighborhoods, it amplifies it. An example of this is in the south side of Madison wherein neighborhoods such as Bram’s, the median household income sits at $26,102, which is 49 percent lower than the national average.

These areas are denied any opportunities for growth which drives down prices for property.

The neighborhoods surrounding the Dane County Regional Airport are some of the historically redlined districts. Some of these districts outstretch to parts of Madison with some of the most valuable properties on the greenlined districts, where there are houses with portions of the lake as backyards.

While Madison continues to attract new residents, an already tight housing market is beginning to show the city’s struggles in addressing the housing crisis.

The extremely tight market coupled with an influx of higher-income renters causes two major problems: Availability and affordability.

By having a shortage of available housing, landlords are able to leverage their position and impose higher prices on renters. This imbalance of power is especially degrading for low-income residents who were searching for stable housing that could last up to a year.

The Section 8 Voucher Program provides rental assistance for low-income families and is a realistic option for many. Even though there is a social stigma associated with it, Section 8 stands as one of the more reliable methods of securing rent – it ensures that at least part of the rent is paid every month. For families who don’t have citizenship many of these social programs are not an option.

Under WI Stat 106.50(1) it is unlawful to discriminate renters based on sex, color, religion, marital status, gender, ancestry, mental or physical disability and family status. Many discriminatory housing practices are systemic, requiring more time and energy to create policy changes.

However, finding local non-profits that support tenants, contacting local or state Housing Authority and continuing to inform ourselves on new housing development, can give communities opportunities to organize.

Madison is viewed as one of the “Best cities to live in” according to Livability and “Best city to raise a family” according to NBC15. But it is also through studies published on USA Today and Wisconsin Public Radio that cities in Wisconsin like, Milwaukee and Racine, have been ranked some of the worst places to live if you are a person of color.

Through a more dissected view, it quickly becomes evident these housing disparities extend beyond a tenant-renter issue.

 It is a systemic and racial issue that has been encrusted into the core structure of this country. Only by facing this issue head-on and invoking change through civic engagement, can we make Madison a truly progressive city.