In Madison these days, it seems property owners who resist surrendering their zoning protections are ridiculed as elitist, selfish, even racist.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and the City Council members loyal to her agenda have been telling homeowners that because they have declared a city housing shortage to now constitute a “crisis,” they should be lock-step in support of a controversial bus rapid transit plan that brings with it — in the cause of greater density — elimination of zoning protections for homeowners along its routes.
And Madisonians should also support the council’s supposedly “pro-housing” decision to change the definition of “family” to allow more than two unrelated people to live together in single-family homes.
That there is demand in Madison for more housing is evident by the explosion of apartment construction all across the city, but there is no guarantee that undermining single-family neighborhoods will create significantly more affordable housing for purchase, even if the prospect of carving up single-family homes into more profitable duplexes and apartments does delight real estate interests.
It’s a decision-making process that according to Paul Soglin, Madison’s most prominent former mayor, reflects a pattern of chasing the next shiny object of government innovation without adequately consulting regular citizens.
It’s against this backdrop that Rhodes-Conway is running for reelection. Her opponent is Gloria Reyes, former Madison School Board president and a former deputy mayor under Soglin. As the campaign has evolved, Soglin has become an increasingly outspoken Reyes supporter and a Rhodes-Conway critic.
You might remember Soglin, at least those of you who have been around Madison for a few years. He was elected mayor six times and for decades has put his fingerprints on much of what today makes Madison special today.
There are edifices like the Monona Terrace Convention Center and the old Madison Civic Center, which opened in 1980 on the site that two decades later became the Overture Center for the Arts. There is our vibrant and pedestrian-friendly downtown with distinctive retail stores and restaurants anchored by the Soglin-inspired State Street Mall. And there is a comparatively progressive and enlightened police department.
Yeah, that guy.
Since his first election to the City Council in 1968, Soglin has been at the center of the rough-and-tumble of city politics. He lost reelection to Rhodes-Conway in 2019. These days he is deep into writing his memoir.
I invited him to my office last week to discuss the April 4 elections.
We talked about many issues, but the common theme was his critique that the mayor and her council allies are trying to imitate what other cities have done without involving many locally in the decision-making process, only those inside their circle.
Soglin sees the zoning changes as a prime example.
“We have a common problem of rather infantile behavior of looking at what others are doing and saying ‘let’s adopt that,’ ” Soglin said. “We have a problem to solve with housing and people latch onto a solution where they want pride of authorship and they don’t bother to question ‘is this actually solving the problem?’” he said.
The city adopted the single-family zoning designation of no more than two unrelated people living together in the 1970s, Soglin said. He said speculators were buying up properties in neighborhoods such as University Heights, Vilas, along East Johnson and East Gorham streets, and elsewhere.
“They stuffed five students in a three-bedroom place where they converted the dining room and living room to bedrooms” and could generate $60 to $75 per month in rent from each. “There was no way a family could afford to rent it and there was no way that a prospective homebuyer who wants to live there with their kids could now afford the inflated price created by those rentals.”
Soglin said that he initially opposed the two-unrelated-person zoning restriction, but switched positions “because I realized it was not only a housing issue.” Schools were being depopulated and retail areas changed as families were pushed out, he said.
Now, he said, Madison’s city leaders have us following a Minneapolis model of removing such single-family zoning restrictions even though it is unclear that the change has done much to boost housing in that city.
“We bought a pig in a poke,” Soglin said, adding what he believes will happen as a result of the change.
“We have our own history with the definition of family. We know how it depopulated neighborhoods. We know how it created sprawl, and we know how it increased the value of properties. That’s the first thing we know.
“The second thing we know is that there are large international corporations that have decided to modify the traditional REIT (real estate investment trust) going from (investing in) commercial property and shopping centers to family housing.
“They struck in Milwaukee in 2010 and 2011,” Soglin said. “As soon as the great housing recession hit in 2008, 2009, the values of real estate dropped dramatically in Milwaukee and it made it a gold mine for picking up this discounted property at 20, 30, 50% of its previous value.
“We know what happened,” he said, and this change “puts us in the crosshairs of that industry.”
Soglin concluded with his full-throated support of Reyes, whom he said would lead through building trust.
“The mayor defines the culture of the city government,” Soglin said. “I fear for our city. We are not a progressive city when the mayor accuses her critics of being racist every time they raise concerns about her management.”
Sure, some will discount Soglin’s concerns as sour grapes after losing the race four years ago. But he has been right about Madison an awful lot for more than half a century.