JANESVILLE — One of the main misconceptions about the lack of affordable housing in Janesville is that it affects mostly the poor.

But that’s far from the case, according to Kelly Bedessem, Janesville’s housing services director.

“Affordable housing is for firefighters, and officers, and teachers,” Bedessem says. And it reaches into all parts or the community.

That’s just one of the issues members of a panel explored Wednesday during a forum on homelessness and affordable housing in Rock County sponsored by the non-partisan, public policy watchdog group, Rock County Citizens Academy.

The panel also included Jessica Locher from ECHO, Tammy DeGarmo from Project 16:49 and Marc Perry of Community Action of Rock and Walworth Counties

Rock County currently has a vacancy rate of less that 2 percent, so it’s increasingly difficult for anyone to find housing, Perry said.

Affordable housing has also grown to be part of ECHO’s mission, which began years ago as a food pantry, but in recent years has received funding for two navigators to help people find housing.

“They’re out there pounding the pavement trying to negotiate with landlords to lower their rent,” Lochar said.

But the issue of affordable housing increasingly affects the whole economy of Janesville.

Many who work here can’t find a place to live here, and that trend may get worse without significant growth in new housing.

“If business leaders can’t sustain their employment (staffing), they won’t stay in Rock County,” Perry said.

That, coupled with a lack of both quality and affordable child care in Rock County since the onset of the pandemic, has squeezed the workforce.

In addition to new housing, a significant part of Janesville’s housing stock is old and substandard, Perry said. In many cases it would be cheeper to build new than rehab them.

The critical factor in addressing homelessness is preventing it in the first place.

ECHO now oversees the annual homeless count in Rock and Walworth counties, and there are roughly 400 people currently living on the streets.

But the seeds of housing stability, or instability, are sown early.

Young people coming from stable households are better able to make good financial choices than those coming from unstable households, Perry said.

“Behavior is absolutely learned,” Perry said. “I think people miss that.”

That’s why programs like 16:49 focus so strongly on life skills development and financial literacy. The group provides services for unaccompanied and homeless youth in Rock County.

“We have so many kids that come of out of situations that there’s never been enough to cover their basic needs,” De Garmo said. So, many of these kids think, “why does it matter?”

The current push for each of the groups at the forum is to work with state legislators to have greater flexibility to use the money they have more effectively.

“We’re the ones on the ground,” Perry said.

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