Housing – State Treasurer Creates Housing Task Force

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Wisconsin State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski has created the Treasurer’s Task Force for Homeownership, bringing together people from across the state to look at issues affecting people’s ability to buy homes and their ability to stay in their homes. At a press conference in the capitol, Godlewski was surrounded by local treasurers from Wisconsin, many of whom she is looking to for input on ways to help people with homeownership. At the media availability, Godlewski said, “Owning a home in Wisconsin is a cornerstone of the American Dream, yet here on our state we are below the national average with homeownership specifically with younger families, African American families, Hispanic families, and first-time homeowners. The trend among these groups continues to be on the decline.” Godlewski discussed the interaction many of the state’s 72 county treasurers and 1400 municipal treasurers have with individuals having difficulty paying their utility bills and/or their property taxes.

In an interview with The Wheeler Report later in the day Godlewski said her intention is for the Task Force to begin holding hearings immediately (the first meeting was held at 1 pm on Wednesday, March 4, followed by hearings around the state to take input from as many people as possible).  Godlewski emphasized that while she’s not able to visit all the communities in the state, she is making an effort to make sure the Task Force goes to every area of the state since the needs and expectations of communities aren’t the same everywhere. Godlewski said the Task Force will create a report by the end of the year, but highlighted it was not her intention that the report be something that gets put on a shelf and ignored. Godlewski said her first goal is to make a report that provides ideas and practices and can be used within the authority of the State Treasurer and local treasurers to help people understand the resources available to them to buy a home, or to stay in their home.  Godlewski said if there are statutory changes or law updates that need to be done, she will reach out to the Governor and something could be put in the budget. 

Godlewski highlighted several times during the interview that local treasurers are the first to see when people become vulnerable to losing their houses, emphasizing that often the first thing that happens is people get behind in utility bills, or need assistance paying their property taxes.  Godlewski said this is where local treasurers are one of the biggest assets for the state in helping people keep their homes and decreasing foreclosure rates. “Just recently we’ve seen the markets changing. People are getting déjà vu of 2008, and I think we want to be proactive and try to prevent or put preventive measures in place with foreclosures rather than it happening and us saying ‘Oh, we should have done something.’ I think we need to start creating a kind of foreclosure prevention system today, which is something the county or municipal treasurers would be a great resource for because they see the first indicators, or when someone is at risk of potentially closing on their house.”

When asked about the lack of inventory on the market for home buyers, or the increasing costs of buying a home because of the current market, Godlewski said she is really looking to the Wisconsin Realtors Association and the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority to help with the discussion.  Godlewski said she’d like to evaluate the opportunities on how local governments can use investment authority or provide investment opportunities for workforce housing, and possible place-based investing. 

Godlewski said one of the reasons this Task Force is so important is that housing and the economic security that comes with housing plays a vital role in the state’s economy. Godlewski said there is no cost to having the Task Force and bringing people together to discuss opportunities, but emphasized she sees it as a “win-win opportunity since we’re bringing folks to the table and in essence to come up with ways to save Wisconsin taxpayers money.” She highlighted that creating a sustainable network dedicated to keeping people in their homes creates stability in the state’s economy.

Wisconsin is facing a demographic shift in the years ahead.  High schools in Wisconsin are already seeing a decline in student numbers, colleges expect the demographic “cliff” to come around 2025, so when asked about what that demographic shift could do to housing in Wisconsin Godlewski said, “That’s a good question that I don’t think has been thought a lot about. The Wisconsin Realtors Association has done a lot of research on housing in Wisconsin and that’s one of the reason’s they’re a voice at the table, to help us think through issues like this.” Godlewski said it was important that Wisconsin think through all the housing issues and strategies.

Property taxes are a big factor in someone’s ability to buy a house, and in many cases a family’s ability to stay in a house.  In the capitol, property taxes are included in many discussions and debates.  Godlewski said understanding property taxes is part of financial literacy and she would like to see more effort given to breaking down property tax bills for homeowners. Godlewski said, “You’ve given us X amount of money that’s helping with schools, it’s helping with roads, and give kind of a breakdown of what they get for that and what it really means.”

Godlewski closed the interview by saying, “I think one of the unique aspects is that we are looking at the State Treasurer in addition to being the state’s fiscal watchdog, helping to make sure that we are building the financial security of families in Wisconsin and we know that part of providing financial well-being is home ownership. If people own a home, they’re going to be better off and at the end of the day that impacts Wisconsin’s economy, and so these are measures that we are taking for people’s financial health. It’s critical to the overall health of the state.  I don’t think this office has taken that approach before, and I think that’s something that has been missing from the conversation.”