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Shanty Town

Hannah Fox, left, and McKenzye Bruss of Faith Lutheran Church in Columbus participate in Shanty Town in Lodi in 2016, hosted by Habitat for Humanity of Wisconsin River Area. Habitat hosts its next Shanty Town event today and Sunday at the Lodi Fairgrounds.

ELEANOR CHIQUOINE/Contributed

LODI – There’s much to learn in Shanty Town.

Rain or shine, Habitat for Humanity of Wisconsin River Area will welcome people to the Lodi Fairgrounds today to support dozens of teens who will sleep under the stars in cardboard boxes. Participating students from the region will learn about substandard housing conditions, but so would anyone else who visits Shanty Town, Habitat Executive Director Eleanor Chiquoine said.

“They’ll see a lot of kids who care about trying to help people – and they’ll see sleeping in a box isn’t that much fun,” she said of Shanty Town’s visitors, encouraging them to arrive at 6:15 p.m. for speakers, music and games. Shanty Town is a fundraiser for local Habitat home builds and officially ends at 9 a.m. Sunday.

Affordable housing means a person or family doesn’t spend more than 30 percent of their gross income on housing. This is getting harder to achieve in Columbia and Sauk counties, even for renters, the organization has found.

“It’s a growing problem: Area rent prices are going up faster than income,” Chiquoine said, noting that monthly mortgages and interest rates keep climbing, too.

The median household incomes in Columbia and Sauk counties are $61,000 and $53,000, respectively, according to data Habitat uses. For thousands of people in the region who fall below that average, and even for some who meet or exceed it, finding affordable housing is a struggle, Chiquoine said.

Average rental costs in Columbia and Sauk counties have steadily climbed to $760 and $750 per month, respectively, Habitat reported. For people paying the average rent in Sauk County, they would need to make more than $30,000 to spend less than 30 percent of their income on housing.

Affordable housing predictably gets more difficult for single-parent households, Chiquoine said, as well as for families that need more living space for their children, accordingly paying more in utilities and rent or monthly mortgages.

“There used to be an assumption that what you do first to stabilize a person’s life is get them a job,” Chiquoine said. “But now research says the first thing to do is to get them stable housing.”

“We’re not the whole pie,” she said of Habitat, “because affordable and stable rentals are key to a lot of people, but we fill a niche for people who can handle an affordable mortgage.”

For Habitat homes, mortgage prices depend on the size and location of the home, but the monthly mortgage cost for Habitat homeowners is typically $750 to $950 and runs between 20 and 30 years, Habitat said. During a Habitat build, a single parent must put in 250 hours of “sweat equity,” and two adults would put in 500 hours total.

Habitat for Humanity of Wisconsin River Area serves Columbia, Sauk and Iowa counties. Since 2001, it has built more than 50 homes. This year, Habitat completed five homes in Reedsburg and will soon begin building two more homes there, said Jessica Gavin, a volunteer coordinator for Habitat. Last year, it completed five homes in Baraboo.

Habitat still is searching for lots to build homes in Portage, and last built here in 2009, 2010 and 2011. It built homes in Wyocena and Rio in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

Opening the “very popular” Habitat ReStore in Portage in 2016 has helped Habitat to build more homes per year than the one or two homes it had averaged a few years ago, Chiquoine said. The local Habitat’s other ReStore opened in Baraboo in 2011, and when including both stores, the nonprofit now employs 11 full-time staff. That’s up from the one staff member it employed in 2010: Chiquoine, when she became executive director.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Self-Help Housing Program has also helped to significantly boost local builds, Chiquoine said, and Habitat still leans heavily on volunteers to accomplish what it does.

Today’s speakers will include representatives from Baraboo’s Hope House of South Central Wisconsin, as well as Habitat leaders. The local Habitat’s first Shanty Town events were held in Sauk Prairie starting in 2002, and since 2007 they’ve been held in Lodi, Chiquoine said. She remembers Shanty Town in 2011 for being a very chilly night and for one of the event’s chaperones who snuck into her minivan to warm up in the heat.

“And she felt guilty about that,” Chiquoine said with a laugh. “These kids learn there’s a lot more poverty housing than you think, that we just don’t see it as easily as in bigger cities. We have bad sections in our rural areas, but it’s just more spread out.”

Habitat says about 50 percent of Americans will have no 401K or pension once they reach retirement age. For people who are fortunate enough to own an affordable home, however, the equity becomes their “biggest asset” in retirement, Chiquoine said. “That’s why I really believe in affordable housing: It’s like a piggy bank for people who won’t have a stock fund or other assets.”

For information about Habitat or to volunteer, visit hfhwisconsinriver.org or call 608-448-2888.

Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau

Portage Daily Register reporter