A move by the Walworth County Housing Authority to build more affordable housing in Lake Geneva is generating mixed reactions among some residents.
The county housing authority has announced plans to partner with Keystone Real Estate Services LLC to build an estimated 28-unit apartment complex in the 600 block of Wells Street.
The complex also would serve as the housing authority’s new countywide headquarters and would represent the start of an effort to expand affordable housing options elsewhere in the region.
Plans for the development have not been presented yet for city council approval.
But some residents, including former Lake Geneva aldermen, voiced opposition to the development June 3 during a city council committee of the whole meeting.
Former alderman Bill Huntress said he feels there are already enough housing developments in Lake Geneva.
Huntress said he is concerned about the type of tenants who would be attracted to the housing authority’s government-subsidized apartment complex.
“You would think that if you’re getting something basically for free, you would take care of it,” he said. “That’s not always the case.”
Other residents spoke out in favor of the affordable housing development, sparking debate during the exchange.
Resident Sherri Ames said more low-income housing is needed in Lake Geneva to help people who cannot afford other options. She also objected to how such people were being depicted.
“I am so upset listening to people say ‘those people,’” Ames said. “They’re not ‘those people.’ They’re your neighbors. They could be your relatives.”
Huntress interjected, “Would you rent to them?”
Ames responded by saying, “Yes I would, because I was one of those kids.”
City Council President John Halverson at that point stepped in and called for an end to the exchange between audience members.
Others voiced opposition to the housing authorty’s plan.
Casey Schiche, leader of a group called Care For Lake Geneva, said he feels a low-income housing development would not benefit the city.
“Don’t be fooled by these lobbyists who want to bring low-income housing in,” Schiche said. “People who benefit from that are the private developers, the principal owners and the banks.”
Pete Peterson, another former city alderman, said he agrees that developers are the only people who would benefit from having such an apartment complex in Lake Geneva.
Peterson encouraged the city council to hold off on voting on the matter.
“Any town that I’ve been in, it’s not been a successful thing,” he said. “I hope you’re extremely careful. The only people who make money on these are the developers.”
The apartments would be built on a vacant lot located on Wells Street across from Lake Geneva Chiropractic Wellness Center.
Keystone Real Estate has purchased the property and joined with the county housing authority in making plans for the development.
Housing authority officials say they have a long waiting list of eligible people who cannot find public housing available in Lake Geneva and elsewhere in Walworth County.
If city officials approve the plans, the housing authority plans to begin construction on the apartment complex by next year.
Lake Geneva Mayor Tom Hartz, who serves on the housing authority’s board of directors, cited a need for affordable housing, saying the city’s median income for a family of four is about $44,000 a year, and the median cost of housing is about $190,000.
“When you do those numbers, you see that they don’t always fit together,” Hartz said. “Do we say to people, ‘No, you can’t live here because you can’t afford an apartment or a house?’”
Former Mayor Spyro Condos joined those supporting the housing authority development.
Condos recalled his own experience as a young child, living in a two-bedroom apartment with his family.
Referring to the city’s decision on the project, he said: “It’s a tough decision to make. But I think we should look into that.”
Hartz blamed the emergence of short-term vacation rental properties for aggravating the shortage of affordable housing.
During the past couple of years, he said, the amount of affordable housing has decreased as more property owners convert their rental properties into short-term vacation homes, as permitted by a new state law.
“A lot of those houses being converted to short-term rentals takes away places for families,” Hartz said. “So those people are having difficulty finding places to live.”