Madison Apartment Vacancy Hits Historic Low

Madison’s apartment vacancy rate hit its lowest level in at least 16 years, as economic challenges have forced thousands of Madison residents to seek affordable units.

Only 2.6 percent of the city’s apartment units were available in the third quarter, according to Madison Gas and Electric data. Vacancies have dwindled nearly every year since 2005, when 6.4 percent of units didn’t have occupants.

The high demand is causing rent prices to increase and allowing landlords to turn more potential tenants away, said Brenda Konkel, executive director at the Tenant Resource Center in Madison.

“It’s probably the worst I’ve seen it,” she said. “For people who have had problems with unemployment, who don’t have steady income, for people who have any type of blemish on their rental record, it’s become incredibly difficult.”

The vacancy rates are all below 1 percent in the 53726 and 53715 zip codes on the near West Side and 53717 on the far West Side. A rate around 6 percent is average, Konkel said.

Many people who can’t afford to buy a home are staying in apartments, while banks turn others seeking a mortgage away. Many others facing foreclosures return to rentals, and developers have been unwilling to add affordable units into the market.

Vickie Koger said she became discouraged earlier this fall when a bank foreclosed on her landlord and she had to look for a new apartment. The Madison woman had a previous eviction four years ago, making it nearly impossible to find a new home, she said.

“You just don’t know what to think,” Koger said. “It seems like discrimination for any little thing they’ve got on you. People deserve a second chance.”

After applying for at least eight rental units, Koger’s luck improved. Her building’s new owner allowed her to stay in her current apartment.

“It was a tremendous relief. I love my apartment,” said Koger, who has lived in the unit for nearly half a year.

The vacancy rate was the lowest since 1995, the first recorded year in Madison Gas and Electric’s data. The company tracks apartment vacancies through requests to turn on and turn off a unit’s utilities.

City leaders said they are paying attention to the numbers, and help is on the way, Madison Community Development Authority executive director Natalie Erdman said.

At the request of Mayor Paul Soglin, the recently passed budget allows the city to hire someone to find solutions to the rental problem. The move allows the city to focus its attention, she said.

“We need to continue to look at the full spectrum of housing and make sure we have housing options for everybody,” Erdman said. “Not just the higher end and not just the low end. And I think that’s the balance.”

But new developments will take years to gain city approval and to get built, Konkel said.

“The problem seems to be expanding very quickly, and I don’t see a strategy at the city or the county level to try to address it,” Konkel said. “That’s a great concern to me.”

To view the full MG&E rental vacancy data, go to http://www.mge.com/ecodev/business/rental_vac/index.htm.