Before the first case of COVID-19 hit the La Crosse area, finding affordable, quality housing was difficult to come by.
La Crosse County experienced a rise in COVID-19 cases with 52 new positives Thursday, and Wisconsin broke its daily case record at 3,747.
The 52 new cases put the positivity rate at 45.61%, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
Thursday’s total is the first time the county has reported more than 50 cases since Oct. 1, when 75 were reported.
The county has averaged 30.86 new cases per day over the past seven days, a slight increase from Wednesday (29.43) but still down from a week ago (33.71).
Total confirmed cases are up to 3,657, which grows to 3,811 when including probable cases.
Of Thursday’s cases, 16 were people in their 20s and eight were in their 40s. There were three new cases of people ages up to age 9, seven of people ages 10-19, five in their 30s, seven in their 50s, four in their 60s, one in their 70s and one of people at least 90 years old.
With Thursday’s high positivity rate, the seven-day rate jumped significantly, while the 14-day rate increased slightly. The seven-day rate is now at 20.49%, up from 10.32% a week ago. It is the first time the seven-day rate has hit 20% since Oct. 1.
The 14-day rate is at 13.53%, up from 12.67% on Wednesday but down from 14.63% a week ago.
Total positivity is up to 11.20%. The county health department has not reported any new deaths, leaving that total at 14.
Of the 222 cases recorded in the seven-day period ending Oct. 11, symptom levels were reported for 121, with 56.2% experiencing mild symptoms and 20.7% moderate. Severe symptoms were reported by 11.6%, and another 11.6% were asymptomatic.
Origin of virus was detailed for 155 patients, with 65.2% contracting the coronavirus via close contact, followed by 33.5% through community spread and 1.3% as a result of travel. A total of 59 patients disclosed if they had recently attended a gathering, with 66.1% reporting they had not.
Given the latest metrics and the growing case rates in La Crosse County, the Coulee COVID-19 Collaborative recommends the following:
For businesses, public buildings, and venues
With the 3,747 cases from Thursday, positive coronavirus cases among Wisconsinites have now reached 162,325. Negative tests are up to 1,579,844, an increase of 11,455 since Wednesday. Hospitalizations rose by 138, with 8,892 ever hospitalized for the virus, and another 17 deaths were confirmed, bringing fatalities to 1,553.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Health, the state’s average daily case number has more than quadrupled and average daily deaths have more than tripled in the last six weeks.
In a virtual town hall Wednesday night, La Crosse officials discussed the ways the city’s housing is impacted by systemic racism and solutions to overcome longstanding barriers against people of color and minorities to find quality, affordable housing.
The event, titled “Homeownership, Rental Disparities and Homelessness in La Crosse,” featured a panel of La Crosse professionals, officials and housing experts that fielded questions from the community on things like lending practices, rental discrimination, quality housing stock and more.
“The housing issue here, I would say, is a crisis,” said La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat.
“We know that we’ve got systemic racism in housing, in lending and rental housing here,” he said. “The first step is acknowledging that it exists and that you have a problem, and I think tonight obviously is one of those acknowledgments that we have to do better.”
In La Crosse, with an aging housing stock, a large population of student rentals and an existing history of racist housing practices, often times the community’s Black, Indigenous, Hmong and other minority groups find themselves facing discrimination when trying to find housing.
“Some of our families are larger families, and most of our families who are people of color, Indigenous, we tend to have multi-generations, grandparent, parent and child, living with them,” said panelist Sherri Larsen with New Horizons Outreach Center and Shelter.
But often times, landlords and rental programs won’t allow multi-generational living, and suggest the family separate.
“So they are forced to pay higher rents to landlords within the city, you know, $1,000, $1,200, $,1,500 — and there’s usually one person working within that household, but in order to keep their families together, they have to choose,” Larsen said.
Discrimination in housing can often look like turning someone down because of their low-income status, which is often, systematically, in individuals of color or minority groups.
Larsen, who works with those who often have housing insecurities, said she’s experienced this discrimination in her own family.
“My daughter has a Section 8 voucher. However, she has to live in Minnesota, because there is nobody here that will take that voucher. So she has to live across the bridge from us,” Larsen said.
Section 8 housing is a federally funded housing program, which provides rental assistance for low-income families, but in the city of La Crosse, the vouchers are often turned away by landlords.
“It’s literally so hard for them. They’re given a list, and there’s not many names on that list,” of landlords who will accept the voucher, Larsen said, and typically the properties are already being leased out.
“We’ve got to get over this stigma about affordable housing and about Section 8. And I would like to challenge our landlords to do more, because we definitely need it, we are in a crisis situation here in our area,” Kabat said.
Other things contribute to discrimination against those looking to rent or own a home, including non-substantive background checks, or sometimes landlords will say they won’t directly rent to a person of color.
But one renter said he thinks if given the chance, quality, affordable housing could be just the right move for someone to greatly improve their life.
“I’ve always said that there is a need for success stories to be shared in the community,” said Randall Brown, with Coulee Continuum of Care and the city of La Crosse Housing Authority.
Brown said when he first moved to La Crosse he was homeless, but because of the resources in the city, now lives in an apartment and works with several groups. He said when he lived in New York and Milwaukee, he never faced the barriers to housing that people in La Crosse face.
“I would invite anyone to come into my apartment, and honestly the few people that have, they’re kind of stunned,” at how it looks and how he lives, Brown said.
But gaining access to any kind of housing is only one hurdle that Black, Indigenous, Hmong and other minority groups face in La Crosse — it’s the quality of housing, too.
“We have families,” Larsen said, “that have to pay those high, extravagant prices to stay within the city limits, but unfortunately some of those landlords are not known for taking care of or maintaining those units.”
“We have had requests for assistance in getting heaters, and getting furnaces, and even water, working stove, working refrigerator. We’ve had folks that they’re having holes in their floors, and they can’t get out of those leases. So they’re kind of forced to stay where they’re at,” Larsen said.
The mayor said this is partially because of a state law that recently changed, which no longer allows the city to do routine inspections on rental properties every five years.
“I know we have families, and especially with children, that are living in substandard housing that needs to be addressed, and we’re just not able to get there proactively to do that,” Kabat said.
Even more, renters who may have had trouble paying rent in the past or are fearful of facing more discrimination often don’t feel comfortable requesting improvements or maintenance to their rental space.
“There’s also that internalized fear,” said panelist Fue Yang with Independent Living Resources, who said La Crosse has a lot of “slum lords” who neglect their properties.
“The fear of being pointed to as the troubled tenant,” especially if there’s already a fear of becoming homeless, Yang said, means asking for repairs is “the last thing they want to do.”
“They feel like because their rent is not current or because they’ve had problems paying it in the past, they don’t have the freedom to speak to a necessary need for repair,” Brown said.
“The challenge it gets back to, we have an older housing stock here, we have a high demand, so our vacancy levels are relatively low, and it puts pressure on the prices and rents and the affordability. It just seems to get tougher and tougher each year,” Kabat said.
But renting is only part of the story. Buying a home for minority groups in La Crosse is proving even more difficult.
In a study completed for La Crosse and Monroe Counties last year, it showed that two-thirds of white households own their homes, while just 12% or fewer Black residents are homeowners.
“I think that hundreds of years of systems not built for equality probably accounts for that,” said Katie Tolokken, one of the panelists and a lender with Marine Credit Union.
In response to that study, the credit union began offering a program called “Finding Home,” which offers 12-18 months of free financial literacy for people who don’t qualify for traditional mortgages.
Before the first case of COVID-19 hit the La Crosse area, finding affordable, quality housing was difficult to come by.
Several local lending institutions were part of the panel Wednesday, and spoke to internal work they’re doing to help combat systemic racism that might inhibit them from giving people of color or other minorities home loans, like racial equity trainings for staff and programs that can be individually tailored to help first-time homeowners.
“I think while I can’t change the past of that, what we can focus on is changing things for the future, trying to make the future better,” Tolokken said.
“I really feel that education is the key to a lot of what’s going on,” said panelist Katy Wood with the Realtor’s Association.
“There needs to be some work within,” she said, “in order to get this education out there, there needs to be grants out there, there needs to be ways to make it affordable for a new buyer to buy a house.”
It’s a solution other panelists agreed on, that programs like La Crosse Promise, or help understanding that a lot of La Crosse’s housing stock resides in floodplains and will require extra insurance, are all helpful educational tools — but they have to get into the right hands.
“I think it’s important to think about representation, and when I say representation, there have been a lot of programs discussed, introduced, presented, that I was not aware of personally,” Brown said.
“And when you’re talking about making resources accessible, maybe something the financial institutions should consider is their outreach strategies and their marketing,” Brown said, saying seeing someone who looks like him on advertisements or when he walks into city hall makes it that much more accessible to him because it builds a sense of trust.
The virtual town hall was one of a series put on by the city of La Crosse and other local partners, and the final event, a virtual workshop focused on Black youth in the community, will be held on Oct. 28.
Three people were arrested in La Crosse after the La Crosse Police Department made its second major fentanyl bust in less than two months.
Police arrested Jesse J. Stringer, 33, La Crosse, and Jerrad A. Simms, 35, and Caprice Washington, 43, both of Park View, Illinois, on Tuesday.
Police reported seizing 454.3 grams of fentanyl, which it describes as “the largest fentanyl seizure in La Crosse County.” It’s more than three times the amount of fentanyl seized by La Crosse police during a pair of August drug busts.
The bust occurred at Stringer’s 1905 Miller St. address. According to police, Stringer left the residence and drove away before police pursued him and conducted a traffic stop. As Stringer was taken into custody, the police department’s emergency response team executed a “knock and announce” warrant at Stringer’s residence. The apartment was occupied by Washington and Simms, who attempted to flee by jumping through a window. Both were taken into custody with the help of a K9 unit.
Police conducted a search of the apartment. In addition to the fentanyl, police reportedly found 34.6 grams of cocaine and 439 grams of marijuana. Investigators also recovered a loaded .380 pistol and $15,600 in cash.
Stringer, Simms and Washington all face charges of maintaining a drug trafficking place and possession of cocaine with intent to deliver.
Stringer also faces charges of possession of heroin with intent to deliver, possession of narcotics with intent to deliver, felon in possession of firearm and two counts of bail jumping. He also has several felony bonds for narcotics trafficking.
Simms also faces charges of possession of narcotics with intent to deliver and possession of marijuana with intent to deliver.
Washington also faces charges of possession of marijuana with intent to deliver and possession of drug paraphernalia.
La Crosse County assistant District Attorney Danielle Kranz asked for significant bail for all three defendants. During Wednesday’s bond-only hearing, she described the suspects as “high level, for-profit drug dealers.”
The street value of the fentanyl is estimated at $45,000. Two milligrams of fentanyl can be a lethal dose, and Kranz said the 450,000 milligrams seized are “enough to kill all of La Crosse County, going on twice.”
Judge Todd Bjerke set a cash bond of $100,000 for Stringer and a $25,000 cash bond for Simms.
Bjerke set a $25,000 signature bond for Washington but ordered him held pending an extradition request from Tennessee.
All three are scheduled for an initial appearance Friday after the criminal complaint is filed.
The School District of La Crosse announced Wednesday evening that students 4K-5th grade will return to in-person learning starting Monday, Oct. 26, as the area’s COVID-19 conditions begin to improve.
In its weekly snapshot, the district indicated that while the area’s seven-day average case rate is still high, at 26.9 cases per 100,000 people, its other metrics like positive test ratios, close contacts, origins and case rate trends were improving.
Students in 6-12th grades will continue with virtual learning through at least Nov. 1, but the district said families should prepare for more information in the next week for the potential of hybrid instruction for the middle schoolers starting Nov. 2 if conditions improve.
High school students will remain completely virtual at this time.
The school district decided to start its school year off completely virtual for the first month and monitor the COVID-19 conditions to determine if schools could reopen in two-weeks time.
This announcement comes as the county confirms that its 14th resident has died from COVID-19, another sign that severe disease is increasing in the area.
And while La Crosse hospitals report having enough space at this time, the state saw a record number of hospitalizations on Wednesday, on the opening day of its overflow facility near Milwaukee for overwhelmed hospitals.