Perspective: Kindness Can’t Be a Long-Term Solution to Door County’s Housing Crisis

When I landed a job at the Peninsula Pulse last summer, my plan was to sign a lease on an apartment, move from Madison to Door County, and settle down to start my career in journalism.

I got stuck on step one.

Before moving, I wasn’t familiar with Door County at all. It wasn’t until I started looking for apartments in the area that I realized the county had a housing problem – and that its problem was now my problem.

At first, I looked for cheap, one-bedroom apartments that would match my freshly-out-of-college price range. When that failed, I bumped my price range up by a few hundred dollars. And when that failed, I looked at other housing options – not apartments, but RVs and rental houses.

I was coming up empty on all fronts, so I started putting my name on waiting lists for apartments. I was warned repeatedly that my chances weren’t good. Some people told me it would likely be years before a unit opened up, and one person – when I asked over the phone whether they had any apartments available – actually laughed at the question.

So when I stumbled across a Craigslist post advertising a house for rent in Sister Bay, I jumped on it. My partner, who would be signing the lease with me, was more cautious about the idea and read the listing more closely. He noticed something I had overlooked in my haste to apply: The lease was for 11 months, not the standard 12.

It turned out that the owners of the house – an older couple currently living in Arizona – used the place as a vacation home every July. Because of this, they usually didn’t have the same renters stay for more than one 11-month lease term because those renters would have to essentially move out for a month every year.

It wasn’t an ideal place to stay, but it was a place to stay, so my partner and I went for it. 

We moved in last August, and for a few months, I forgot about how tenuous our housing situation was. The anxiety kicked back in around January, however, when we started seriously considering what we were going to do for July. We had two options: find somewhere to stay for a month during the height of tourist season, or move for the second time in less than a year.

We chose the former. Another round of phone calls commenced. This time, rather than calling apartments, I was calling hotels, motels, campsites and trailer parks to ask about extended stays. And again, I was coming up with nothing. The most “affordable” option I could find was a one-bed motel room that would ring up at more than $4,000 for the month.

So I took to Facebook, typing up a paragraph about my situation and posting it to a few local pages. I hoped people would offer hotel suggestions (and maybe drop a few pity likes), but I wasn’t expecting much to come of it.

I was wrong. Shortly after I hit “Post,” messages – mostly from locals – started pouring in. Some did have suggestions about campsites and hotels, but others offered their own RVs, vacation homes and farmhouses for me and my partner to use. One even offered us a reduced rate on a short-term rental during one of the busiest tourist months of the year.

I was floored by the number of locals who were so ready to go out of their way to help a total stranger – and on a social-media platform that’s well known for bringing out the worst in people, no less. And the outpouring of kindness made me want to stay here even more.

For the first time since moving to Door County, my partner and I actually had multiple options as to where we’d stay. So after thanking everyone who had reached out, we started talking to an older couple who had offered their farmhouse in Baileys Harbor. 

That’ll be our home for the month of July. Then we’ll move back to our place in Sister Bay for the next 11 months – and maybe do this all over again next year.

My housing situation, although unusual, is far from unique in Door County. One of my coworkers had spent weeks couch-hopping before finding a permanent place to stay; another moved into a tiny home on her best friend’s property. One woman I volunteered with told me how her family was building a house in the county, but they had nowhere to stay for a year or so during the construction process. She started reaching out to Airbnb and Vrbo owners, asking whether they’d be willing to help her out. Eventually, she was passed along to a local who was.

Stories such as these certainly illustrate the kindness of the Door County community, but they also indicate how many people must rely on kindness, and often luck, just to live here.

Knowing that, it’s hard not to wonder: How many people like me didn’t have such a happy ending? How many tried to find a place to live in Door County but had to change their plans because they couldn’t make it work? How many more coworkers, neighbors and friends would I have if more-affordable – and more affordable – housing were available? 

In a very real way, the housing crisis controls who we spend our days with, which kinds of people we have the opportunity to know and which kinds we don’t. For me, it’s not just a source of stress while I’m hunting for housing; it’s also a big reason why my partner and I – young, working-class people – stick out in so many crowds of retirees around the county.