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Milwaukee faces an affordable housing crisis and a racial gap in ownership. These influential groups are working to change that.

Date
June 8, 2021

A revived Community Development Alliance is seeking to increase affordable housing for low-income Milwaukee residents and to close the city’s homeownership gap among racial groups.

The CDA was originally put together in 2011 by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, Zilber Family Foundation, Northwestern Mutual Foundation and LISC Milwaukee to focus on community development.

In February, the alliance reconvened and expanded with a new goal: Boosting homeownership opportunities for Black and Hispanic families and increasing the number of affordable rentals for Milwaukee residents making between $7.25 and $15 an hour.

Milwaukee has the second-lowest Black homeownership rate (27.2%) among the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, according to a July report by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development.

The renewed focus occurs against the backdrop of a growing housing affordability crisis in Milwaukee, with more than half of the city’s renters considered rent-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30% of their income toward rent, according to an April 2021 analysis from the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

Joining the four earlier groups on the CDA’s executive committee include Bader Philanthropies, Greater Milwaukee Committee, Children’s Wisconsin hospital, the city and county of Milwaukee, Housing Authority of Milwaukee, WHEDA, Metcalfe Park Community Bridges and the Southside Organizing Committee.

The groups have not identified a fundraising goal but say the numbers will be informed by the strategies they plan to develop by fall — and that, like earlier examples, collaboration brings more likelihood of success.

Many of the same players came together to form the pandemic-driven MKE Civic Response’s Housing and Shelter team. The more permanent Milwaukee Rental Housing Center involved similar partnerships.

Gina Stilp, executive director of the Zilber Family Foundation, who chairs the alliance’s executive committee, said the housing situation is solvable if organizations work together.

“Change is uncomfortable for all of us and I think a lot of us who are working in the philanthropic, private and public sector (and) who have resources are going to have to decide that we want to work together to solve this problem,” she said.

The CDA is a long-term strategy

Danell Cross, director of Metcalfe Park Community Bridges, is one of the community voices on the executive committee — a position meant to represent the interests of residents on the city’s north side.

She said she is “cautiously optimistic” about the possible results.

“They have been very intentional,” she said of the alliance. “I know that they want to ensure that they have somebody who will speak for the people that I serve like Metcalfe Park residents. (I said), ‘You know it might get uncomfortable because I might push back on some things.’”

But, she said, they told her that’s exactly why they wanted her to join.

Cross, a former longtime resident of Metcalfe Park and leader of the community organization since November 2011, said her organization just purchased two homes to rehab and sell to nearby residents.

“We’re doing housing for people who live there,” she said. “We have people who want to co-own and we have shaped our program in a way for them to access homeownership, while understanding their limitations.”

Work such as Cross’ goes toward the four goals the CDA has identified:

  1. Reduce the homeownership gap for Blacks and Hispanics by adding units and supporting residents who want to purchase homes.
  2. Utilize anti-displacement tools and preservation programs to maintain Black and Hispanic homeownership levels
  3. Increase the number of rental units for residents who make $7.25 to $15 an hour.
  4. Preserve residential units by advocating for anti-displacement and anti-eviction efforts

The CDA plans to use information from past community surveys to help identify strategies it can start implementing in 2022.

“This problem has been festering for a long time and the problem is really big,” said Tieg Whaley-Smith, a Marquette University law professor who is helping the alliance develop a strategic plan.

“We are about 40,000 units short for people making 7.25 to $15 an hour,” Whaley-Smith said. “And we’re also about 40,000 homeowners short for Black and Hispanic residents to achieve over equity with white homeowners in the city. We have to understand that this problem is at least 50 years in the making and will not be solved overnight.”

CDA leaders say affordable housing issue bigger than rent and mortgages

Both Stilp and Whaley-Smith said the CDA is also considering the factors driving the affordable housing crisis, such as lending practices that deter those at the entry level of the housing market — young people, low-income residents and members of underrepresented groups.

Another issue facing the CDA is the legacy of redlining. The practice of redlining involved the Federal Housing Administration deeming Black neighborhoods “high-risk” and advising lenders, insurers and real estate officials to withhold or charge more for services to residents in those areas.

Whaley-Smith pointed out that poverty maps of the city line up very closely with historically redlined neighborhoods. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the racial wealth and homeownership gap, here and across the nation.

Maria Prioletta, redevelopment and special projects manager for the city, pointed out that income is one of the biggest obstacles to both homeownership and rental success.

“Affordability in housing is a function of income and we have a lot of families on the lower end of the income spectrum,” Prioletta said of renters.

Prioletta also noted that many low- and moderate-income families can’t afford the down payment for a home, which blocks them from one of the best ways to build wealth.

Cross understands the struggles around income more than most. When she lived in public housing, she said, just a few dollars’ difference could mean losing all of her benefits, a phenomenon commonly known as the “benefits cliff.”

“You could be $7.25 an hour and if you go up to $9, all of a sudden, you lose the ability to get food stamps, which you need,” she said. “So those are the types of things I’ve experienced that I want this group to know, so they will understand the challenges of providing affordable housing.”

Cross was lucky because she lived in public housing. But for those who don’t, more money going towards food, health care and other formerly subsidized expenses means less money left for rent, or to save toward a home purchase.

Cross also said she hopes the CDA’s strategy will include supporting organizations such as hers, which focus on tapping community ideas and labor to address housing and other issues.

Stilp said the alliance likely will support such efforts.

“I think there are a ton of great programs that are already up and running,” she said. “We want to make sure we’re rallying behind organizations that are already doing good work while we set up our long-term objectives.”