RiverBee, so named because of its focus on the Riverwest and Harambee neighborhoods, is a collective of more than 40 investors who all own a piece of a building located at 500 E. Center St, near Holton Street.
Although the building was originally purchased and transformed into a hostel for international travelers who patronize local businesses, the pandemic has forced owners to change their plans.
Now the group wants the building to be a housing cooperative, which is a residence where tenants work together to set the rules for their living space and pay a fee for operating expenses. Such operations are described by the National Association of Housing Cooperatives as what happens when “people join on a democratic basis to own or control the housing and/or related community facilities in which they live.”
Juli Kaufmann, the president of Fix Development, is also the managing member of RiverBee collective and said the idea of a hostel originally came from a former client and member of RiverBee, Carolyn Weber, who had become Kaufmann’s friend and neighbor in the Riverwest neighborhood.
When the old decommissioned Milwaukee Public Schools building on Center Street went on the market, Kaufmann saw an opportunity. A year later, in 2019 the Cream City Hostel came on board as tenant, and the hostel opened.
Everything was going well until the pandemic hit and the hostel were forced to shut down in the same year it opened.
“After working on this and you finally reach your dream; then a year in and realizing, I may have to walk away from my dream, it’s just devastating,” she said.
However, after some consideration, the group decided the best move would be to transform the units into cooperative housing. Kaufmann reached out to a contact at Bader and submitted a proposal for the co-op.
Ultimately, RiverBee secured a $450,000 investment loan with much more flexible options than they had from the bank, allowing them to forge ahead.
Frank Cumberbatch, vice president of engagement at Bader Philanthropies, said the organization came on board because the housing co-op works within their mission.
“Housing has become a priority from the standpoint that we realize, if someone doesn’t have a proper home, all of the other needs just become moot,” he said. “We have a one-sentence mission, which is really to improve the lives of the people who live in the areas that we serve. And this is definitely life improvement.”
Jerad Tonn, a fellow owner and member of the RiverBee group, agreed that more affordable housing is needed in the city and expects the housing co-op to help abate housing needs exacerbated by the pandemic.
“I think last I’ve seen for Harambee they average around half the area’s median income, but those rents are still at about where the metro average is,” he said. “Cooperative housing is one way that you’re able to provide lower costs for residents because of the shared amenities.”
RiverBee is working with an organization, Milwaukee Area Cohousing and Cooperative Housing, to help guide the co-op’s setup and operation. All that’s left is to find partners and tenants who are interested in helping make the co-op a success, he said.
The project is expected to serve around 12 residents. The project is aiming to open in either the spring or summer of 2021.
Kaufmann said she realizes fulfilling the group’s reimagined dream will be difficult, but entirely worth it.
“I have tremendous hope and belief in all of our citizens,” she said. “I know we will do it and it will be hard and challenging and frustrating, but we really persevere because we’re investing in each other, and there’s really nothing more motivating than that.”