By PrincessSafiya Byers
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
Four years ago, the City of Milwaukee launched its 10,000 Homes Initiative to improve affordable housing opportunities for 10,000 households in 10 years.
By its own measurements, it is succeeding.
But housing advocates say the program, which counts the housing created by 27 different entities toward its goal, can better reach its target by including the work done by other entities in the city to put low-income Milwaukeeans into their own homes.
The goal, they said, should be counting the housing added because of the various nonprofits working toward more inclusive homeownership regardless of whether the housing is created with city aid or investment.
The need for affordable housing opportunities is evident. While 52% of people in Milwaukee own their homes, only 29% of Black residents are homeowners, according to Matthew Desmond in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.”
A study done by lendingtree said Milwaukee is among the cities with the widest disparity between Black homeownership rates and Black population rates in the nation’s 50 largest cities. It said 16.47 percent of the city identifies as Black and 6.51 percent of homes are Black-owned — a disparity of 9.96 points. Census data from 2019 said 37.5 percent of Hispanic households own homes in Milwaukee.
In February 2018, former Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett unveiled the 10,000 Homes Initiative, a plan to assist low- and moderate-income households in neighborhoods throughout the city. It includes projects ranging from single family home rehabilitation to large multiunit housing construction.
To achieve the 10,000 homes goal, the city provides resources to preserve or improve existing housing stock and prepares individuals for homeownership.
City’s on track
Katherine Pawasarat, the community analytics analyst for the City of Milwaukee Office of Equity and Inclusion, said based on the goal of 1,000 units per year, the city was on track with adding 2,506 units through the end of June 2020. These are the latest figures available from the city.
Pawasarat said 1,168 of those units were preserved and improved. This accounts for the largest proportion of the units the city has worked on.
“In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic required local governments in Wisconsin and around the nation to pivot in administering their housing assistance programs,” a statement from a spokesperson for the Department of City Development said. “But in 2021, we witnessed strong activity in our housing programs that are helping fulfill the goals of the 10,000 Homes Initiative and promote homeownership among Milwaukee’s most disadvantaged communities.”
The spokesperson said several affordable housing projects received allocations of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits.
Challenges remain, including the growing cost of construction materials, but the city, the department said, is working to deploy new efforts. They include financial assistance and resources to create more housing options and improvements to existing properties.
According to the U.S. Office of Policy Development and Research, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credits program gives state and local agencies the equivalent of approximately $8 billion in annual budget authority to issue tax credits “for the acquisition, rehabilitation or new construction of rental housing targeted to lower-income households.”
Bethany Sanchez, the senior administrator for fair lending at the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council, a nonprofit civil rights organization, said more can be done.
According to Sanchez, the success of the initiative is relative to how it is measured. If one measures it by adding 1,000 homes per year, as the city says on its website, then the initiative has been a success so far. But she still sees a potential problem in how the initiative is evaluated.
“If they have a slow year or two, momentum will be lost, and it will be harder to make it up,” she said. “I would suggest trying to do more front-loading of the goals, so if they do run into some slow years, they don’t lose that momentum.”
In an interview with NNS in 2019, Sanchez said the program could be improved through city support of housing counseling agencies. The inclusion of more staff, she said, could leverage a bigger pipeline for homeownership and city support of organizations that do housing work such as Take Root Milwaukee.
Take Root Milwaukee is a consortium of more than 40 community organizations, neighborhood groups, HUD-certified housing counseling agencies, real estate agents and lenders promoting sustainable homeownership in Milwaukee.
“Working closely with city staff you can see that they really care,” Sanchez said. “They want to see these things happen, so they work closely with grassroot organizations to assure they do.”
Michael Gosman, the executive director of ACTS Housing, says he also appreciates the city for making affordable housing a priority. ACTS Housing provides HUD-approved homebuyer and financial counseling for individuals and families ready to buy.
He noted, however, that only a few of the housing transactions made by his organization counts toward the initiative.
“The way the initiative is constructed focusing on city investment in projects, only a small number of our transactions are a part of this initiative. But we certainly believe our effort is additive to the work that the city is doing,” he said.
He said, however, it ultimately doesn’t matter how these developments are counted.
“What matters is, as a city – whether it’s with city investment, or whether it’s with county investment, or whether it’s with private investment – how are we all coming together to create a community where individuals are likely to be able to find affordable housing that is decent and can help them create a stable platform for their family,” he said.
Connecting the dots
The idea of “coming together” is echoed in the neighborhoods as well. Denisha Tate-McAlister, project director at the Dominican Center in the Amani neighborhood, said the mayor’s office is one piece of many housing initiatives that are addressing the affordable housing issue.
“That’s the bigger thing. There are a number of housing initiatives overlapping in the same areas that are not aware of each other. I see the mayor’s office as one component of the entire ecosystem of those working on the housing initiatives,” she said.
Tate-McAlister also said that it can be difficult for people to understand how they can access housing resources because of the sheer number of them. There are different programs that fall under the 10,000 Homes Initiative, and city-run housing initiatives are not the only plans that are affecting Milwaukee neighborhoods.
“I think it’s appropriate for all of us to connect the dots a little closer,” Tate-McAlister said. “It’s not just about the home being affordable, it’s about the family that’s got to get into the home, and right now when it’s disjointed, there’s a lot of work for that family to do.”
According to Jeff Fleming, a communications director for the City of Milwaukee, leaders are working to connect the dots.
“The city has been working to both support and create programming that supports homeownership,” said Fleming.
He named supporting efforts such as working with Take Root Milwaukee and the STRONG Homes Loan Program as ways the city is working to ensure that the initiative excels.
According to a city website, the STRONG Homes Loan Program offers loans of up to $20,000 to owner occupants of family properties throughout Milwaukee.