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.
Residents are demanding an investigation of the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee after they say they have experienced assault; bedbugs and rats; “lost” rent payments; abusive management; mold; and no heat.
In addition, they question the leadership of Secretary-Executive Director Willie Hines, who has been with the Housing Authority for over 20 years and is a former Common Council president.
“The people in charge here walk around like they are God,” said Chris Logan, who’s been in her apartment for 10 years. “Willie Hines always tells the story of how he grew up in public housing, but would he want to live the way he forces us to live?”
The agency declined to comment on the residents’ allegations.
‘They treat us like gnats’
Residents interviewed by NNS said the Housing Authority leadership is held to no standard and is able to treat residents poorly.
Betty Newton has lived in her building for almost two years. She said her older neighbors beg for pest control and to use amenities once offered to them.
“Initially, they told us we couldn’t access certain spaces because of the pandemic,” she said. “Now, there is no excuse. They treat us like gnats and ignore us.”
She said she has complained to her building manager, Hines, the mayor and the U.S. Housing of Urban Development, but her issues have not been addressed.
The Housing Authority is governed by a seven-member Board of Commissioners appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Milwaukee Common Council. It is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
According to the agency’s website, it’s goal is to foster strong, resilient and inclusive communities by providing high-quality housing options that support self-sufficiency, a good quality of life and the opportunity to thrive.
But those who serve and reside in its properties say that hasn’t been their experience.
A former employee speaks out
Savella McLaurin was with the Housing Authority for 10 years before leaving.
She worked as an office assistant and was then promoted to serve as manager of the agency’s Merrill Park building. “Once I was promoted, I was responsible for dealing with a whole new set of issues but had no proper training on how to handle them.”
McLaurin said her biggest issue was the agency’s rent collections system.
“The building had recently switched from a low-income building to a rent assistance building so all the ledgers were wrong,” she said. “Rent assistance wasn’t caught up on their part, but despite that being an issue, my superiors wanted me to hand out 14-day (eviction) notices to residents every month.”
Linda Kvalë, who’s lived in her building for 20 years, said her latest rent receipt showed she owed significantly more money than she pays for rent.
“I opened my latest rent receipt and almost had a heart attack,” she said. “I haven’t slept in days.”
Leadership concerns mount
According to Common Ground, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that works on community issues, over 1,000 residents in public housing across 17 different developments in Milwaukee echo the same concerns.
The Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee, also known as HACM, provides public housing to almost 5,000 low-income, elderly or disabled Milwaukeeans and their families.
“This is an issue of HACM’s leadership systemically failing 5,000 people,” said Kevin Solomon an organizer with Common Ground.
Residents say they’ve been ignored, intimidated and retaliated upon when taking their concerns to leadership.
“We tried to have a meeting with Hines and his team about the concerns we had, but he brought a member of the team that residents are afraid of,” Logan said. “When we told him that we didn’t want to meet with that team member, he said we could meet with all of them or none of them, and they left.”
While the HACM declined to comment for this article, it has denied that it retaliates against residents in other media outlets.
Residents have and are continuing to organize to call for a change in HACM leadership.
“HACM needs new leadership, better training for managers and increased public safety so that residents can feel safe in the homes,” McLaurin said.
Added Solomon: “This is what happens when you have a politician running a housing authority. There are so many examples that you have to look to the top.”