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.
After months of outcry, Common Council members have created a potential solution to tackling issues with the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee, or HACM.
On Monday, the Common Council’s Steering and Rules Committee met to discuss a proposed ordinance change that would give the Department of Neighborhood Services, or DNS, clear authority to inspect properties and issue code violations to HACM.
Here’s what you need to know.
HACM has faced criticism for a year since Common Ground, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that works on community issues, spearheaded demonstrations against the Housing Authority.
Common Ground presented more than 1,000 cases of residents who say they have experienced assault; bedbugs and rats; “lost” rent payments; abusive management; mold; and no heat.
In addition, a recent Journal Sentinel investigation turned up audits by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that revealed a series of other issues, including the HACM being “at risk for serious fraud, waste, and abuse.”
Reaction from Common Council
“I am just going to simply say: When does basic decency kick in?” asked Ald. Mark Borkowski during the packed meeting. “This is absolutely terrible, and it should have never happened.”
He said the discussion surrounding the agency’s failures and how HACM leadership and DNS would move forward failed to acknowledge the basic dignity and respect of the tenants’ lives.
An issue with who has authority
Because of what members of the Common Council have called a handshake deal from decades ago, the mayor and Common Council do not have much authority to direct the agency outside of appointing board members.
So up until now, when DNS would receive a complaint from a resident, it would simply forward the complaint to HACM instead of starting the inspection and enforcement process.
What happens next
Council members are still trying to get their heads around if and how the city can regulate the Housing Authority because, as Ald. Michael Murphy pointed out, the agency is funded and monitored for compliance by the federal government.
Both Common Council President José Pérez and Mayor Cavalier Johnson pledged to start by tackling tenants’ complaints about health and safety hazards inside Housing Authority buildings.
How will it work?
No one really knows.
DNS Commissioner Erica Roberts said she is working with the municipal court system and City Attorney’s Office to identify a process.
But the DNS does not know exactly what it’s walking into. Roberts said in an interview before the meeting that her team had estimated it might need to inspect 2,000 units per year and could perform the inspections with existing staff.
But on the day of the meeting, the agency disclosed it gets 1,600 to 2,000 work orders per month.
Though not all of HACM’s work orders may require an inspection, overseeing the agency could require additional staffing to the DNS’s team, which already is understaffed.
The Common Council is requesting that the DNS determine what exactly it needs while it is budget season.
“I think it is incumbent on us that the funding is appropriated in the 2024 budget, so we don’t have one community pushing off on another,” Murphy said.
Will citations be issued?
Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic asked Roberts if the DNS was prepared to issue citations to the HACM.
“We would be prepared to follow our traditional enforcement path, which is not normally citations per se,” Roberts said.
The municipal fees would be assessed for noncompliance with escalation of issues going to municipal court, she said.
While Roberts expressed optimism in this plan, some council members were skeptical.
“DNS orders are not self-executing,” said Ald. Robert Bauman. “Things don’t automatically get fixed when DNS issues an order.”
HACM Secretary-Executive Director Willie Hines Jr. said his agency will regularly report its progress in addressing complaints to the Common Council.
He said RENTCafé, an online service, is being rolled out building by building to allow residents to better monitor the status of their requests.
Hines said residents have several ways to report issues even without RENTCafé, including visiting the building office.
Common Ground’s demands
Common Ground continues to push for ousting HACM leadership.
“Alderman Bauman asked what HACM needs to fix these problems: The answer is a change in leadership,” said Kevin Solomon, an associate organizer with Common Ground. “Willie Hines and the board need to go, period. These issues have started, worsened and continued under their watch.”
For more information
The full council is slated to consider the ordinance proposal on Oct. 10. You can check the Legislative Research Center for updates on that meeting.