by Adam J. Lovinus

Two thousand homeless on a given night in Milwaukee. Twenty percent spend more than half their income on rent. Thousands are overcrowded, with two and three families in a single house.

Behind the numbers are the people, many of them our friends and neighbors. Rents in Riverwest have become prohibitive for many residents. Many of our neighbors “double up” when money gets tight. Most of us know someone who has spent at least a night or two under the Locust Street bridge.

After a two-year struggle, there might be new hope for affordable housing in Milwaukee.

On November 14, 2006, Milwaukee lawmakers approved legislation to create an ongoing source of funding directed at improving affordable housing in the city.

The 2007 Common Council city budget proposal includes $2.5 million to create the Housing Trust Fund, a dedicated pool of money for building and rehabbing low-income housing in Milwaukee neighborhoods. Ald. Michael Murphy spearheaded the initiatives to create and finance the fund, which were passed by Milwaukee Common Council in November by a 12:3 vote. Murphy worked closely with community and faith leaders to usher the proposal to fruition.

“We believe this is not only a moral issue to provide housing for those most in need, but an economic one in terms of the dollars that can be leveraged to bring in more state and federal funding,” Murphy told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Finding a Voice

Ald. Murphy chaired the Trust Fund Task Force, a 13-member committee commissioned by Mayor Tom Barrett in February 2006 to explore needs and issues pertaining to the city’s need for improved affordable housing. The task force was comprised of members jointly appointed by the mayor, the Common Council, and community groups. Six appointees came from a group called the Milwaukee Housing Trust Fund Coalition, a conglomeration of more than 130 faith and community advocacy groups from the Milwaukee area. They began petitioning city leaders to consider establishing permanent funding for affordable housing measures in May 2004.

“The importance of Ald. Murphy’s leadership cannot be overstated,” said Mike Soika, executive director of the YMCA of Metro Milwaukee Community Development Center. “He worked diligently over a two-year period to help his colleagues understand the need for and the benefits of the housing trust fund.”

Soika and the YMCA-CDC led the charge to secure public funding, unifying the numerous groups that would comprise the Milwaukee Housing Trust Fund Coalition. In Soika, a City Hall veteran who worked as chief of staff under former Mayor John O. Norquist, the Coalition found its voice with Milwaukee lawmakers. He was instrumental in bringing about interest from within city government, first by convincing Mayor Barrett to commission a Housing Trust Fund task force to research the issue, then by working closely with aldermen on the task force to develop a tangible plan of action for installing the fund. But Soika gives most of the credit to the grassroots efforts of the 130-strong community and faith groups that took their cause to the streets.

Direct Action

It was a combination of traditional lobbying and gritty public demonstration. One rainy morning in May, about 100 Coalition supporters gathered at Red Arrow Park downtown near city hall. They were carrying large cardboard boxes to build a “cardboard condo development.” A similar demonstration in August involved assembling rows of tent shelters at the St. Vincent de Paul meal program center on the northwest side.

One weekend in September, congregations declared an “affordable housing Sabbath” and collected 2,000 house keys and postcards with messages for elected officials about the need for affordable housing legislation. Throughout the year, hundreds of Coalition constituents testified at state and county hearings on affordable housing, and at Common Council Zoning & Neighborhood Development meetings.

“This was the most impressive grassroots public affairs work that I have seen during my years in city government,” said Ald. Michael D’Amato in a letter to the Coalition. D’Amato was one of the twelve Common Council members to vote in favor of the trust fund.

“A Surefire Development Tool”

“Without the organizations mobilizing their constituency in support of the Housing Trust Fund, I don’t think we would be sitting here with a $2.5 million fund plus identified sources of ongoing funding,” Soika said. “We effectively demonstrated the economic benefit of the housing trust fund. We showed how creating new affordable housing is a surefire development tool that creates jobs, new tax revenue and new economic vitality.”

In order to get the ordinance through the Common Council, it was imperative to show that the city’s $2.5 million down payment was an investment rather than an expenditure. The task force looked to other cities using a similar model of housing trust funds and found that each dollar a city invests in the fund generates five to ten times its value in supporting funds. According to Soika, the city’s initial $2.5 million investiture can quickly becomes tens of millions to build new housing, create new jobs and improve the local economy.

In addition, the housing trust fund legislation identifies three revenue sources to fund itself beyond 2007. These sources come from Potawatomi gaming proceeds, TIF expansion dollars, and designated funds from nonprofit groups.

The Equation Has Changed

The urban revitalization taking place in Milwaukee in the Third and Fifth Wards, along the Beerline, and in the Brewers Hill area is booming for high-end development and property re-habilitation. For the last ten years private investors have successfully turned profits rehabbing abandoned warehouses and industrial areas into six-figure condos and commercial spaces.

Despite this revitalization, housing for the city’s low-income residents has grown scarce and shabby.

The housing trust fund measure has already piqued the interest of the private sector. According to Soika, no fewer than three development companies are interested in working with the city to develop new affordable housing.

“The main reason that there has been a dearth of new affordable housing created in the city is because there were no subsidy dollars available,” Soika said. “Now with the housing trust fund, the equation has changed.

“As an example, Tom Capp, CEO of the Gorman Company – one of the state’s largest developers of tax credit properties – is one of the staunchest supporters of the fund. Tom realized that the only way to develop affordable housing for low income individuals is to find new subsidy dollars, such as the housing trust fund.”

Next Steps

Time will only tell if the measure will be the relief that Soika and Coalition members are counting on for lowincome residents in Milwaukee.

In early 2007, city lawmakers will appoint an advisory board that will control housing trust fund expenditures and write proposals. They will also advertise a request to the private sector to submit proposals for new affordable housing developments, and ensure future funding.

The difficult initial step of procuring funding has been taken, and the rest is in the hands of yet-to-be-named city leaders who will manage the fund. Stay tuned for more developments as they happen.

Want to Know More?

Learn more about Housing Trust Funds by visiting the following websites:

Riverwest Currents online edition – January, 2007