In the past year, Riverwest property values increased faster than any other neighborhood in Milwaukee, leaving many residents surprised and concerned. In Milwaukee, residential property values increased by almost 10 percent overall. The average increase in Riverwest was around 24 percent, while in some pockets of Riverwest, average property values almost doubled.
“I was shocked,” said Shawn Smart, who has owned her house on the 2100 block of N. Booth St. for nine years. “We could sell our home for three times what it was originally assessed at, but we can’t afford to live in it.”
Smart’s house increased in value 100 percent, from $71,500 to $143,000 this past year. Smart, a computer engineer, said a big property tax increase might force her to work longer hours. “I’ve had less quality time for my family,” she said. “But just think about how much worse it must be for people who don’t have as much education. They’re getting squeezed even tighter.”
The City Assessor’s office divides Riverwest into six “neighborhoods” for assessment purposes. The neighborhood bounded by Locust Street on the north, the river on the south, Pierce Street on the east, and Holton on the west showed the largest increase — from an average of $49,696 last year to $96,091 this year, a 93 percent increase. Other assessment neighborhoods showed smaller, but still significant increases — anywhere from 10 to 39 percent. The average price for a single-family unit in Riverwest went up 18 percent; two-family units increased in value by 23 percent.
Mary Reavey, the city assessor, said that the area’s decreasing crime and proximity to the East Side and downtown help explain the sharp increase. “Many of the neighborhoods are going through gentrification and rehabilitation,” Reavey said. “People who have been there all their lives have to deal with a higher cost of living. That’s what makes it difficult; but it’s a good thing overall for the city and the neighborhood.”
Gentrification refers to the process of displacement that occurs as property values rise in a neighborhood, generally resulting in people with lower incomes moving out of the neighborhood as people with higher incomes move in. It could be argued that Riverwest has been gentrifying slowly for years, unlike some areas of the country where rapid gentrification has resulted in dramatic demographic changes almost overnight. But recent housing assessment jumps worry some residents.
While Riverwesters in general consider themselves welcoming of diverse and new people, they are concerned that the jumps in home values will affect the things they value — diversity and affordability — about their neighborhood.
“The part that really bothers me is that they’re kind of stepping on the backs of the hard work the people had put into the community,” Smart said. “It’s pretty defeating to try to work in your park, to try to make the neighborhood a better place, only to be told you can get the hell out.” She added that she knows several families who have had to move to the inner city because of the lack of affordable, decent housing in Riverwest.
Judy Swanson is also concerned. Her house, on the 3400 block of Weil Street, increased in value by 10 percent this year. “We paid over $3,000 in property taxes last year,” she said. “We’re still looking at paying an increase in taxes. It’s frustrating.” Swanson added that, although Riverwest continues to attract new homeowners, many residents are still concerned about crime. “We’ve had people who’ve been held at gunpoint. We’ve had bikes stolen from backyards,” she pointed out.
Dorothy Dean, County Treasurer and Riverwest resident, said she was confused by the whole assessment process. “It’s very hard for the average person to get the information,” she said. Dean’s house, on the 1100 block of E. Vienna St., increased in value by eight percent. “Since I don’t have a driveway or a garage and I have an unfinished basement, I don’t see why mine should increase like this,” she said. “I was surprised it went up again.”
Increased property values also affect the rental market, leading to increased rent prices when landlords pass those increases along to tenants. “You look at some of the people that rent here — students, artists, waitresses,” said Smart, who also owns several rental properties in Riverwest. “Landlords have to increase the rents just to break even. A rent increase of any kind is a stretch for these people. The rent went up, but they’re not getting more tips from the restaurant. It’s hard for everyone.”