Steven Walters: Milwaukee mayor faults suburbs on low-income housing

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Steven Walters
Monday, May 26, 2014

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett recently accused leaders of the three WOW suburban counties of refusing to seek federal tax credits that would help low-income residents live closer to jobs.

The charge against Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties is worth examining.

At a Marquette University panel discussion on an important Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series that documented Milwaukee's regional political segregation, Barrett said suburban politicians aren't applying for federal low-income housing tax credits that would help more poor live in their communities.

“I respectfully disagree with the notion that people can live where they want to live,” Barrett said. “Poor people are—by and large—confined to the city of Milwaukee. And it's not an accident.”

Barrett said Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) data back up his charge. WHEDA administers the low-income tax credit program for Wisconsin that subsidizes housing for the poor.

According to WHEDA records:

-- In 2014, the city of Milwaukee applied for $6 million in low-income housing credits, but WHEDA approved only $1.8 million of them. That was 15 percent of the $12.7 million in credits approved for all projects statewide.

-- In the previous seven years, the city of Milwaukee got between 30 percent and 44 percent of all statewide low-income housing tax credits approved by WHEDA.

Milwaukee's mayor said he would be satisfied with the lower, 15 percent share if suburban counties were applying for and getting the others instead.

But the richer, whiter WOW counties are not, Barrett added.

Only one application for low-income housing tax credits was submitted by any government or organization in WOW counties this year, Barrett said.

WHEDA records say it came from Wisconsin Preservation Fund, which asked for $397,793 to subsidize the Main Depot Apartments project in Waukesha. The application was denied.

Barrett suggested three explanations for why WOW political leaders are not seeking low-income housing tax credits:

“Developers feel there is no demand for low-income housing in those suburbs, which I disagree with. Low-income people don't want to live in those areas, which I disagree with. Or, (suburban) policymakers are deliberately trying to keep those people out.”

“I'm sorry to have to say this, but this is happening on our watch,” the mayor added.

Barrett said no one should be surprised at the Journal Sentinel's finding of growing political segregation in the region. City of Milwaukee voters increasingly vote Democrat, for example, and suburban voters increasingly vote Republican. And those partisans are voting in numbers that lead the nation, the newspaper reported.

Housing segregation throughout the region is “what we should change,” Barrett said. “But it's going to take courage.”

“I think it's wrong, from a human standpoint,” Barrett added. “If we systematically—which is what is going on here—exclude opportunities so (the poor) can live closer to the jobs, I think it's going to have a negative impact on the whole regional economy.”

Responding to Barrett, Assembly Majority Leader Pat Strachota, a West Bend Republican whose district includes part of Washington County, said suburbs face “some of the same issues.”

West Bend has “quite a bit” of low-income and senior housing, and 40 percent of West Bend School District students get free or reduced-price meals, Strachota noted.

Strachota also told Barrett it's wrong for him to base his charges on WHEDA records for just 2014. It could be an unfair “snapshot,” she added.

Instead, look at data “over the course of many years,” Strachota told Barrett.

According to WHEDA records for 2013 and 2014, five low-income housing tax credit applications came from two WOW counties: Four requests were submitted for city of Waukesha projects, and one came from a Washington County organization. No applications came from Ozaukee County.

WHEDA records show no applications for low-income housing tax credits from any Rock County government or organization in 2014, 2013 or 2011.

No request for credits to subsidize any Janesville project has been submitted since 2009, according to WHEDA officials.

In 2012, a request for $1.49 million in credits to subsidize the Prairie Family Apartments complex in Beloit was denied. And, in 2010, a city of Beloit request for $1.21 million for an apartment redevelopment project was approved.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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