Is homeownership the answer to Milwaukee’s affordable housing crisis? It’s complicated.
By Kynala Phillips
When Milwaukee resident Rae Johnson’s son came home begging for a dog, Johnson remembers telling him “no, you can’t get a dog until I buy a house.” And after years of unsteady jobs and housing, Johnson didn’t realize that such a passive statement would soon become reality. “I said that just so flippantly, just so he would leave me alone and stop asking me about the dog, not thinking about [in] the future that I would actually buy a house one day,” Johnson said.
Johnson, who hails from Milwaukee’s northwest side, said for a long time they spent their life in survival mode. As a Black, queer person living in Milwaukee, they understood that buying a home would be no easy feat, but they also realized it could offer them much-needed stability. They’re not alone—the city is in the middle of an affordable housing crisis, with more than half of renters paying more than the recommended thirty percent of their income in rent each month. Structural factors have kept Black and brown folks, like Johnson, from homeownership, while renting can leave lower-income people open to significant housing insecurity and prevent families from building wealth over time.
Across the board, Milwaukee’s city officials and non-profits are pointing toward redevelopment and homeownership as a way to improve access to housing and revitalize the city. There are currently more than 2,500 vacant homes in the city, and although many are blighted and require rehabilitation, they present a unique opportunity. “This is a really exciting time in Milwaukee for people seeking to become homeowners,” said Amy Turim, the Real Estate Development Services Manager with the City of Milwaukee. “Everyone’s at the table and they realize that homeownership is the way to change the disparities in our city.”
A couple of years ago, Johnson, who had previously worked as a freelance writer with an unstable income, started on the path toward homeownership by taking a more consistent job as a barista. Eventually, a coworker-turned-close-friend offered to be their roommate while they focused on paying off their debt. “That’s sort of when I was like, ‘Yeah, I could probably buy a house,’” Johnson said.
Milwaukee has a number of programs and organizations to help local residents find affordable properties around the city. The Department of City Development offers homebuyer assistance through its Neighborhood Improvement Development Corporation (NIDC), which offers owner-occupants up to $20,000 in forgivable loans. In the past eight months, NIDC has approved five properties for a collective $105,000 in loans. Since 2019, the corporation has completed eighteen owner-occupant projects. In historically Black and disadvantaged neighborhoods, like Bronzeville, the city offers up to $25,000 in loans.
To secure their home in Milwaukee’s North Division neighborhood, Johnson worked with a local real estate brokerage and counseling firm called Acts Housing. Acts Housing started ten years ago as an initiative to help settle recent immigrants and refugees in the Milwaukee area. Now, it serves predominantly Latino and Black families and is in part responsible for the rehabilitation of more than eight hundred homes and twenty-six hundred house sales in the city. Johnson is one of the 181 homeowners who closed on a new home in 2020 with the organization’s help.
Acts connects families to homes across the city, provides homebuyer and financial counseling certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and offers mortgages to help with the costs of rehabilitation through its non-profit arm, Acts Lending Inc. Acts counseling helped Johnson tackle their debt and start to build credit. “I was on a mission. I wanted to buy a house. I was deeply determined…It was like sheer determination because I was, like, not making a lot of money,” Johnson said. In June of 2020, Johnson got a call during a work meeting that they were pre-approved for a mortgage. “I just started crying… to hear those words, ‘you’ve been pre-approved for a mortgage.’ I lost it.”
The very next day, Johnson set out to look for their new home. Their credit still wasn’t the best, so they decided to look at city-owned properties, close to their family. And when they landed on the five-bedroom house in Milwaukee’s North Division neighborhood, they were met with city placards and ‘no trespassing’ signs. When they walked inside, the house opened into a large sunroom with an abandoned sixty-inch box TV. Johnson remembers there being broken windows and holes in the walls. In the basement, a foul dog smell lingered, and chains were scattered around the floor. But when it was all said and done, they said, “It felt right.”
The housing crisis in Milwaukee runs deep, from aging housing stock to historical redlining and racial disparities in banking access; 2019 study by The Markup, found that mortgage lenders were eighty percent more likely to deny Black applicants in comparison to white applicants with nearly identical financial profiles. And although homeownership is often hailed as a sure-fire approach to uplifting families in need, the truth is there are many barriers to becoming and remaining a homeowner. “Homebuying is very difficult,” said NIDC’s Housing Programs Manager Aaron Helt. “I think that with our technical assistance, and our customer service-oriented staff, we try to smooth over all the issues…but home buying is a big thing.”
According to Turim, most city-owned homes are typically distressed since the city doesn’t acquire them until they have been tax-delinquent for three years. This kind of neglect usually leads to cheap and fair prices, but they still require a considerable amount of “sweat equity” to make the homes liveable. Johnson’s home has been undergoing renovations for more than a year; they closed on the house in July 2020. In the meantime, Johnson has been paying both the mortgage and rent on their two-bedroom apartment.
Today, there are homes on the market for as little as $2,000, and many of these blighted properties are concentrated in Black and brown neighborhoods on Milwaukee’s near northside. Folks interested in buying these homes often qualify for special loans like those offered at Acts Housing and from the city, which can go directly toward the cost of rehabilitation. Banks, on the other hand, often find these kinds of rehabilitation loans to be too risky, which can create an additional barrier to ownership.
NIDC also offers a number of programs aimed at helping residents take on large improvement projects and maintain their homes over time. But even these don’t always make sense—while the cost of a mortgage can cheaper than renting, recent studies have shown that renting in Milwaukee can be, on average, more than $700 cheaper than living in a home with a mortgage, once you’ve compiled the costs of taxes, utilities, principal loans, and other fees.
All of these realities are compounded by the fact that Milwaukee and its housing market are evolving rapidly. Home values in Milwaukee have increased by nearly twenty percent in the last year and sixty-four percent in the past five years. The overall number of homes available, both turnkey units and tax foreclosed homes, has shrunk as the real estate market remains competitive. “The Milwaukee real estate market is very hot right now,” said Turim. “And that means there’s a lot of interest in our properties too, from the homeowner perspective, but also from persons who want to renovate for homeowners.”
That momentum has caught the attention of out-of-state investors looking to seize the moment. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that six thousand or fourteen percent of the properties in Milwaukee are now owned by out-of-state investors, up from just forty-six hundred homes in 2015, according to data from the Marquette Law School’s Lubar Center for Public Policy Research and Civic Education. “I think there’s a lot of investors in real estate who come into the city and buy these properties and rent them out for these ridiculous amounts of money that don’t give people here a choice,” Johnson said. Low property costs and substantial rent prices are attractive to these investors, whose properties are largely concentrated in lower-income neighborhoods on the north and west sides, the Journal Sentinel reported.
In June, the city’s Common Council reintroduced an ambitious plan to rehabilitate every city-owned home in the city. The plan would use federal funds to grant the Department of City Development nearly $105 million to renovate seven hundred tax foreclosed homes, according to Urban Milwaukee. And for a city that struggles to maintain affordable housing for its residents, adding an additional seven hundred homes to the market could be monumental.
The push to turn local renters into homeowners is a noble attempt to address the long-standing inequality felt in Milwaukee, but, in the city’s efforts to compete on a national stage, longtime resident and entrepreneur Reginald Reed argues it’s overlooked its most vulnerable neighborhoods. Traditional loans and increasing property taxes have the potential to keep marginalized buyers from taking advantage of the momentum that seems to be taking the city by storm. “We see all this money going into downtown, and we look at the hood, and we steady seeing more and more boarded-up houses,” Reed said. “We steady seeing more and more people put out their houses. We steady seeing the cost of a house go up in the poorest neighborhoods.”
Reed’s organization, Mindful Staffing Solutions, created a bank-free homeowners’ program. The organization trains people in construction by having them build new homes, and, once the homes are ready, staff who qualify have the opportunity to buy the homes on a rent-to-own basis at just sixty percent of the market value, he said. “While other programs are great, and I applaud everyone’s effort in this, they still have the issue of a bank being required at some point,” Reed said. “[Our program] is basically a rent-to-own program where one hundred percent of your payment goes toward the purchase of the house.”
“I think local ownership and ownership by persons of color as in our communities is a priority of the City of Milwaukee,” Turim said. “To that end, we’ve been working with the community development alliance to put into place housing strategies to not only retain existing homeownership by individual families…but also to boost specifically black and brown homeownership.” In an effort to prioritize those local families, when the city of Milwaukee lists a property it reserves the first thirty days for owner-occupant buyers in the city. Turim said the city aims to reach people who want to do the renovations themselves and offer them the exclusive opportunity to do so.
Something is brewing in Milwaukee, and both local residents and outside investors can feel it. Once a reminder of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, the foreclosed homes and vacant lots scattered throughout Milwaukee now seem to emit a sense of hope and potential for those looking to turn the tide on access to housing—or acquire a home themselves. Despite rising home costs and the challenges to ownership, many see this to be the perfect moment for low-income renters to consider homeownership. But finding solutions to securing stable housing in Milwaukee will likely take more than a few programmatic efforts.
Johnson hopes to finally move into their renovated home this fall. They said they look forward to welcoming family and becoming more intentional about their community. That’s exactly what the city hopes to see from new homebuyers. “[When] somebody [loses] a property and it sits vacant, that hurts not just that property, but the whole block and the whole neighborhood,” Helt said. “So getting a new homeowner who has ownership and puts down roots in that spot and starts to live life in that house and really stabilize the block…to me, it’s just transformational.”
Johnson’s experience illustrates the challenges of navigating Milwaukee housing right now; it’s not a substitute for a comprehensive affordable housing plan in U.S. cities, but it can provide much-needed stability and an opportunity for wealth-building. For Johnson, this moment felt like the right time to make the leap. “I think right now is a really kind of sweet spot for folks, especially who have been historically cut out of these opportunities of homeownership,” Johnson said. “I’m queer. I’m a single parent in the city of Milwaukee and I bought a house. Like, it’s not lost on me at all, the historic nature of what I did during a pandemic. I think about that all the time.” ■
Kynala Phillips is Belt Magazine’s reporting intern.
Cover image of Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood. U.S. Government photo.
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