Barrett Blasts Suburbs on Low-Income Housing
Waukesha, Washington, Ozaukee counties “systematically” keep out poor people, mayor charges.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett recently accused leaders of the three suburban WOW counties (Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington) of refusing to seek federal tax credits that would help low-income residents live closer to jobs. It’s a charge 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 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 data from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) back up his charge. WHEDA administers the low-income tax credit program for Wisconsin that subsidizes housing for the poor. According to its records:
*In 2014, the City of Milwaukee applied for $6 million in low-income tax credits, but WHEDA approved only $1.8 million of them. That was 15 percent of the $12.7 million in low-income tax 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 tax credits approved by WHEDA.
Barrett said there were 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, (surburban) policymakers are deliberately trying to keep those people out.”
“I’m sorry to have to say this, but this is happening on our watch,” Barrett told the panel, which included Waukesha’s mayor and the Ozaukee County administrator.
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 all Milwaukee- area 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 added.
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.
WHEDA officials say 2013 and 2014 records show that five low-income tax credit applications came from two of the three WOW counties: Four requests were submitted for City of Waukesha projects and one came from a Washington County organization. There were no applications from Ozaukee County. Washington County’s 2013 request for a low-income tax credit was for $663,303 to subsidize the Bridlewood Townhomes project in Hartford, according to WHEDA records. It was denied. In 2013, only one of the three Waukesha County applications for the low-income tax credit was approved – $760,087 for Meadow Ridge Apartments in Waukesha.
On the broader issue of poverty, here’s what Republican Gov. Scott Walker said at the Republican Party state convention: “We care about every one living in poverty. We just don’t want to make it a permanent way of life.”
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Email firstname.lastname@example.org