Downtown Has Added 11,450 Housing Units
All under Barrett, all since 2004. But what about the rest of the city?
It’s obvious that downtown Milwaukee has grown in recent years, but by how much? By quite a bit, it turns out.
Department of City Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux told members of the Common Council’s Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee that since Mayor Tom Barrett took office in 2004, 11,450 housing units have been constructed in what he calls the greater downtown area. The area runs from E. North Ave. on the north edge to the Milwaukee River on the south, from Lake Michigan on the east to Interstate 43, W. McKinley Ave. and the Milwaukee River on the western edge. It encompasses all of the Westown, East Town, the Lower East Side, Beerline B and Historic Third Ward neighborhoods.
A unit is defined as a single residence within a larger building and does not reflect the number of bedrooms. Some units are large three-bedroom residences, but many are one-bedroom or studio apartments.
Marcoux, who was presenting a status update on a number of downtown projects, told the committee that 1,487 additional units are “in the queue and we believe will be in the ground this year.”
Outside of that area, the city has seen an additional 5,025 units constructed since 2004.
Is Downtown Overbuilt?
Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs asked Marcoux if the housing market is overbuilt. Marcoux responded that he has seen some signs the market is softening, citing deals where tenants can get a month of free rent with a year lease.
But overall, the commissioner said the city has a minimal risk even if the market is overbuilt. “We have not subsidized the downtown market. The market is acting as the market is going to act,” Marcoux said.
He did acknowledge the city has contributed heavily to projects like the Pabst Brewery redevelopment through a tax-incremental financing district, but said those funds went towards preparing the site and not actual housing.
The city does have one major investment pending, nearly $20 million is committed via a tax-incremental financing district towards The Couture. Those funds are intended to build a transit station and public concourse in the tower’s base. If the tower is constructed and its valuation fails to reach expected levels, the recovery of the city funds through property taxes could be delayed.
But Marcoux seemed unworried. “I think most of these properties are fairly unique because of their location,” he noted.
10,000 Unit Pledge from Barrett
At his State of the City speech delivered in late February, Barrett promised to create or rehabilitate 10,000 homes over the next ten years. As Marcoux’s numbers show, that isn’t something that will be easily accomplished. Downtown has become a very desirable area, yet has added less than 1,000 housing units per year, which is the pace of development Barrett has set as a future goal.
Marcoux said he’s working on the pledge and promised routine status updates. He told the council he had no intention of showing up seven years from now and having to say DCD is far behind the goal.
Single-Family Homes a Wash
One figure from Marcoux’s presentation caused debate among those present. The commissioner told the committee that since 2004 approximately 1,500 single-family or duplex houses have been constructed in the city.
Alderman Robert Bauman, who has pushed for funding for home repair programs, was quick to point out that the city has certainly demolished that many homes in the same period.
Marcoux responded to Bauman’s concern by noting that only 2.2 percent of land in the city is vacant, a number that has fallen since Marcoux took over as DCD leader.
While not much time was spent at the meeting on the issue, the balance of demolition versus construction and rehabilitation is something city officials will have to increasingly grapple with if Barrett’s goal of 10,000 affordable homes by 2028 is to be reached.
The city will have to increase the supply of homes to increase the population. A recent U.S. Census Bureau report found that Milwaukee County’s population fell for the third straight year, falling to 952,085 residents. The population of the region as a whole has been stagnant in the same time period.
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