Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Bauman Proposes Moratorium On City Demolitions

Alderman proposes fixing all deteriorated city-owned homes using federal stimulus funds.

By - Apr 14th, 2021 03:17 pm
Vacant home slated for redevelopment by Gorman & Co. that the city previously owned through property tax foreclosure. Located at 2628 N. 21st. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Vacant home slated for redevelopment by Gorman & Co. that the city previously acquired through property tax foreclosure. Located at 2628 N. 21st. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A sizable amount of the $405 million the City of Milwaukee is receiving from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act is likely to end up in housing-related programs. But which of the city’s myriad programs will get a funding boost remains to be seen.

“Is this a question of adding a million dollars to this and two million to that? Or are we looking at going in a substantially different direction?” asked Alderman Robert Bauman to other city officials at Monday’s meeting of the Joint Committee on the Redevelopment of Abandoned and Foreclosed Homes.

While Department of City Development and Department of Neighborhood Services officials reported success for all programs in 2020, constraints arose from contractor capacity and a slowing stream of available homes acquired via property tax foreclosure. Program managers said it would be difficult to easily scale their programs by simply expanding funding.

“There is an opportunity for some new initiatives,” said DCD redevelopment and special projects manager Maria Prioletta. “I think it’s going to be a collaborative approach involving everybody.”

Bauman has an idea for a new initiative – fix up every home the city owns.

The city currently has 865 “improved properties,” as they are described, to distinguish the vacant lots it owns from those with a structure (house or commercial building). That includes 204 newly acquired properties after the city executed its first foreclosure action since July 2020.

“That’s admirable. That’s half of what we have had in recent years,” said Bauman. The inventory list is down from 1,042 in April 2018 and more than 1,300 in 2016.

Many of those 204 new properties aren’t likely to remain on the list for long. Comparing DCD reports, the city sold or demolished structures on 155 properties since October 2020.

The number of structures subject to raze orders is also falling. A total of 372 properties in Milwaukee, including 195 owned by the city, are listed. For years the list has had more than 400 properties on it. Only three city-owned properties are subject to the “high priority” classification.

“Has any thought been given to a raze and replace program?” asked deputy treasurer Jim Klajbor, comparing it to what Habitat for Humanity does.

“In my humble opinion, that’s the exact opposite of what we should be doing,” said Bauman. “My goal is we stop demolition and we start looking at rehab of everything we have.”

“We can no longer complain ‘the extra cost, we don’t have the resources,’ now we have the resources,” he said, calling his strategy a demolition moratorium.

He singled out Hunger Task Force executive director and Merrill Park resident Sherrie Tussler as an example of what the city should do. Tussler, frustrated by city inaction on demolishing a fire-damaged house across the street from her own, bought the condemned house for $1, invested in rehabilitating it and sold it for $155,000.

“She actually made $40,000 on a home we were ready to demolish,” said Bauman. Tussler received $25,000 from the city’s Housing Infrastructure Preservation Fund, one of the programs that could receive more funding, to support her rehab work.

He put Prioletta and veteran DNS operations director Thomas G. Mishefske on the spot. What do they think of the idea?

“I think we would agree, there is potential,” said Prioletta.

“I don’t know that I would say a moratorium, but I would agree with what is being discussed,” said Mishefske. “Yes, we should be rehabbing buildings as funding allows.”

A total of 165 city-owned properties are in the “medium priority” category on the raze list. Structures can spend years on the list before being demolished.

“If they’re in the medium category, that usually means they’re savable with the right energy and resources,” said Mishefske.

“Thank you, the magic words,” said Bauman. “I could not agree more.”

“I read in the real estate industry that there is massive demand for homes,” said Bauman. “And I look at our raze list and I think those studies must be misleading. Maybe they’re just talking about the suburbs, or they’re just talking about the prosperity neighborhoods in the city.”

More than 86% of the city-owned properties are in the 1st, 6th, 7th and 15th aldermanic districts, a contiguous cluster that runs roughly from Harambee to Sherman Park between W. Juneau Ave. and W. Silver Spring Dr.

Bauman, after suggestions from colleagues Russell W. Stamper, II and Jose G. Perez, amended his proposal to allow aldermanic discretion on the demolition of problem properties while maintaining a focus on rehabilitation.

The city would also lease some of the homes. “Not everyone can be a homeowner,” he said. “We are not talking thousands of units. We are talking scores of units maybe.”

He said the proposal would create jobs, help the environment and improve city neighborhoods and finances.

Klajbor brought up one question for which no one had an answer. The state caps the property tax levy by the value of new construction. Demolishing and replacing a structure yields a boost to the amount of revenue the city can collect. Does rehabilitating a city-owned property and returning it to private ownership do the same?

5 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Bauman Proposes Moratorium On City Demolitions”

  1. Wilson Perry says:

    It appears that Alderman Bauman makes a great case. The experience of Ms. Tussler suggests that it could readily become self sustaining with proceeds of sales of rehabbed homes. I hope this receives serious and thoughtful consideration.

  2. Mark Nicolini says:

    The tax levy limit formula that Mr. Klajbor references includes an :”improvements removed” component. In other words, when an improved property is “removed” from the tax rolls, either by demolition, fire, City in rem action, etc., its value at the time of “removal” is deleted from the eligible base on which the limit is calculated.

    So, I think it would be consistent, as Mr. Klajbor mentions, to add such properties “back” to the tax base as “new construction.” I think this is, indeed, the case. But check with Wisconsin Department of Revenue to be sure.

  3. SiddyMonty says:

    Such an interesting idea…when we raze homes we lose the charm of the neighborhoods. It would be great if some kind of partnership could be struck with Habitat for Humanity type group that places people with homes. With the Illinois Firm buying up East Side builldings, our City needs to pay attention to what we LOOK like.

  4. David Coles says:

    Thank you, Alderman Bauman. The greenest home is the one that is already built. This is such a wise policy shift.

  5. keewaysservices says:

    Good idea the current policy of letting a house sit boarded up until it deteriorate and then demolish is not helping the tax base . the city can do the major repair roof electricity c plumbing foundation and the new owner can do the rest and start paying property taxes
    the only people benefiting from the current policy are apartment owners creating new apartment or the lremodeling apartment and absentee landlord

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