Jeramey Jannene

Common Ground Bashes City’s Housing Authority

Citing 'slumlord behavior,' launches Tenants United campaign, demands changes.

By - Mar 29th, 2023 04:53 pm
Westlawn Gardens. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Westlawn Gardens. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Citing poor conditions, bad management and retaliatory behavior, Common Ground is demanding change from Milwaukee’s second-largest landlord.

The nonprofit organization launched its Tenants United campaign Sunday. The target? The Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee (HACM).

“We’re here today because HACM is failing. They’re failing to provide safe and adequate housing, failing to treat residents with respect and dignity and failing to be accountable and transparent,” said strategy team volunteer member Jonathan Gundlach to the approximately 700 people that gathered at Mount Mary University to launch the campaign. “The buildings may look nice on the outside, but on the inside it’s a different story.”

Common Ground, a broad-based coalition that boasts 40,000 citizen members, says it has interviewed or collected information from more than 1,200 HACM residents, spanning 17 properties, since 2020.

The housing authority provides housing to approximately 5,000 households in its own properties and, with federal vouchers, houses an additional 6,000 households in privately-owned properties.

Complaints aired throughout the hour-long meeting included frustration about persistently failing heat, rodent infestations, poor security and dangerous or dirty conditions in public areas.

“The system needs to be reformed,” said pastor Will Davis, a member of Common Ground’s executive team. “The problems in this system have become ingrained and have become the defining characteristic of slumlord behavior.”

The coalition is asking for six things: an investment of at least $75 million in deferred maintenance, a new, resident-centered management system, a third-party company to get control of rodent infestations, creation and implementation of a new public safety plan, the respect of the due process rights of tenants and the funding of a full-time ombudsman position to review complaints.

Many of the speakers placed the blame for the current conditions squarely at the feet of one person: secretary-executive director Willie Hines, Jr.

“Willie Hines does not want to be held accountable,” said Davis.

Hines grew up in HACM housing. He was chairman of the authority’s board from 1998 through 2014, when he resigned both his Common Council seat and board position to become HACM’s associate director. He became acting director in 2021 when longtime director Antonio (Tony) M. Pérez went on leave for an undisclosed medical condition. Hines was given the job by the board on a permanent basis starting in March 2022.

The executive director, who did not appear at Common Ground’s meeting, has met with coalition leaders on multiple occasions. Davis said Hines was given three immediate requests: complete a list of 122 maintenance tasks; hire an outside company to reform two properties; and hire an outside investigator to evaluate the manager at the Lincoln Court and Mitchell Court buildings. Common Ground, said Davis, then offered to compromise. But Hines has not accepted any agreement after fixing “minor things like cabinet pinches and light bulb.” Davis said building managers also launched investigations of units of those involved in the coalition.

One Mitchell Court resident said Hines tries to convince people he’s their friend.

“He tries to buy off residents with free chicken dinners,” said Mitchell Court resident Roye “Chris” Logan, while holding up a flyer. “He is using bandaids where surgery is needed and we are not buying it.”

Davis said Common Ground will not go away quietly. “We are beginning what could be a very long campaign, months, even years,” said the pastor.

They already have three allies: Common Council President José G. Pérez and alderwomen Marina Dimitrijevic and JoCasta Zamarripa. The three have already asked the Milwaukee Health Department and Department of Neighborhood Services to investigate resident complaints. Pérez also appeared at the launch event.

“I’m committed to shepherding through any legislation through the Common Council to ensure sure this doesn’t happen again and we are going to do everything in our power through our council to hold people accountable. We’re committed to you,” said the council president.

Gundlach, giving what he said was a quick civics lesson, said HACM currently has limited accountability to city government, despite being ostensibly part of it.

“The only official power that the mayor has is the mayor appoints the members of the HACM board and the council approves them, that’s it,” said Gundlach. Hines, however, was one of a handful of former council members that helped support Mayor Cavalier Johnson‘s special election bid. HACM’s board chair is Mark Wagner, a multi-decade member.

The Common Ground members are undeterred by HACM’s power. “We know how to hold businesses and government accountable,” said Gundlach, citing past successes securing $33.8 million from banks to support home renovations in the Sherman Park neighborhood, creating a health insurance cooperative that participates in the Affordable Care Act and working on other efforts like gun safety and school facilities.

“Being able to turn out people persistently and consistently is our power,” said member Brenda McMurtry.

Pastor Rob Ater said the coalition would not stop until the “unacceptable living conditions in our public housing” are addressed.

HACM, in a statement provided to Urban Milwaukee, said it is committed to finding solutions to problems they are brought to its attention.

“[HACM] has the highest priority to provide excellent service and quality affordable housing options to more than 10,000 households throughout Milwaukee. HACM takes residents’ concerns very seriously. We are aware of issues raised by residents, many of which have been resolved, and others that we have been actively working to address. When other matters are brought to our attention, we will address them as well. HACM’s mission has been to provide critical affordable housing to Milwaukeeans for nearly 80 years. Despite significant underfunding for affordable housing, we have continued to be resilient in advancing our mission and providing opportunities for our residents to thrive. We will continue to find solutions to ensure safe, healthy living environments for our residents,” said the organization.

In partnership with SRH Marketing, Common Ground released a 12-minute video that uses tenant interviews and photos to tell the story of building conditions.

Individuals interested in the campaign can learn more on Common Ground’s website.

Tenants United

UPDATE: An earlier version of this article failed to include Zamarripa.

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One thought on “Common Ground Bashes City’s Housing Authority”

  1. DAGDAG says:

    Remind me again…why are Cities and municipalities in the housing and rental business? Because that, in effect, makes the taxpayers landlords–with no say in the matter. Does the City of Milwaukee even come close to breaking even?

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