Lindsay Heights resident Twyla James bought a lot from the city of Milwaukee for $1 in September 2009, on the condition that she build a house there and live in it for at least five years. The following March, just over a year ago, she moved in to her new four-bedroom house with her mother and 16-year-old daughter.
Though she grew up in the suburbs, James chose the city neighborhood because the $1 lot made it affordable on a single income. And it is convenient — just a 10-minute drive from St. Joseph’s Hospital, where she works as a surgical nursing supervisor.
James’ lot, purchased 1-1/2 years ago, was the last one sold in Lindsay Heights under the $1 program, although 35 lots remain on the market. The city has extended the deadline to Dec. 31, 2011.
Builder Cindy Kuhs, co-owner and president of Greendale-based Kuhs Quality Homes and the builder of James’ house, explained that the mortgage crisis, collapsed housing market and other issues related to the economic downturn of 2008 have created a situation in which buyers cannot get loans to build new homes. The cost of building exceeds the values of these homes once they are built, she said.
Kuhs built more than 50 houses in Lindsay Heights prior to the recession, including more than 20 houses in the City Homes development north of Walnut Street near 21st Street, at the southwest corner of the neighborhood.
“Over $19 million has been invested in the Lindsay Heights neighborhood as of 2006 in new home construction, rehabilitation, streets, parks and revived commercial areas,” according to real estate analyst Yves LaPierre of Milwaukee’s Department of City Development.
“The $1 lot sales were initiated as a way to fill in the neighborhood — to expand the housing improvements realized by the success of the City Homes development, as well as other new housing in the neighborhood,” LaPierre said.
The Lindsay Heights houses sold out very quickly in 2005 and 2006, noted LaPierre and Kuhs. “We sold them from the models, before we could build them,” Kuhs said.
The $1 lots have been the main source of land for new homes built by Habitat for Humanity, according to executive director Brian Soderman. “We are in the second year of a three-year federal grant to build 100 new houses in city of Milwaukee neighborhoods,” Soderman said. The grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development stipulates where the houses are to be built, based on socio-economic conditions.
Though his organization has not yet built in Lindsay Heights, Soderman said Habitat for Humanity is beginning work on a strategic plan for the next five years. “We recognize the need in Lindsay Heights and it will be given serious consideration in our strategic plan,” he said.
Larry Adams, vice president of the board and environmental steward of Walnut Way, takes a different view of the empty lots scattered through Lindsay Heights. “The founders of Walnut Way deemed it important to have more green space,” Adams said.
“[The empty lots] have allowed us to redefine the space for horticultural and agricultural use,” Adams added. He explained that Walnut Way has planted a peach orchard, and vegetable and flower gardens that are used to teach young people how to grow food.
The city continues to promote the $1 lots through press releases, news stories, e-mails to builders and neighborhood meetings. And Department of City Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux promotes the lots when he is speaking around town, LaPierre said.
Though the program is currently stalled, LaPierre is optimistic about the future. “There are many opportunities for families who want to build houses in the city,” he said. “We are just waiting for the economy to recover.”