By Monique Collins, Thomas Conroy and Michael Lenoch
Habitat focuses on community with deep need, strong involvement
On Sept. 27, about 30 Milwaukee community members gathered outside New Hope Church of God In Christ at 1710 N. 33rd St., in Washington Park. Three families—including Juanita Dodd’s—were getting ready to take part in a cherished ritual: blessing their newly built Habitat for Humanity homes.
A first-time homeowner, Dodd helped build her home from the ground up through what is called “sweat equity.”
Participants put in a minimum of 400 hours building their own homes and their neighbors’ homes, and taking financial education classes, according to Kristen Lie, Habitat for Humanity’s grants and communications coordinator.
Dodd, who closed on her home on Sept. 18, was previously a renter in West Milwaukee, and made the move to Washington Park when she found they could afford her own home.
“I wanted to become a homeowner and this seemed the most logical way to be one,” said Dodd, a Milwaukee native. “They’re willing to help you and all you have to do is give them some sweat equity, keep your credit and all that good stuff in line, so I thought ‘why not give it a try?’”
Dodd’s close friend, who has lived in her Habitat home a few blocks down for about 10 years, convinced Dodd to go through the process. There are a handful of Habitat houses, identified by the white and blue windsocks hanging on the porches, within a one-block radius, and she’s hoping to meet those homeowners in the coming months.
The organization’s efforts are part of a larger movement to revitalize the neighborhood after the housing bubble burst in 2008. It was neighborhoods like Washington Park that prompted the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program to address the large number of foreclosures and vacant homes. The City of Milwaukee was granted $9.2 million through the Housing and Economic Recovery Act, and another $25 million through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
In 2013, Habitat began construction in the neighborhood, and it plans to build and rehabilitate through 2017, according to Allison Kruschke, who works for the organization’s family services department as an AmeriCorps member.
Habitat buys vacant lots from the City of Milwaukee for $1—and homes at a low cost. It is more cost-effective to buy vacant lots than to buy homes and demolish them, Ann Van Dunk, the organization’s assistant executive director, said. When the organization does buy vacant homes, it opts to rehabilitate, rather than raze and rebuild.
“The city likes having a new tax base and having stable homeowners in the neighborhood, so it is really a win-win,” Kruschke said.
After evaluating several neighborhoods in the city, Habitat for Humanity chose to work in Washington Park because of strong community engagement and a serious need for revitalization. There are more than 160 foreclosed homes in the Washington Park neighborhood. In the area between Garfield and Lloyd streets on 39th and 38th streets—where Habitat is now concentrating its work—there are almost a dozen.
Washington Park Partners’ (WPP) work was a major factor in Habitat’s choice. WPP is a group of residents, local organizations and businesses that, like Habitat, is focused on creating a stable and thriving community.
Brian Sonderman, executive director of Milwaukee's Habitat affiliate, said its partnership with WPP has been crucial to its relationship with residents. “We selected Washington Park in large measure because of Washington Park Partners and other likeminded organizations,” he said. “We felt like there was already a great synergy in place here in which the neighborhood itself had a plan.”
“We believe putting hardworking families in decent, affordable housing helps foster a sense of ownership in the community and stabilize the neighborhood,” he said. “That effect is multiplied when we concentrate many stable homeowners in one area.”
The City of Milwaukee, which owns a handful of properties in the area, has worked since the early 2000s to address the issue of vacant and dilapidated homes across the city. So far, the solution has been to raze hundreds of homes. By the end of the year, Alderman Russell Stamper said about 280 properties in the 15th District alone, which include Washington Park and Lindsay Heights, will have been demolished.
“Yes, I approved a certain amount of demolitions because these houses are terrible and they’re vacant and causing crime,” Stamper said. “But the plan is to improve the neighborhood.”
However community members aren’t convinced that the city’s current methods are doing much good. Rev. Willie Brisco, president of Milwaukee’s Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH), said the city’s handling of foreclosed and vacant homes has been dreadful.
“The Washington Park area has the most foreclosures of any area in the city, and now the whole neighborhood is depressed,” Brisco said. “No one wants to move into a block where there’s 10 vacant homes that people are hanging out and sleeping in. You’re almost to the point where you’re going to have to set aside money to repair the entire block at one time.”
City officials, in efforts to give access to more low-income families who want to own a home, recently launched the Re-Invent in City Homes (RICH) program. Under this new initiative, certain city-owned foreclosed homes in neighborhoods such as Washington Park will sell for $1, and buyers will qualify for low-interest loans from the city to renovate the properties, according to Stamper.
The program, which Stamper said will be focused on Washington Park and Metcalfe Park, is aimed at those interested in owning and living in a home in those neighborhoods. Program participants must meet a myriad of requirements: not having owned property in Milwaukee in the last two years, steady employment for at least a year, and a good rent, utility and debt repayment history. The city will rehab the homes and sell them to a family for $1. The mortgage will be whatever costs went into rehabilitating it.
Focusing on areas with clusters of vacant homes, the RICH program is an all-around win, Stamper said.
“(The neighborhood) gets homeowners, the city gets its money back, (as well as) another home on the tax roll,” he said. “Overall you get a better neighborhood full of homeowners.”
Through the collective work of the city and organizations like Habitat for Humanity, neighborhoods that have been disproportionately affected by the housing crisis can slowly see a revival.