11th Annual Henry W. Maier State of Milwaukee Summit, November 16, 2017

Far From the American Dream: Milwaukee’s Fair and Affordable Housing Crisis


Coverage and reflections by Toni Jones, Urban Studies Programs PhD Student, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

On November 16, 2017 the UW-Milwaukee Urban Studies Programs presented the 11th Annual Henry W. Maier State of Milwaukee Summit, titled “Far from the American Dream: Milwaukee’s Fair and Affordable Housing Crisis, which was part of the 50th anniversary of the 200 day March on Milwaukee.  The Summit focused on the enduring legacy of housing segregation and inequality in Milwaukee and featured presentations from the Milwaukee County Housing Division, the Legal Action Eviction Defense Project, Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council, ACTS Housing, and Professor Arijit Sen a faculty member in Architecture and Urban Studies Programs.

The issue of fair and affordable housing has been a policy concern since the early 1900s. The Depression however, was the first time the United States federal government intervened in the housing market and constructed low-cost housing. On September 1, 1937 under President Roosevelt, the United States Housing Act was signed into law (Jackson, 1985, 224). Concern for public housing resurfaced during the 1960s, specifically in large urban centers such as Chicago, Milwaukee and Detroit.  These cities had experienced two waves of African-American migration from agricultural centers in the rural South to industrial centers in the urban North.  During World Wars I & II African Americans were recruited to work in military supporting industries which led to economic growth and partial inclusion in industrial labor unions (Zieger, 2007, 140). With the exception of the automobile industry, these gains were short lived due to decreasing demand for industrial military production. By 1964 20% of black males aged 14-24 and 25% of black females were unemployed nationally (Zieger, 2007, 142). Additionally, the manufacturing industry, which had been one of largest employment sectors for African-Americans, moved out of urban centers and relocated to suburban areas with high concentrations of white workers. Although federal, state and local governments passed legislation to eliminate employment discrimination, enforcement was limited and often subject to funding restraints (Zieger, 2007, 150).  The trend of race based employment disenfranchisement left many African-Americans without a sustainable income to afford housing and many more faced displacement as municipal urban renewal initiatives targeted African-American neighborhoods.

In Milwaukee during the late 1960s, the city’s black civil rights movement focused on housing and education as they attempted to address secondary factors connected to employment access and wealth accumulation. Between August 1967 and March 1968, the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council marched for 200 consecutive nights in support of Alderman Vel Phillip’s municipal open housing ordinance, which sought to forbid race-based housing exclusion. The marches focused on protesting racially restrictive housing policies such as racial covenants, “biased loan and mortgage policies, discriminatory real estate practices” and racially discriminatory social customs (Jones, 2009, 173). Despite the commitment and tireless dedication of Milwaukee activists, the Youth Council’s direct action approach rarely created local institutional change.  The movement’s greatest successes lied in their ability to bring attention to the city’s deeply entrenched racial covenants which exposed the rhetoric of a commitment to urban poverty promoted by Mayor Henry Maier’s office and many of the city’s leaders. In April of 1968, “one week after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968,” which is also known as the Fair Housing Act (UWM Libraries, March on Milwaukee). After the federal government passed the Fair Housing Act, Milwaukee’s Common Council followed suit and on April 30, 1968 the Council passed a city-wide open housing ordinance (UWM Libraries, March on Milwaukee).

Despite the enactment of federal and municipal Fair Housing Legislation in 1968, Milwaukee’s residential segregation has remained particularly acute. Kori Schneider Peragine, the Senior Administrator of Metropolitan Milwaukee’s Fair Housing Council’s Inclusive Communities Program and a 2017 Milwaukee Summit presenter, believes the current affordable housing crisis affects everyone. However, due to the history and contemporary problems associated with racism and racial segregation, Schneider Peragine believes it has a more harmful effect on persons of color (personal correspondence, July 20, 2018). Through her work at the Fair Housing Council, Schneider Peragine addresses the institutional barriers that exist which impede equal housing and maintain racial segregation. She is primarily concerned with policies that decrease equal housing access and lead to racial and economically segregated neighborhoods. In considering the most important problems impacting Milwaukee area residents, Schneider Peragine and the Fair Housing Council focus their energy on the concerns of individuals protected against discrimination by federal, municipal and county governments.

The legacy of Milwaukee’s fair and affordable housing history is mirrored in legislation that was enacted by Milwaukee County in the summer of 2018, to include section 8 voucher holders as a protected class. Section 8 is a federal program that increases housing access for very-low income individuals, people with disabilities and the elderly. Qualified applicants receive a financial voucher that is used to offset the housing costs on any rental property meeting program requirements and in certain cases to purchase a home (HUD.GOV). Section 8 voucher holders are often turned away by rental agencies decreasing their housing options and ability to live throughout the county. The Fair Housing Council believes this protection will increase housing mobility and decrease the concentration of section 8 voucher holders in areas with limited economic and educational resources.

The new legislation may decrease the economic and racial concentration of voucher holders in “the poorest and most racially concentrated areas of the city,” allowing them to access resource rich schools, safe neighborhoods, and newer housing stock (personal communication, July 20, 2018). The Fair Housing Council hopes to increase housing mobility by providing counseling to section 8 voucher holders on the means to access housing in amenity rich areas. With pending support from the federal government, the Fair Housing Council would like to provide an extra layer of counseling by providing a list of available rentals in high opportunity areas with safe schools, safe neighborhoods, and a younger housing stock. The Fair Housing Council plans to partner with the city and county housing authorities in Milwaukee and Waukesha to recruit section 8 voucher holders and increase housing mobility.

Working to change legislation is only one of the many projects led by the Council, they are also working to increase the shared knowledge of housing inequality in the United States by encouraging people to read The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. The book describes the US federal government’s role in creating segregated communities and excluding many people of color from owning homes.  Through the work of the Council, there are already 65 individuals signed up to host book clubs and reading circles throughout the city. According to Schneider Peragine people from various leadership positions in the city are taking part in the book clubs including archivists from the Pabst Mansion, Judge Patricia Gorence, local architects, designers, and planners. The Color of Law provides a history that is unknown to many people in the city and offers solutions to increase housing stability. Schneider Peragine believes “nothing will change without significant work, but we need to stop doing things the way we have always done them.” The Fair Housing Council accepts interns and volunteers that would like to be a part of the positive work they are doing in Wisconsin, especially people with skills in statistics.  They have appreciated a strong relationship with UW-Milwaukee programs and faculty in creating change throughout the state.

11th Annual Henry W. Maier State of Milwaukee Summit