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A 'once in a generation opportunity': how American Rescue Act funds can address Milwaukee's affordable housing shortage

Milwaukee - city panorama seen from the north side
Henryk Sadura
Adobe Stock
Milwaukee - city panorama seen from the north side.

Every year, Milwaukee organizations create about 15,000 affordable rental homes, supportive housing homes, and affordable homes to buy under the area median income, according to the Community Development Alliance.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated the need for more affordable housing. A need that’s been evident long before the shutdown. There’s also a significant racial equity gap in homeownership. Over half of households in the city are spending 30% or more of their income on rent.

The city of Milwaukee is currently deliberating how to spend the first portion of federal money available through the American Rescue Plan Act. Brian Sonderman, executive director of Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity, is advocating that the city invest $120 million of these funds to increase access to affordable housing and homeownership.

"Right now the city of Milwaukee — really the region — is faced with an affordable housing crisis. We’ve known about this — it’s been decades in the making. Right now, one out of three Milwaukee renters spends over 50% of their income on housing," says Sonderman. "[This federal aid] is sort of a once in a generation opportunity ... to make an investment, a down payment if you will, towards addressing this problem."

The two major factors that have contributed to the housing shortage include low wages and high rental and housing costs across the city, according to Sonderman. He argues that there's a tremendous need for more homeownership opportunities in the city of Milwaukee right now.

As rising real estate values have continued to outpace wage increases, there's an approximate 32,000 housing unit gap that exists for homeownership in the city according to Sonderman. "We're talking about tens of thousands of units that are going to be needed over the next 10 years to meet, just meet, the current need of the community."

The Common Council is set to discuss and debate how to allocate the first $200 million dollars that has been received by the city of Milwaukee from the American Rescue Plant Act. Sonderman notes there's not one organization that is going to be able to tackle the affordable housing problem alone. From city departments and programs for down payment assistance, repair grants, and developing new units — it's going to require both public and private efforts.

Sonderman does point to one major asset the city has: a significant inventory of tax foreclosed homes. "They're a drain on city resources, but they're also an asset," says Sonderman. "If those homes were rehabbed and they were made available on an affordable basis to first time home owners with low to moderate income, that could be a significant game-changer."

Another asset already available is vacant lots waiting to be developed. "And the other thing I think the city has is both a base of non-profit and for-profit developers that are ready to go," he adds.

Sonderman has been with Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity since 2011, and he says that he's "never seen the number of applications that we're receiving on a monthly basis." In fact, it's about six to seven times as many applications compared to their pre-pandemic records.

This intense desire for homeownership is indicative of the changing conversation around affordable housing from Sonderman's perspective. Plus, he notes that stable and quality housing doesn't just have a short term impact on the families living in them, but a generational one.

"In terms of need, it's really, really intense right now. And it's another reason why we feel like this is a really advantageous time for the city to invest more in this area because there is such strong demand," says Sonderman.

Audrey Nowakowski is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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