Residents press Milwaukee mayoral candidates on housing concerns
Public safety, an impending pension crisis, education and housing were all topics on the table for the seven candidates at a Milwaukee mayoral candidate forum, co-sponsored by Listen MKE, Wednesday night.
Candidates gathered ahead of the primary election taking place this coming Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.
Milwaukee resident LaToya Woods asked how the candidates would address housing — affordability, slumlords and the racial gap in homeownership and homelessness.
Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson was asked to respond first. He said when the city first got the American Rescue Plan Act funds, he worked to make sure the city put $40 million of it into affordable housing. He also referenced tax incremental financing (TIF), a way for the city to use private development investment.
"When those TIF districts closeout then you take the increment in that last year, as legally we can do that, you take that money that you have in the city, you pair that money with philanthropic dollars, you pair that money with private sector dollars too, and you invest that money into the neighborhoods to address this issue around housing instability," Johnson said.
Journal Sentinel reporter James Causey then asked the candidates if they support the right to counsel for tenants in eviction cases.
Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic said she worked on that very issue when she was on the Milwaukee County Board. "To provide that initial funding and public dollars, the program got started to reduce evictions and provide people public assistance to the right to counsel in Milwaukee County. We started that program. And we got a lot of heat. People said don't use taxpayer dollars to help people defend themselves. We have to tip the scales in favor of justice. So that program started there," she said.
Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas chastised landlords like Youssef “Joe” Berrada, who’s being sued by the Wisconsin Department of Justice for alleged landlord-tenant violations. The Journal Sentinel reports that Berrada’s company filed more than 11% of the county’s eviction lawsuits last year.
"Why hasn't legislation been already put forth to prevent and close those kinds of loopholes for owners? The city has taken steps to address getting some of the housing stock off the city's role and put it back out for homeownership. I think that's a wonderful effort. We need to invest more into it to move people from occupancy to ownership," Lucas said.
Several candidates, including former Ald. Bob Donovan, would want to work with organizations like Habitat for Humanity. Donovan said he would also create a rent to own program.
"I have always been a believer that we don't have to reinvent the wheel. I think that there are excellent programs that have been successful in other communities. Any leader needs to bring those to Milwaukee, perhaps fine-tune it and make it work here," Donovan said.
State Sen. Lena Taylor said the city should start a program like one in Ensley, Alabama that trains high school kids to renovate and rehab homes. And at the end of the program, she said, students can buy one of the finished houses.
"We don't have 20% African American homeownership, not even 7%. And it's extremely dismal in a city that is majority people of color. So I want to see the kinds of programs that allow us to take the properties that we have before they become dilapidated, before they're sitting for three years and an eyesore." Taylor said.
But one of the candidates, businessman Michael Sampson, said people just need a roof over their heads.
"I mean, you can buy tiny houses on Amazon these days. So let's stop trying to build these big apartment buildings for affordable housing. And let's rethink things. Let's look at a smaller scale. Also, downtown developers, we got to start looking to the north and south sides. There's plenty of money in downtown. These developers have put up the same apartment complexes; we all know who they are, we all know what they look like, they all look the same. Let's get some of these on the north and south sides," Sampson said.
Others, like community activist Ieshuh Griffin, were concerned about high rents. She said she’d set up rental caps.
"In my Ieshuh for the People plan, I have MENDUS: Major Economic Neighborhood Development Under Supervision, which talks about the dollar houses that the city allows just sit. I would like to donate some of the houses to the homeless, to people who can't afford homes, you know. Also, in relation to seniors as homeowners, a lot of seniors have already paid their mortgages are being basically pimped by the government," Griffin said.
Griffin would also like to exempt seniors from paying property taxes.
The primary election for mayor is this Tuesday and two candidates will move forward and face off in April.