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Economic disparities faced by communities of color draw congressional committee to Milwaukee

three people wearing hard hats
Chuck Quirmbach
Developer Que El-Amin (left) speaks with U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore (right) during a walking tour of The Community Within the Corridor.

This week, members of the U.S. Congress are taking a closer look at economic disparities between communities of color and white neighborhoods in southeastern Wisconsin. That look included a bus tour and congressional hearing in Milwaukee Tuesday.

Shortly after Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election, fellow Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi formed the House Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth. The panel has been on tour and this week, at the request of two Wisconsin committee members — Republican Rep. Brian Steil and Democrat Rep. Gwen Moore, they've been in Kenosha and Milwaukee.

The committee invited news reporters to come along on a bus tour of Milwaukee's predominately Black north side.

Chuck Quirmbach
Members of Congress on the bus tour included Rep. Bryan Steil (R-WI) (in blue shirt) and Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) (sitting behind Steil)

Reggie Jackson of America's Black Holocaust Museum told the tour that 50 years ago, Milwaukee had the seventh-highest median annual family income for Black people — about $50,000 in today's money.

"But nowadays, that median family income for Blacks in Milwaukee is less than $28,000. Our poverty rate, which was 22% below the national average for Blacks in 1970, is now 39% above the national average for Blacks. So, there's been a complete reversal of fortune," Jackson explained.

The sharp economic downturn of the early 1980s triggered the loss of many higher-paying manufacturing jobs, and the Great Recession that began 14 years ago led to more job loss and home foreclosures. Other factors like companies moving to the suburbs, and lower amounts of reinvestment in the north side have also fueled economic disparity there.

Chuck Quirmbach
Construction continues on the gymnasium at The Community Within the Corridor, near 30th and Center in Milwaukee.

But the bus tour also stopped at a sign of hope — a renovation of a former Briggs and Stratton factory near 30th and Center streets into nearly 200 units of affordable housing and business space. The project is called the Community Within the Corridor. During a walking tour, developer Que El-Amin showed off an indoor gym being built.

"So we have the sport courts in this bay, the next bay to my right. And, in the far corner will be playground equipment for younger age groups," El-Amin said.

Federal and state funds are helping pay for the project, parts of which are scheduled to open later this year. The congressional tour also went by smaller dwellings that have been renovated in recent years.

Chuck Quirmbach
An experts panel testifies at the Congressional hearing Tuesday at the downtown Milwaukee library.

But at a later hearing at Milwaukee's downtown library, experts testified about newer challenges to housing. Marquette University researcher John Johnson said ever since the Great Recession, big money, often from out of state, has been buying homes in the city.

"At first, these investors were mostly wealthy individuals. But they've recently been joined by large, equity-backed investors. The new entrants typically file evictions more often than local landlords, and they also hinder would-be homeowners by buying and selling properties in bulk," he said.

Johnson said before the recession, about four in five Milwaukee homes were owner-occupied. He said the number has slipped below 70%. The decline was steepest in majority Black neighborhoods, where owner-occupancy fell 17 percentage points.

The House Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth will write a report later this year, making recommendations. But what happens after that isn't clear. The GOP hopes to retake control of the House in the November elections, and could put the committee out of business.

Rep. Steil, from Janesville but whose district is being shifted to include more of southern Milwaukee County, acknowledged the economic disparities and said he hopes to find bipartisan ways to address them.

"So, sometimes, I believe strongly there are private sector solutions to this. Sometimes, other people hold different views. But often, there's areas where we can actually come together. And so, if you look at the history of our hearings, we've seen opportunities to come together," Steil told reporters.

Steil seemed, unlike most congressional Democrats, in believing that taxpayer-funded voucher schools are doing a better job of educating Milwaukee children as a way to eventually lift families out of poverty.

Chuck Quirmbach
A recreational trail is planned to run along this train track in Milwaukee's 30th Street Industrial Corridor. Backers hope it will increase local residents access to walking and bicycling, and that it will help signal re-investment in the area.

Rep. Moore, of Milwaukee, said she hopes the committee's work at least halts others from what she calls an oversimplification of the problem.

"'Oh, it's because these people don't want to work.'  Well no, we lost A.O. Smith. We lost Briggs and Stratton. Come and see, where these people who live here used to work. And so, I just really think , in order to get that buy-in, people need that aha moment."

Moore said access to good housing has traditionally been a way to build generational wealth. But she said once again, more people are having trouble reaching or holding onto the American Dream of home ownership.

Chuck Quirmbach joined WUWM in August 2018. He focuses his longform stories on health, innovation, science, technology, transportation, utilities and business.
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