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How New Berlin Affordable Housing Has Proven Its Opposers Wrong

Brian Jackson
According to John Eligon, low-income housing projects like the one in New Berlin are a model for how affordable living can be a benefit to an entire community.

One of the defining issues in the latter days of President Trump’s presidential campaign was low-income housing. The president claimed that President-elect Joe Biden would force suburban communities to build low-income housing, which Trump claimed would bring crime and lower home values.

These same issues were at the heart of a decades old dispute over affordable housing here in the Milwaukee area. A developer proposed a complex for low-income housing in New Berlin and sparked immediate controversy. But the predications of doom and gloom never materialized.

Reporter John Eligon wrote about what happened in New Berlin for the New York Times.

“I wanted to explore, like, what actually ended up happening in New Berlin and then whether President Trump’s greatest fears that low-income housing will bring crime and hurt property values, whether that could actually happen in a place like New Berlin,” says Eligon.

In New Berlin, people began to speak out against the housing complex. These people are often referred to as NIMBYs, which stands for Not In My Backyard. Eligon says these residents tended to be more affluent and white and they used much of the same rhetoric that Trump used on the campaign trail.

“There’s a racial element to a lot of it. In the sense that often times in our public imagination, affordable or low-income housing is associated with Black and brown people,” he says.

Residents of New Berlin who were against the project complained that the suburb would turn into the north side of Milwaukee if it was completed or that current residents worked hard to live in New Berlin and saw the affordable housing complex as a free handout.

"This can actually be a plus if done right and if every community takes on their fair share."

The reality is much more complicated. Studies have shown that people in affordable housing do not just collect government subsidies, they usually hold at least one job — a point brought up by the mayor who was pushing for the housing project when he called it “workforce housing." Another reality is not just Black and brown people live in subsidized housing. Many white people live in housing projects and the first low-income housing that was built was actually segregated and only allowed white people.

The housing built in New Berlin was completed in 2012, and now many residents say they just think of it as another apartment complex. Eligon spoke to residents who opposed the project at the time for his article.

“There was one man, who I write about in my article, who wrote a letter to the mayor saying, 'If I wanted to live next to ‘low-cost housing people’ I would have stayed in Milwaukee,' ” he says. “Now, he says it looks nice, you know, it’s completely fine and he said he regretted writing that letter.”

Eligon says that not everyone was as explicit in addressing the racial component of their opposition to the housing unit. Many tried to explain it through other ways, but most people admitted that it outperformed their expectations.

Despite these changes in opinions, many communities still hold the same beliefs about affordable housing bringing crime and people who will hurt their community, but Eligon says these more affluent communities are exactly where these housing projects thrive.

“Taking on one or two developments almost certainly will not bring, you know, a bunch of crime to your community, it won’t bring your property values down. What it will do is give people who are working, who are mostly working and hardworking people, it will give them an opportunity to live somewhere and it will also lift the burden from those communities that have to take every single last bit of affordable housing,” he says. “This can actually be a plus if done right and if every community takes on their fair share.”

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.