I recently attended a meeting of the West Allis Development Committee, curious about the plans for the area near 84th and Greenfield. It’s a well-known intersection, as it is the gateway to Wisconsin State Fair Park which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
Labeled the “84th and Greenfield Redevelopment Plan,” it has moved forward without much fanfare or input from the public — until now. The recent dust-up in New Berlin about low-income or workforce housing has moved the public to take a closer look at community redevelopment plans.
The West Allis plan focuses on the area directly across from State Fair Park, where homes and businesses were damaged beyond repair in the July 2008 floods. It will drastically change the look of the area, by acquiring and razing an abandoned restaurant, the Milwaukee Gray-Iron foundry and eight homes.
The city will use Emergency Assistance grants that it was awarded after the 2008 floods, Brownfield cleanup money and municipal bonds to acquire, raze and prepare the properties for sale. New sidewalks, lighting, bus stops and crosswalks will be paid for with the higher property tax revenues generated from the development. When all is said and done, the project is expected to cost just over $7 million.
The preferred development plan for the area includes a 104-room hotel on the corner of 82nd and Greenfield, three 40-unit apartment buildings and a 4 or 6-unit condominium. Four other variations include fewer apartments, more condos and retail and a professional office and medical complex in place of the hotel. West Allis officials project the development will provide 50-100 jobs, ranging from part-time to family wage positions.
Once construction is complete, the property values are expected to jump from $5.8 million to $12-$25 million, with property tax collections increasing from $141,000 to more than $500,000 per year.
It is the use of public funds and the prospect of 120 rental units in the neighborhood that have raised the eyebrows of some neighbors. Those neighbors have read the usage guidelines for the flood grant as requiring the city to give preference to people making 80 percent or less than the county’s median income, or about $36,722.
Jim Nickel lives three blocks from the proposed development and is concerned that his neighborhood will be overrun with low-income residents. “I don’t want it to turn into Northwest Milwaukee with that low-income housing,” he said. “Renters are a recipe for disaster and a burden on police.”
Low-income housing is not part of the current West Allis plan, but it could be if a developer comes forward who wants to build some. That’s what happened in New Berlin when a developer sought WHEDA funding to build the apartments. The term “workforce housing” was used, which citizens felt was simply a euphemism for “low-income.” This led to protests and the short postponement of the funding. WHEDA announced Friday it was giving the go-ahead for the “workforce housing” development.
Low-income housing is not a bad idea, it’s just had a lot of bad press. The misconception that affordable housing automatically equates to crime is an assumption that is both unfair and uninformed.
That mindset was challenged when Milwaukee City Council President Willie Hines released a statement about thepoor and housing accessibility. Much has been said about the “deal for water” in the statement – that New Berlin could tap into Milwaukee water in exchange for low-income housing. But the other message in Hines’ release is more important.
“Affordable housing is not code for slum, ghetto or crime,” Hines wrote. “I have read study after study on the relationship between crime and housing. Crime does not increase when affordable housing units are constructed.”
He added that the idea that low-income individuals and families are more inclined to commit crimes than to succeed at life is not the case. He referred to Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama, who rose from poverty to become presidents – a true “rags to riches” story.
Hines summed up his feelings by reminding the residents of New Berlin that just because a person happens to be poor it doesn’t mean that they are devoid of values or morally bankrupt.
In a time when vacant properties can become vibrant, revenue-producing neighborhoods, it sounds like Hines’ message needs to be shared with the neighbors in West Allis.
How would you feel if low-income housing was being built in your neighborhood? Should New Berlin and other cities wanting to tap into Lake Michigan water be required to increase job and housing opportunities to low-income residents? State your case.