On Thursday, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a complaint against the City of New Berlin. The complaint arises out of a series of events that led to the City’s denial of a “workforce” housing development proposal made by MSP Real Estate, Inc. (MSP). The DOJ alleges that the City of New Berlin ultimately denied the proposal on the basis of racial discrimination, in violation of Section VIII of the Fair Housing Act.
According to the complaint (which can be viewed here), on March 10, 2010, MSP submitted a development application to construct 180 units of affordable housing in what is known as New Berlin’s “City Center.” The proposal stated that the development would include 100 elderly units and 80 workforce housing units. The development was intended to be financed in part by the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, a program that allows a developer to sell tax credits to investors in exchange for the promise that the developer will rent the apartments for below-market rates to tenants who qualify. For this specific development, MSP was going to rent to individuals who made 40 to 60 percent of the median household income in New Berlin. In New Berlin, the median income as of 2000 was approximately $70,000, which means the proposed development would rent to individuals who made $28,000 to $42,000 a year.
On May 3, 2010, the New Berlin plan commission voted 4-3 to approve MSP’s application. The next day, the local media reported the approval, and residents of New Berlin began to voice their disapproval, with protests culminating at a local town hall meeting. (Some examples of the local opinions voiced at that meeting are here.) According to the complaint, Mayor Chiovatero also received threatening phone calls at his home, and had a sign that read “n—-r lover” placed in his front yard.
The complaint alleges that these events eventually led the Mayor to move for reconsideration of the approval, and the plan commission unanimously approved the Mayor’s motion to reconsider on June 7, 2010. This vote eventually led to a 90-day moratorium on any new development proposals, and effectively denied the MSP application. Now, the government alleges that New Berlin’s action violated § 3604(a) insofar as the City denied housing to individuals on the basis of their race when it voted against the MSP project.
Although it may seem like the complaint is based on income level, a class that is not protected by the Fair Housing Act, the complaint points out that minority households make less income annually, on average, than white households do. Further, minority households are more likely to be below the poverty line. Thus, these statistics, taken together with the allegations of racially based comments, will lay the groundwork for the theory that citizens of New Berlin opposed the project based on the belief that it would attract more minority residents. Liability might then extend to the City through the theory that the City denied the project to appease the citizens’ racially-based opposition.
Like the proposed development, the filing of this complaint has provoked feelings of strong opposition. These feelings come with good measure. The filing of the complaint implicitly calls New Berlin residents racist, and brings national attention to the City that is not favorable. To be sure, this post is not endorsing the belief that all residents of New Berlin are racists, or that the government is trying to make that allegation; however, these are inferences that the public will make upon learning about this complaint.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that Milwaukee is the third-most segregated city, and the Milwaukee metro area is the most segregated metropolitan area, in the Country. Census data show that Milwaukee County is only 54 percent white, whereas Waukesha County is approximately 90 percent white, Ozaukee is 93 percent white, Washington is 94.2 percent white, Racine is 74 percent white, and Kenosha is 78 percent white.
As problems of racial discrimination and separation continue on into 2011, perhaps the main question becomes whether integration will ever be an achievable goal for this country. It may be possible that the legal fight against racial discrimination has grown similar to the legal fight against drugs; no matter how hard one tries, people will always engage in the illegal practice. And no matter how hard one tries, perhaps racial integration is something that cannot be forced upon various communities in our society.
Housing discrimination and segregationist practices are problems that still plague the City of Milwaukee, the Milwaukee metropolitan area, and the United States as a whole. Although there are many individuals who either applaud or bemoan this lawsuit, most do so for incorrect, politically charged reasons. Segregation and racial discrimination are both issues that need to be addressed in Southeastern Wisconsin. At the very least, perhaps this complaint can bring attention to these problems and provide an impetus for people to work toward a solution to fix them.