I was having lunch the other day with someone who works in city government, and we were talking about the serious foreclosure problem in Milwaukee. He was lamenting the fact that in some of the poorest sections of the city, the housing market is fundamentally broken. Homes, now owned by the city, can be purchased for as little as $5,000 and yet they still aren’t selling. If you want some sobering evidence of the magnitude of the nation’s housing market collapse and the impact of the Great Recession, check out the listings. They’re stunning, really.
Mayor Tom Barrett estimates the foreclosure crisis has cost Milwaukee $5 billion dollars in assessed value. The city has tried to get a handle on the problem, but it persists, eating away at once-stable neighborhoods. In 2008, the mayor launched the Milwaukee Foreclosure Partnership Initiative, which tries to prevent foreclosures and stabilize neighborhoods. There’s a branch of city government that directly addresses housing issues. And last week, the mayor announced he would be committing another $2.3 million to address the foreclosure problem. As part of that initiative, scores of empty homes will be torn down because they’re a blight on city neighborhoods. As a longtime Milwaukee resident, I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say the specter of Detroit came to mind when I heard the news.
But the next Detroit is hardly the image thousands of newcomers have of my hometown. After losing 20 per cent of its population from 1960-2000, Milwaukee is growing again. It’s not a population explosion, but it’s growth. Recent census numbers show that from 2010 to 2012, the city added 4,000 residents. What’s most interesting is who’s choosing to live in Milwaukee. Reporting by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (part of a collaboration with Marquette Law School) found that in the last decade, there has been a migration of young people to the city. Many are college graduates. They live downtown, on the city’s east side, and in “hot” neighborhoods like the Third Ward, Walker’s Point, Bay View, Brewers’ Hill and Washington Heights. Their presence has brought a new energy and economic vitality to parts of Milwaukee, with restaurants and shops racing to meet the demands of younger consumers. These newcomers are helping fuel a change in Milwaukee’s risk-averse entrepreneurial culture, and have created a dynamic arts and entertainment scene. Their arrival is also welcome news to established Fortune 500 companies like Northwestern Mutual, which is planning a new skyscraper for its downtown campus, along with hundreds of news jobs.
To be sure, none of this diminishes the enormous challenges our city faces. Can a city truly be great when some neighborhoods are so undesirable that homes sell for $5,000 or less, while others are so prosperous that apartments regularly rent for $2,000 a month or more? It’s hard to make the case for greatness when you have such jaw-dropping disparity in income and housing.
So what role, if any, should government play in addressing the challenges facing Milwaukee? During the last gubernatorial race, Governor Walker said other towns and cities in Wisconsin “don’t want to be like Milwaukee.” It’s true that you don’t have to travel far outside the city to hear that sentiment expressed, sometimes a bit more bluntly. It’s also true these other places can’t be like Milwaukee. We’re simply bigger and more diverse, our problems larger and more complex. But no matter how people feel about Milwaukee, its future matters. In a recent interview with the Cap Times, the retiring director of the University Research Park in Madison, Mark Bugher, said, “The secret to the Wisconsin economy is still Milwaukee.” Bugher is a Republican, a former member of Governor Tommy Thompson’s administration. “My advice to elected officials,” he said, “is to do all you can to help the Milwaukee economy, the school district, the infrastructure there. That will pay dividends for the balance of the state.”
There are no easy answers to Milwaukee’s foreclosure crisis. But Bugher’s larger observation is worth noting: Milwaukee, with its chaotic mix of dirt-cheap houses and million-dollar condos, its Fortune 500 headquarters and underemployed workforce, offers plenty of challenges. But it also offers plenty of potential. And it may offer Wisconsin its best chance for economic success in the future.