Gunfire Trends in Milwaukee, 2017-2023

A review of the Milwaukee Police Department’s call logs indicates that gunfire more than doubled during the pandemic in much of the city. At the same time, the likelihood any given gunfire incident was accompanied by a 911 call reporting “shots fired” declined on the north side, but not the south side. Data from the first 5 months of 2023 shows a modest decline in gunfire compared to the height of the pandemic-era violent crime wave, but levels remain much higher than 2019.

The trouble with just measuring reported crime

Milwaukee’s use of ShotSpotter technology provides a unique opportunity to measure a specific kind of crime in a way that doesn’t entirely depend on crime reports. This is helpful because the likelihood that a given crime is reported to the police varies by time and place.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, violent crime spiked in many American cities. Milwaukee set three annual homicide records in a row. After recording 97 homicides in 2019, the city endured 190 in 2020, 193 in 2021, and 214 in 2022 (according to MPD annual reports). The previous record was 168 in 1991, when the city’s population was about 50,000 more than today.

The summer of 2020 also saw massive protests against police killings of Black Americans, following the murder of George Floyd by officers in Minneapolis. Estimates suggest that between 15 and 26 million adults participated in demonstrations across the country during May and early June, making them the largest in American history.

Local crime trends are almost always measured by counting police reports, but these are, by definition, merely reported crimes. The rate at which actual criminal incidents are reported to the police no doubt varies among communities, by type of crime, and over time. The intense scrutiny of policing during the summer of 2020 may well have altered many Milwaukeeans’ likelihood of contacting the police.

The pandemic crime wave coincided with increased controversy over policing, making the relationship between reported crime and actual crime rates even more uncertain. Still, we do have objective data on both occurrences and reports for one type of crime–gunfire.

ShotSpotter uses a network of acoustical sensors to detect and triangulate the locations of gunshots based on the resulting soundwaves. The system covers only a portion of Milwaukee–one section on the north side and a smaller section on the south side. From a technical perspective ShotSpotter seems fairly accurate. An independent quantitative audit of company-provided data found the system was 97% accurate with about a 0.5% false positive rate.

Politically, ShotSpotter is more controversial. Various national organizations criticize the program as an expensive form of police surveillance with little evidence of actual reductions in violence. On the other hand, many local Milwaukeeans, including community activist Vaun Mayes, Director of the Office of Violence Prevention Ashanti Hamilton, and Chair of the Fire & Police Commission Ed Fallone all expressed at least qualified support for the program in recent interviews with the Shepherd Express.

ShotSpotter trends

Every time the ShotSpotter system reports a gunshot, it is logged into the MPD 911 call log under the code “SHOTSPOTTER.” When a human calls 911 to report gunfire, it likewise is logged with the code “SHOTS FIRED.” Each report includes a timestamp and address.

All call log data is published publicly, but the Milwaukee Police Department only keeps 1 hour of incidents online. I obtained records from local software developer Nick Gartmann, who maintains a public repository of historic MPD call logs. He generously provided data covering December 2016 through May 2023, with a few gaps of missing data. The Milwaukee Police Department refused to tell me the boundaries of the ShotSpotter coverage area, but a public information officer did confirm that the coverage area remained unchanged throughout this period. Using the addresses from the call log, I was able to reconstruct the ShotSpotter service areas as shown below.

Roughly, the north side coverage area stretches from I-43 to about 50th St., between the Menomonee Valley to the south and Capitol Drive to the north. The much smaller south side coverage area stretches from about 9th St. to 27th St., from Greenfield Ave. on the north to somewhat south of Lincoln Ave.

ShotSpotter Coverage Areas

Beginning in the summer of 2020, the ShotSpotter data shows an enormous increase in gunfire on the north side coupled with a large increase on the south side.

The north side coverage area recorded an average of 16.1 shots per day in 2019, increasing to 29.6 in 2020 and 39.2 in 2021. Gunfire ticked down slightly in 2022, to 37.5 per day.

The south side coverage area is much smaller. It saw a daily average of 2.9 ShotSpotter reports in 2019. That increased to 3.8 in 2020 and 4.2 in 2021, before falling back to 3.8 last year.

In the month of May alone, ShotSpotter recorded 25 incidents per day on the north side in 2017, falling to 15 in 2018, and 16 in 2019. That jumped to 31 in 2020 and 46 in 2021, before dipping to 42 in 2022 and 36 in 2023. The pattern on the south side has been generally similar.

bar plot showing average daily ShotSpotter reports for each month, Dec. 2016 - May 2023

In 2023, ShotSpotter incidents through May are slightly down since last year in the north side and slightly up on the south side. Compared to Jan – May of 2019, ShotSpotter reports are still up by 172% on the north side, compared with a 48% increase on the south side.

Average ShotSpotter reports per day in City of Milwaukee coverage areas

yearannualJan – May
north sidesouth sidenorth sidesouth side
Analysis of MPD call logs by John Johnson. Records are missing for some days, so this show the average for available days in each period.

ShotSpotter incidents vs. reports

To get a sense of how often gunshots identified by ShotSpotter also result in a 911 call, I applied the following simple test. I drew a circle with a half mile radius around the ShotSpotter alert location. Then, I checked if a contemporaneous 911 call for “shots fired” had occurred at any point inside that circle. To account for delays in the ShotSpotter upload process, I included any call that occurred within 10 minutes either before or after the ShotSpotter timestamp.

The graph below shows the results in the north and south side coverage areas for the past 7 years.

Only a small fraction of gunshots are reported to the police. Based on this analysis, just 5.1%, or about 3,300 out of 63,900 ShotSpotter reports since 2017 have been accompanied by a 911 call reporting “shots fired” within 10 minutes and half a mile of the identified location.

In 2017, similar shares of ShotSpotter reports resulted in 911 calls on both the north and south side coverage areas. Since then, the trajectories have diverged.

On the north side, the share of shots accompanied with a 911 call has declined every year beginning in 2019. The share of calls being reported has dropped from 5.7% in 2017 to 3.6% in 2023 through May. That’s a decline of more than a third.

On the south side, the share of ShotSpotter reports accompanied with a 911 call hovered between 5.1% and 6.2% throughout 2017-2022. Through May of this year, it has shot up to 7.6%. Through the first 5 months of 2023, gunshots appear to be twice as likely to result in a 911 call in the south side service area than the north side service area. That gap didn’t exist before the pandemic.

bar plot showing proportion of ShotSpotter reports accompanied by a 911 call reporting gunfire, annual statistics for each service area


This data reinforces the importance of remembering that crime reports are just that–incidents residents actively choose to report to the police. In conversation, I’ve heard from many Milwaukee residents that they rarely report gunfire and property crime to the police, simply because they view it as a pointless and frustrating waste of time. This data analysis indicates that (1) only a very small share of gunfire incidents are ever called in to 911, and (2) that small share has declined even further on the north side of the city, as the frequency of shootings more than doubled during the pandemic.

Continue ReadingGunfire Trends in Milwaukee, 2017-2023

Two of Milwaukee’s corporate landlords are selling houses. One is making huge profits while the other is losing money.

Three large, private equity-backed corporate landlords operate in Milwaukee’s house rental market. All three began buying lots of Milwaukee houses in 2018 or 2019, and they ended 2022 owning just shy of 1,500 homes in total. The largest, VineBrook Homes, bought over 450 houses in Milwaukee last year, according to city parcel records.

But all three companies mostly ceased buying houses by late 2022, and in fact, two of the three have spent early 2023 selling houses. One of the companies, SFR3, has made double the money it spent to buy those properties. The other company, VineBrook, has actually lost money on these transactions. The third company, Highgrove Holdings, ended its buying spree months before the other two, and likewise hasn’t sold anything recently.

The different trajectories of these three companies give clues to their financial health, business strategy, and potential consequences they may have on Milwaukee neighborhoods.

In some ways SFR3 and VineBrook follow similar business models. Both are private companies which raise money by selling securities to qualified investors. Over the past few years, each has bought thousands of cheap houses across cities in the midwest and south.

In Milwaukee, each focuses on single family homes usually worth around $100,000. They mainly buy homes on the north side of the city–either north of Capitol Drive or west of 35th Street. VineBrook is much larger. At the end of 2022, they owned about 950 houses in Milwaukee and 27,000 across the country. SFR3 owned about 240 in Milwaukee, while their website claims “thousands of single-family rentals” in total. Neither are primarily flippers; instead, they follow a buy-to-rent business model.

Before 2023, I can find no records of VineBrook selling a single house in Milwaukee. SFR3 was more willing to flip their recent acquisitions, selling 14 in 2021 and 45 in 2022. Through mid-May 2023, SFR3 has recorded 25 more house sales and VineBrook 13.

I was able to directly compare the sale price with the purchase price in 23 of SFR3’s sales this year. They paid $2,084,630 for those 23 properties, owned them for an average of 67 weeks, and sold them for $4,218,000–a profit rate of 102%. Twenty of the houses were sold to an owner-occupier, according to transaction returns filed with the Wisconsin Department of Revenue.

Direct comparisons were possible for 11 of VineBrook’s 2023 sales, all of which took place between March 16th and May 12th. VineBrook paid $966,112 for these 11 properties, owned them for an average of 103 weeks, and sold them for $909,500–a loss of 6%. They only sold one of these properties to an owner-occupier.

SFR3 made a profit in each comparable home sale–not counting any rehab expenses. Their biggest gain came on a house they bought on the 1500 block of N. 57th Street, in the Washington Heights neighborhood. They paid $153,000 in November 2021 and sold it for $331,000 in February 2023.

VineBrook lost money in 6 sales and sold for more than they spent in 5. Their biggest gain was just $15,000. They paid $85,000 in June 2021 for a house on the 2900 block of N. 46th St, and they sold it for $100,000 in May 2023.

Their worst loss came just a few blocks away, on the 2300 block of N. 47th. That house was purchased out of foreclosure by an owner-occupier for $33,000 in December 2019. Then, that buyer sold to VineBrook for $109,000 in December 2020. VineBrook sold it to another owner-occupier for $50,000 in April 2023. This appears to be the rare instance where two owner-occupiers made out well at the expense of a private equity firm.

Why is SFR3 so much better at selling for a profit than VineBrook? It appears that SFR3 is both a savvier buyer and a more patient seller than its larger rival. Take those 23 SFR3 sale comparisons from this year. When SFR3 bought them, they paid just 89% of the then-assessed value of the properties. When they sold, they received 162% of the current assessed value. (Assessed values are based on property sales in the previous year or two.)

By comparison, VineBrook originally payed 115% of the assessed value of the houses it went on to sell in 2023. When it sold them, it received just 83% of the current assessed value.

SFR3 made shrewder purchases to begin with, but it also made more money by selling to owner-occupiers who are willing to pay top dollar. VineBrook apparently overpaid for houses to begin with, and it also appears to be selling hastily, usually to other landlords.

VineBrook’s troubles extend far beyond Milwaukee. In January, they forfeited $41 million in initial deposits after terminating purchase agreements to buy about 2,900 more houses (not in Wisconsin). This contributed to their $92.4 million net loss in the first quarter of 2023. By comparison, VineBrook reported a net loss of $2.7 million in the first quarter of 2022. VineBrook also faces challenges from rising interest rates. As of March 31, the company’s total debt was $2.6 billion, of which $1.9 billion was in floating interest rate loans.

In an April 2023 letter to shareholders, VineBrook’s CFO described their intention to “opportunistically pursue dispositions that offer the ability to recycle capital into accretive opportunities and reduce our exposure to sub-scale markets. In addition to using net proceeds from sales to further fund our revitalization program, we intend to use the remaining net proceeds to de-lever the Company, improving our balance sheet and the strength of the Company.”

In plain English, the company intends to spend 2023 selling houses in order to pay off debt.

Highgrove Holdings and SFR3 aren’t required to make the same kinds of detailed financial disclosures, so we have less insight into the health of their balance sheets. Still, the fact that SFR3 only sells their homes for substantial profits, while Highgrove has sold nothing at all, suggests that they don’t currently face the same financial crunch as VineBrook.

As Milwaukee’s home rental market grows more consolidated, we may see more situations where large landlords facing financial difficulties seek to offload many properties at once. VineBrook’s current willingness to sell their houses at relatively cheap prices has mainly just benefited other landlords. The house on 47th Street described above is the exceptional case in which VineBrook’s struggles actually benefited a local homeowner.

Continue ReadingTwo of Milwaukee’s corporate landlords are selling houses. One is making huge profits while the other is losing money.

New dataset traces Milwaukee’s long foreclosure crisis

The dramatic consequences of the late 2000s subprime mortgage crisis on Milwaukee neighborhoods are well known, but specific data on foreclosures has been remarkably difficult to come by.

Previous studies have documented plummeting homeownership across the city (particularly on the north side), followed by a surge in out-of-state investment. But researchers have lacked public data on how many foreclosures occurred, who initiated them, which properties experienced them, and the subsequent ownership history of those parcels. To fill that gap, I have assembled a novel dataset of residential foreclosures matched to city parcel records for the years 1995 through 2022. This includes all detached single family homes, condos, duplexes, and triplexes. See the data note at the end of this article for details.

From 1995 through 2006, the city saw an average of 800 house foreclosures a year. Then, in 2007, there were over 1,300 foreclosures. That jumped again to almost 2,500 in 2008. During the decade of 2007-2016 my records show a total of 21,500 foreclosures.

The pandemic, with its attendant boom in home values, saw foreclosures drop to their lowest levels since at least 1995. I found records of 351 foreclosed homes in 2020, 393 in 2021, and 434 in 2022.

Over the past 3 years, foreclosures by lenders have declined, likely because rising home values mean that few homeowners find their mortgages underwater. A homeowner struggling to make their mortgage payment can often avoid foreclosure by selling the house for a profit.

By contrast, foreclosures over delinquent taxes grew from 72 in 2020 to 138 in 2021, and 211 last year. As property values increase, the number of owners struggling to pay their tax bill may be increasing.

bar plot showing the total number of tax and mortgage foreclosures per year

The wave of foreclosures during the housing crisis was geographically concentrated in poor and majority nonwhite neighborhoods. In 2012, for instance, the 3rd aldermanic district (covering the east side) experienced 54 foreclosures, or a rate of 8 per 1,000 houses. The neighboring 6th district simultaneously saw 217 foreclosures, a rate of 24 per 1,000. Meanwhile, homes in the 15th district (covering parts of the near west and near north sides) were foreclosed on at a rate of 35 per 1,000 just in 2012 alone.

small multiple maps showing the annual rate of foreclosures in Milwaukee aldermanic districts

The cumulative effect after a decade of unrelentingly high foreclosure rates is mindboggling. Citywide, 14% of all houses experienced at least one foreclosure from 2007 to 2016. In Sherman Park and Washington Park, more than 3 out of every 10 houses were foreclosed on. Other parts of the city escaped practically unscathed. In the Upper East Side, fewer than 1-in-25 homes were foreclosed.

The map below shows the cumulative 2007-2016 foreclosure rate for each residential block in the city with at least 10 houses. Blocks shaded in blue experienced no foreclosures at all during the decade. The more than 500 blocks shown in the darkest shade of red experienced foreclosure rates of 32% or more. In 33 blocks, more than half of houses were foreclosed on between 2007 and 2016. And on the 2400 block of North 44th Street fully three quarters of homes—21 out of 28—received a foreclosure.

detailed map showing block level cumulative foreclosure rates from 2007-2016

Needless to say, the wave of foreclosures closely follows the declines in owner-occupancy since the Great Recession. Of all the properties which received a foreclosure between 2007 and 2016, 62% (over 13,000 homes) were owner-occupied at the beginning of the year in which the foreclosure occurred, according to city parcel data.

Often, foreclosed properties during this period were sold at auction or at bargain prices to cash buyers. Once outside the owner-occupied housing market, houses often remained held by investors. Since about 2018, several corporate landlords with private equity backing have assembled large portfolios in these neighborhoods, largely by consolidating the holdings of the smaller landlords who preceded them.

Foreclosures cast a long shadow, and the effects of the subprime mortgage crisis are still shaping many Milwaukee neighborhoods more than a decade after the Great Recession officially ended.

Data note

This foreclosure dataset combines several sources. Foreclosure records from 1995-2016 are sourced from an owner history dataset maintained by the Milwaukee City Assessor’s office. (Special thanks to Jeff Arp for his help). Records from 2017-2022 are from the Real Estate Transaction Returns filed with the Wisconsin Department of Revenue. I matched each source dataset to city parcel records, which allowed me to standardize addresses as well as identify the property type and ownership status at various points in time. In all likelihood, this dataset undercounts the true number of foreclosures because some foreclosure records could not be matched to parcel data or were otherwise missing.

Researchers and community groups are encouraged to explore the data for their own uses. Files are available at Please direct questions to

Continue ReadingNew dataset traces Milwaukee’s long foreclosure crisis