Milwaukee’s population loss in the 2020 Census surprised some, but makes sense on closer examination

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The 2020 census found a population decline of 17,611 in the City of Milwaukee since 2010. This 3% population decline came as a surprise because it exceeded recent estimates based on other data. Some observers—most prominently from City Hall—have suggested the Census Bureau undercounted Milwaukee. This concern is worth taking seriously given the difficulties of the pandemic and the Trump administration’s ultimately unsuccessful but well-publicized efforts to include a question about citizenship on the census.

However, a careful consideration of the census data shows no real evidence for an undercount. On the contrary, the 2020 census count is consistent with long-observed facts about Milwaukee’s demographic trajectory and other, independent data sources.

A big reason why a shrinking population feels intuitively wrong to many Milwaukeeans is that some parts of the city really are growing—specifically the places people most often visit. Continue reading “Milwaukee’s population loss in the 2020 Census surprised some, but makes sense on closer examination”

Out-of-State Investment in Milwaukee’s Home Rental Market

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(Click here to download the entire report.)

I bought a home last year in Milwaukee’s Uptown neighborhood. It’s a nice place—one  I’ve come to see as quintessentially Milwaukee. Kids walk to the playground at the end of the block. Adults walk to the coffeeshop. The mostly interwar-built houses are sturdily constructed on small lots. Typically, they’re worth about $30,000 less than the citywide average, so it’s the kind of place many people can comfortably afford to live. Since moving in, I’ve enjoyed getting to know my neighbors—school district employees, a firefighter, a welder, a guy who assembles circuit boards, the lady who feeds the cats. For a researcher like myself, meeting my neighbors hasn’t just meant striking up conversations on the sidewalk. I’ve also dug into the property records of the houses near mine. In doing so, I’ve learned that locals aren’t the only people interested in Uptown.

Since 2018, LLCs based outside Wisconsin entirely have purchased dozens of houses near mine. Ohio-based VineBrook Homes, Milwaukee’s most aggressive home buyer, owns five houses within three blocks of mine (part of the nearly 350 they have purchased citywide so far). Another national company, SFR3, owns several more. Sometimes the ownership is obscure. The duplex at 2702-04 North 49th Street is owned by “2704 N 49TH ST 53210 LLC.” This particular LLC lists an owner’s mailing address in San Francisco. I’ve lost track of the number of flyers I’ve received encouraging me to sell my home. One Friday night, someone even called my cell phone, offering to buy my house.

My neighborhood is one small part of a wave of single family home and duplex purchases by large corporate investors, often with Wall Street backing. Continue reading “Out-of-State Investment in Milwaukee’s Home Rental Market”

The Washington, D.C., Issue of the Marquette Lawyer Magazine 

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2020 Summer Cover

Amid all the global disruptions that started in March, Marquette Law School moved forward effectively in teaching students to be lawyers and in offering, as best we could, the public engagement we are known for. One important aspect of the latter is the release of the new issue of the Marquette Lawyer magazine, produced with a few internal procedural adjustments, but no change in schedule or in our commitment to provide high-quality reading to Marquette lawyers, all lawyers in Wisconsin, and many interested others.

Washington, D.C., is the focus of the new issue. The Washington that’s in Continue reading “The Washington, D.C., Issue of the Marquette Lawyer Magazine “

Why isn’t Racine part of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Statistical Area?

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The Milwaukee Metropolitan Statistical Area (“The Milwaukee Metro”) consists of Milwaukee, Waukesha, Washington, and Ozaukee counties, but not Racine County. Why not? Racine County, home to Wisconsin’s fifth largest city, lies just to the south of Milwaukee County. The answer to this question reveals much about the economic geography of southeastern Wisconsin. Despite its close physical proximity to the Milwaukee Metro, Racine County still lacks economic integration with its neighbor to the north. There are doubtlessly many ways in which Racine is part of the “Greater Milwaukee Area,” but workforce connectivity (the key metric used to define metro areas) is not one of them.

Understanding core based statistical areas

Metropolitan Statistical Areas are a vital concept for understanding American cities because the legal boundaries of “central cities” vary so much from one place to another and because the cultural, economic and social web of a city extends well beyond wherever those political boundaries calcified. Since 1949 the federal government has defined what are currently called “core based statistical areas” (CBSAs). A CBSA containing at least one urbanized area with at least 50,000 or more residents is a “metropolitan statistical area.” Smaller CBSAs are “micropolitan statistical areas.” As the term “core-based” suggests, Micro- or Metro-politan areas are centered around one or more principal cities. The most populous municipality in each CBSA is a principal city by default, but additional cities are designated principal cities if they draw large numbers of commuters in their own right. The Los Angeles metropolitan area has 19 principal cities, for instance. The Milwaukee Metro has two principal cities–Milwaukee and Waukesha.

The boundaries of core based statistical areas are defined using commuter flows. There are two main ways for a place to be part of a CBSA. One way is to be a commuter hub–a principal city–drawing in workers from the rest of the region. In an MSA with multiple principal cities, each will act as an interconnected hub, with large numbers of workers commuting each direction every day. As I wrote in 2017, “Milwaukee city attracts the most workers—some 125,000 in total. Still, nearly 95,000 people leave the city for work every day. Thirty-thousand of them go to Waukesha county, while 30,000 in Waukesha commute to the city of Milwaukee. The net-worker balance between Milwaukee city and Waukesha county is virtually equal.” The other way for an area to be part of a CBSA is as a commuter suburb. Some places attract very few outside workers, but provide a large number of employees for other towns. Muskego in Waukesha county is a good example. Eighty-five percent of its workers commute somewhere else, and the town’s population shrinks by about 30% during the workday.

Few workers commute from Milwaukee or Waukesha to Racine

Given this criteria, Racine County is in an odd situation. Like Waukesha, it has a principal city of its own. Reflecting this, about two-thirds of workers from Racine and Waukesha counties alike commute to work within their county of residence. This is much more than Washington or Ozaukee counties where just half of commuters work in their county of residence. Again like Waukesha county, Racine county does send more than a few workers to the Milwaukee metro. Seventeen percent go to Milwaukee county and 6 percent to Waukesha. But this relationship is not reciprocal. Just 1 percent of Milwaukee county workers commute to Racine, compared to 14 percent going to Waukesha. Waukesha sends 28 percent of its workers to Milwaukee but just 1 percent to Racine.

Racine County has a one-way commuter relationship with the Milwaukee metro area. The City of Racine is a commuter hub locally, but its pull does not reach far. Thirteen Milwaukee county workers commute west to Waukesha county for every 1 who travels south to Racine County.

Racine doesn’t do much better with its southern neighbor Kenosha county, either. Kenosha county is classified as part of the Chicago MSA. About 27 percent of its workers travel to Illinois compared to just 11 percent who work in Racine.

The boundaries of metropolitan statistical areas are intended to describe reality, not shape it. In the future, Racine’s economy may become intertwined with Milwaukee’s in the same way that Milwaukee and Waukesha have grown into a single economic unit. The Foxconn project could be the catalyst needed to make this shift (if it is ever completed). In the meantime, however, Racine remains a close cousin, if not a sibling member of the Milwaukee Metro.

graphs showing commute flows between counties in SE Wisconsin

Milwaukee’s 2020 Property Assessments take their largest jump since 2006

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The 2020 total value of Milwaukee’s tax base is $31.4 billion, up $2.2 billion from 2019, but still $4.1 billion less than the peak in 2007. The city’s total assessment grew 7.6% from 2019 to 2020. This is the largest year-over-year increase since 2005-2006.

Unless stated otherwise, all values in this post are adjusted for inflation to current (2020) values using the Consumer Price Index.

In unadjusted (“nominal”) dollars, the city’s total 2020 valuation exceeded its 2008 peak for the first time. Homeowners who bought their properties near the top of the pre-Recession market will be glad to see their home values approach the sale price, but apart from this the nominal dollar comparison has little value.

line graph of Milwaukee's total assessed property tax base

By law, the assessments released in April 2020 are intended to reflect the value of the property on January 1, 2020, so they do not take into consideration the current economic turmoil facing the entire nation. As research from the Public Policy Forum has shown, municipalities in Wisconsin are disproportionately dependent on property taxes compared to local governments in other states. Usually this lack of a diversified income stream is a bad thing, but in this case it may shelter municipalities from even worse fiscal fallout for at least another year.

The residential picture

The average residential property assessment in 2020 was $115,700. The median home’s assessment grew 9.9% from 2019 to 2020, or $9,800. Home valuations increased for 82% of homes and decreased for 12%.

Among neighborhoods with at least 200 homes, values grew the most in Brewer’s Hill ($46,000 on average). Murray Hill, on the other side of the Milwaukee River, saw the largest decline ($9,000). Other neighborhoods with large increases include Harambee, Mount Mary, Maple Tree, and Riverwest. In addition to Murray Hill, property values declined in Riverside Park, Uptown, Clock Tower Acres, Granville Station, Washington Park, and Sherman Park.

There are a handful of neighborhoods where property values in 2020 are higher than in 2007. They include neighborhoods near the Lake such as Bay View, Fernwood, Harbor View, the Historic Third Ward, and Yankee Hill; the two near-north side neighborhoods of Triangle and Triangle North; and a cluster of far-northwest side developments near Dretzka Park.

These neighborhoods are by far the exception to the general trend. As of 2020, the median home in Milwaukee is assessed at 73% of it’s value in 2007–an average decline of $42,000.

Maps of property value changes by block

Click here for an interactive table showing the median values of residential properties in each Milwaukee neighborhood for the years 2000, 2007, 2019, and 2020.

One More Concern: Will Milwaukee Miss Its Moment?

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This summer was going to be Milwaukee’s “coming out” party. With the Democratic National Convention coming to town in July, the Milwaukee Bucks poised to play for a championship, the rest of the country—even the world—would have a chance to see Milwaukee in a different way. As a city on the rise; as a community that never fails to surprise its visitors; as a place that turns new arrivals into the city’s biggest cheerleaders. It would be our chance to drive a stake through the heart of cringe-worthy, decades-long associations. Milwaukee: the home of Laverne and Shirley. Milwaukee: the home of Jeffrey Dahmer.

The DNC convention and the NBA playoffs have yet to be canceled. But the specter of the COVID-19 pandemic is real and makes you wonder. Will the coronavirus cause Milwaukee to miss its moment? More disturbing, could it reverse a new momentum in the city and exacerbate our most difficult challenges?

In a world of social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and ventilator shortages, those questions rightfully pale in comparison to life and death matters, and questions about how to deal with a serious public health threat. But in addition to thoughtful planning and strong civic leadership, a city’s destiny is determined by a fair amount of serendipity, or at the very least, good timing. Before the coronavirus hit, Milwaukee was poised for a very special summer. Continue reading “One More Concern: Will Milwaukee Miss Its Moment?”

Milwaukee traffic accidents reach a new high in 2019, growing 65% since 2011

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A recent article by the Wisconsin Policy Forum details a disturbing increase in auto deaths among Wisconsin African Americans.

From 2013 to 2018, the motor vehicle crash fatality rate for black, non-Hispanic Wisconsinites nearly doubled on an age-adjusted basis, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control (see Figure 1). In raw numbers, motor vehicle deaths for black Wisconsinites increased from 31 in 2013 to 39 in 2014, 56 in 2015, and 62 in 2016. They hit a high of 79 in 2017.

This trend in fatal crashes coincides with a significant and ongoing increase in the total number of traffic accidents occurring in the City of Milwaukee. In 2011, MPD reported 10,616 accidents. By 2019, this had risen to 17,568.

Traffic accidents by month

Accidents have increased uniformly across every hour of the day and each day of the week. Sunday consistently has the fewest accidents and Friday has the most. In 2011 there were 26 accidents on the average Sunday and 32 on a normal Friday. In 2019 the average Sunday had 42 accidents; Fridays had 53.

average traffic accidents by day of the week

The afternoon rush hour (4-5pm) causes the most accidents. 781 accidents occurred during these 60 minutes in 2011. In 2019, 1,379 did.

Every hour of the day saw double-digit percentage increases in traffic accidents from 2011 to 2019. But the wee hours of the morning underwent the smallest jumps, while the late afternoon and early evening experienced the biggest. Accidents from 2 to 3am increased 15%; they surged 98% during the 8pm hour.

Total annual traffic accidents by hour


The data in this post is from this City of Milwaukee dataset. It was downloaded on February 25,  2020. Reportable traffic accidents include all incidents causing either (1) injury or death, (2) least $200 of non-vehicle damage to government property, or (3) at least $1,000 of damage to any one person’s property.

Fresh Thoughts on How to Close the Pre-Kindergarten Learning Gap

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(This is a lightly-edited version of a column I wrote for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that ran in the Dec. 8, 2019, print edition.)

Dana Suskind is a surgeon at the University of Chicago whose specialty is providing kids who have little or no hearing with high-tech cochlear implants that allow them to hear much better. But she noticed about a decade ago that some of her young patients had much better outcomes than others after receiving the implants.

Dana Suskind
Dana Suskind

“It was a really painful experience to watch” kids who now could hear but weren’t thriving. She worked to find the reason. Her conclusion: The problem “had less to do with their hearing loss and more to do with the environment into which they were born.” Generally, their lives were shaped by poverty, instability, high stress and limited exposure to experiences that are intellectually and emotionally beneficial.

Much the same is true for millions of children who are born with normal hearing. By the time they reach kindergarten, they are nowhere near as ready for school as children who with better lots in their early years.

Suskind became founder and co-director of a project called Thirty Million Words. The name came from a study from several decades ago that concluded that, by the time they reached school age, low-income children had heard 30 million fewer words in every-day conversation than children from higher income homes. This limited their educational readiness. Continue reading “Fresh Thoughts on How to Close the Pre-Kindergarten Learning Gap”

Conference Gives Milwaukee a Good — But Not Great — Progress Report as a Water Hub

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Ten years ago, Marquette Law School sponsored a conference, “Milwaukee 2015: Water, Jobs, and the Way Forward.” Speakers at the conference, including Wisconsin’s then-Gov. Jim Doyle and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, put forward a vision of Milwaukee becoming a world leader in water expertise with a Milwaukee area economy boosted by an influx of water-based jobs and companies.

On Nov. 5, 2019, a decade later almost to the day, the Law School convened a follow up conference (titled “Milwaukee 2025: Water, Jobs, and the Way Forward”) with some of the same speakers, as well as others, to ask how things have been going and what lies ahead.

How would you rate Milwaukee’s record on becoming a water hub? Mayor Barrett responded that the area has moved in the right direction. “I won’t give us an A plus, I’ll give us a solid B for moving in that direction,” he said. “We have changed the perception of Milwaukee in a significant way in the last 10 years.”

Marquette University President Michael R. Lovell, a major proponent of the emphasis on water, said the goal in 2009 was to make Milwaukee a global center of excellence for all things related to water, “something like the CDC for water,” a reference to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Lovell said, “We have not gotten there yet; we are still striving to do so.” Milwaukee should be proud of what has been done, including the creation of The Water Council, the Global Water Center, and the School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Lovell said. Continue reading “Conference Gives Milwaukee a Good — But Not Great — Progress Report as a Water Hub”

What’s going on with Milwaukee’s population [update]

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Last month I wrote about how Milwaukee’s population has fallen by around 5,000 since 2015, erasing the city’s tepid growth in the first half of the 2010s. Today, the Census released its latest 1-year estimates from the American Community Survey (ACS). They cover the year from July 1, 2017 to July 1, 2018.

The ACS estimates Milwaukee lost 3,363 individuals from 2017 to 2018, with a margin of error of 85.1 This places the city’s total population at 592,002. An alternative federal program uses administrative records and a survey of housing units to estimate population.2 It places the city’s 2018 population at 592,025.

All Census products now agree that Milwaukee has experienced negative population growth since 2010.

The main driver of Wisconsin’s population loss are shrinking numbers of (non-Hispanic) white residents. ACS estimates suggest that the white population declined by about 4,000 each year since 2015.

For the first time, it appears Milwaukee’s black population is also declining. 2018 was the second year this decade in which the annual Census estimate of black population change since 2010 fell outside the margin of error. In 2018, there were probably around 11,000 fewer black residents living in Milwaukee than in 2010.

Even Milwaukee’s Asian population, which had shown strong signs of growth in the first half of the decade seems to be leveling off. Only the Latino population shows signs of consistent growth. The number of “Hispanic or Latino” residents of any race has grown by about 17,000 over the course of the decade thus far.

  1. 90% confidence interval
  2. The Population Estimates Program (PEP)’s methodology is available here.

What’s going on with Milwaukee’s population?

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The US Census Bureau releases two main annual estimates of population. Both indicate the City of Milwaukee’s population has slipped in recent years. This is a reversal of gains made in the first half of the 2010s.

The most current statistics are from the Population Estimates Program (PEP).1 These numbers are calculated using a combination of administrative records and a recent estimate of housing units. Details are available here. According to this method, Milwaukee’s population grew from 594,500 in the 2010 census to 600,700 in the summer of 2014. By the summer of 2018, this had fallen to 592,000.

The second method used by the Census Bureau is the American Community Survey (ACS), which replaced the long form of the decennial census after 2000. It is randomly distributed to 3.5 million addresses a year, and participation is mandatory.2 The ACS estimates that Milwaukee’s population reached 600,000 in July 2015 before falling to 595,000 in 2017 (the most recent data available).

Irrespective of method, the trend is the same. Milwaukee’s population grew steadily during the first half on the 2010s, but it has declined just as steadily since then.

Continue reading “What’s going on with Milwaukee’s population?”

Recent changes in one of the most polarized places in America

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More than a quarter of Wisconsin lives in Greater Milwaukee–the four counties of Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington. While these places are inextricably linked economically, they are famously divided politically. Writing in 2014, Craig Gilbert observed that the Milwaukee metro area might be the most politically polarized of all major cities in America. Based on the 2012 election alone, it was certainly among the top few.1

Much political commentary and analysis since 2016 has focused on declining Republican margins2 in suburban areas. Citylab classified every Congressional district by density and found that Democrats in 2018 flipped the House of Representatives due to their suburban gains. They picked up 9 seats in “dense suburban” areas, 13 seats in “sparse suburban” districts, and 5 seats in places with a “rural-suburban mix.”3

Even though no seats flipped in Wisconsin, the state nonetheless saw many political changes. In fact, the median community changed its vote preference by 14% from Obama’s reelection in 2012 to Tony Evers’ election in 2018. The remainder of this post explores how the Trump era has affected partisanship in this most polarized part of Wisconsin.

A note on measurement

To control for the see-saw nature of politics, most of the statistics I present are the “relative margin,” which is the partisan vote minus the statewide lean. First, I calculate the area’s vote margin (% Democrat minus % Republican); then I subtract the statewide margin. For example, the City of Waukesha voted 42% for Evers and 56% for Walker, so its absolute margin is -14%. The state as a whole had a margin of +1%. So Waukesha’s relative margin is -15% because it voted 15% more Republican than the state as a whole.


Since 1990, the Greater Milwaukee Area combined has voted Democratic in 5 out of 7 Presidential elections and Republican in 7 out of 9 Gubernatorial races. In his first three elections, Scott Walker won the Milwaukee Area by 47,200; 44,900; and 47,900 votes, respectively. In 2018 he lost by 17,600 votes. Since Tony Evers only won statewide by 29,227 votes, you could say Walker’s deteriorating support in the Milwaukee area cost him the election.

So what changed? Let’s first examine the vote in three broad swathes of the Milwaukee Area which collectively hold 85% of the region’s population.

  1. The City of Milwaukee, home to 595,000 people or about 44% of the population.
  2. Milwaukee County’s 18 suburbs, home to 357,000 people–about 23% of the population.
  3. Waukesha County’s 38 suburbs, home to 401,000 residents, or about 30% of the total.

Each of these areas has followed a different trajectory over the last few decades.

Consider the pre-Trump era. From 1990 to 2014, the City of Milwaukee grew steadily more Democratic. By the 2010s, Democrats in Milwaukee were beating their statewide performance by more than 50 points. On the other extreme, Waukesha County grew steadily redder. In the early 1990s, it usually voted around 26 points more Republican than the rest of the state. By the 2012/2014 elections, this had increased to 40. The Milwaukee County suburbs began the ’90s around 7% more Republican than the state, but gradually moved closer to the state average.

The two elections of the Trump era suggest things have changed. In Milwaukee City support for Clinton was even higher relative to the state average than it was for Obama in 2012. Conversely, there was a slight decline in the Democrat’s relative performance between the governor’s race in 2014 and 2018.

The big changes happened in the suburbs. In 2012, the Milwaukee County suburbs voted 4% more Republican than the rest of the state. In 2016, they voted 11% more Democratic. The shift between gubernatorial races was smaller (1% more Republican in 2014 compared with 6% more Democratic in 2018) but similarly abrupt and consequential.

Waukesha County experienced a strikingly similar trend. In 2012 it voted 41 points more Republican than the state overall. In 2016 this fell to 26 points. Likewise, Waukesha voted 40% more Republican than the state in Walker’s 2014 reelection, but this fell to 35% in his 2018 defeat.

Pre-Trump vs Trump-era

To get a better sense of the overall shifts from the pre-Trump to the current Trump era of partisan politics, I generated two statistics. First, I calculated the average adjusted margin of the 2012 and 2014 elections for president and governor (left map). Then I found the same statistic for the following elections in 2016 and 2018 (middle map). The difference between these two numbers shows a durable shift toward the Democratic party across nearly all Milwaukee Area suburbs, but the size of this shift varies considerably (right map).