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Case study in collaboration: Milwaukee Habitat’s role in stabilizing the Washington Park Neighborhood

By Julie Gurnon

The Washington Park neighborhood on the west side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has weathered its share of highs and lows over its 100-year history. One of those low points began three years ago, when the recession and the foreclosure crisis caused many residents to lose their jobs and abandon their homes.

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Teig Whaley-Smith opened Community Development Advocates in 2004 in Washington Park, the west-side Milwaukee, Wisconsin, neighborhood he grew up in.

Neighborhoods like Washington Park prompted the U.S. Congress to authorize the first round of the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, NSP1, in 2008, and the second round, NSP2, in 2009. The goal is to arrest the decline of neighborhoods suffering from the effects of the foreclosure crisis by providing federal funds to state and city governments and nonprofits.

Ever since Habitat for Humanity International was awarded $137.6 million in NSP2 funds, it has been working with seven affiliates, including Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity, to meet that goal.

One of the little-known objectives established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is for recipients of NSP funds to coordinate their work with other area-wide community development plans already established by local government agencies, businesses, nonprofits and residents.

Milwaukee Habitat’s use of NSP2 funds in Washington Park serves as a stellar example of how an affiliate can use its strengths in a coordinated approach to neighborhood stabilization and revitalization.

Becoming a spoke on the wheel
The comprehensive plan to stabilize Washington Park and other Milwaukee neighborhoods affected by the foreclosure crisis actually began in 2008 when Mayor Tom Barrett launched the Milwaukee Foreclosure Partnership Initiative.

Among the participants during the initiative’s planning stage were Milwaukee Habitat, a coalition of local businesses, nonprofits and residents dedicated to improving the quality of life in Washington Park, and Community Development Advocates, a company that provides legal and consulting services to community development corporations and nonprofits in Milwaukee.

“A strategy was developed about how we could access and utilize NSP resources,” said Teig Whaley-Smith, a Washington Park native and founder of Community Development Advocates. “Part of that strategy is getting the homes and vacant lands into the hands of groups like Milwaukee Habitat that are able to do something with it in a really fantastic fashion.”

With NSP2, Milwaukee Habitat will construct 100 new homes on vacant lots donated by the City of Milwaukee in the neighborhoods of Washington Park, Park West and Harambee.

The decision to focus on building new homes on vacant lots, rather than rehabilitating foreclosed homes, was based on the condition of the housing stock. Most owner-occupied units in Washington Park are two-story, single-family homes and over/under duplexes. The homes are badly deteriorated and environmentally unfriendly. The residents, many of whom earn low incomes, need energy-efficient housing to reduce their utility bills so they can afford to maintain the homes.

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View of a typical older home near Washington Park in the Park West neighborhood of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The photo was taken from the porch of a new Milwaukee Habitat home.

Although demolishing dangerous homes and preventing foreclosures are also part of the mayor’s initiative, organizations other than Milwaukee Habitat are focusing on those areas.

Working with neighborhood organizations
Few people know more about Washington Park than Teig Whaley-Smith. He grew up in the tight-knit, working class neighborhood at a time when most of his friends’ parents and grandparents worked at A. O. Smith, the nearby auto parts manufacturing plant.

He remembers the time in the early 1980s when layoffs at the factory and mortgages that were subject to the savings and loan scandal left the neighborhood looking, in many ways, like it does today. This memory, and his work at the Urban Communities Clinic while attending the University Michigan Law School, formed his passion for community development. After graduation, he brought the UCC model back to Washington Park, opening Community Development Advocates in 2004.

While the Milwaukee Foreclosure Partnership Initiative forges ahead, the Washington Park Partners have a plan of their own. Part of that plan includes a comprehensive housing program, and Milwaukee Habitat has been a key collaborator even before the foreclosure crisis hit.

“About seven years ago, several rental projects were going up, and we needed home ownership to be part of the mix,” Whaley-Smith said. “Milwaukee Habitat built about a dozen homes in the neighborhood on some key strategic blocks—near schools, near parks, near other community assets.”

Currently, Milwaukee Habitat is building near the United Methodist Children’s Services of Wisconsin, which offers a licensed childcare center, food pantry and clothing bank. The children’s center is across the street from the neighborhood’s namesake, the 124-acre Washington Park, which is home to the Urban Ecology Center, an urban environmental education project. The center, which opened in 2007, was the result of another collaboration that included Washington Park Partners.

“You can’t build a house on an island; it just doesn’t work,” Whaley-Smith said. “You build houses in communities, and Milwaukee Habitat has been part of a comprehensive strategy to determine where the houses should be located and what resources they can be connected to.”

Providing opportunities when none exist
The housing stock in Washington Park is a mix of rental and owner-occupied units. Many organizations are collaborating with the Washington Park Partners in one or more of their plan goals: assisting existing homeowners with improvements and maintenance, renovating or demolishing problem properties, improving rental housing and increasing home ownership.

“Every neighborhood strategy has to have home ownership,” he said. “We can’t do rental housing by itself. It is simply too much density, and there are too many issues involved, even with the best intentions.”

As Whaley-Smith puts it, homeowners are the stabilizing force in neighborhoods. Without them, no one has a long-term investment in the community, one that compels them to work with legislatures, police departments, school boards and businesses when issues arise.

“We can rehab 10 [abandoned] houses, but nobody is going to buy those houses unless there are other homeowners already on the block.”

That goal to increase home ownership is where Milwaukee Habitat’s expertise fits into the larger plan to stabilize and revitalize Washington Park.

“It’s not just that Habitat does home ownership better than anybody else, they are the only ones doing it,” he says. “The other resources that are available to do projects are all rental-based.”

The reason Milwaukee Habitat can offer home ownership opportunities to Washington Park residents is the combination of donations, volunteers, and zero-interest loans. It’s the only model in Milwaukee that can provide housing for people earning below 50 percent of the area media income. That’s important because NSP2 requires the affiliate to use at least 25 percent of the funds for residents in that income category.

“That’s what Milwaukee Habitat does and does very well,” Whaley-Smith said. “It takes that emerging family on their way up and makes sure they have the opportunity to own a home, rather than renting.”

Bringing people together to build community
Another significant contribution Milwaukee Habitat brings to the Washington Park collaboration is the opportunity for people of all backgrounds to come together and, in a tangible way, make a difference in their communities.

This is one cue that Whaley-Smith has taken from Milwaukee Habitat and integrated into his housing projects.

“What we failed to realize is the community-building aspect of volunteers, that people take ownership in a project, and then the entire neighborhood takes ownership in it,” he said. “You have the CEO of a Fortune 50 company out there swinging a hammer next to a homeowner and other volunteers. Neighbors we’ve never seen before come out of their houses during a Habitat Blitz Build and volunteer to help, or they start fixing up their own properties. It’s as close to magic as you can get in our industry.”

Whaley-Smith also credits the Habitat homeowners, who are often the ones who show up for community events and recruit other people to the neighborhood.

“I’ve yet to meet a selfish Habitat homeowner who says, ‘I have a home. It’s mine. I don’t owe anybody anything.’ They recognize that their opportunity is part of a broader movement and they are the ones joining that movement.”

People bring energy and momentum to a movement, Whaley-Smith says. Without them, all the plans in the world won’t amount to anything.

When the federal government established the objectives and requirements for NSP, it knew that long-term revitalization requires the work of many organizations across many focus areas. Milwaukee Habitat was working with local government agencies and nonprofits before it received NSP2 funds, and it will continue to do so long after. Only then will communities like Washington Park survive this crisis and, once again, thrive.

Julie Gurnon is the NSP2 writer for Program Communications, based in Americus.

Photo credits: Steffan Hacker