How do you revitalize a neighborhood that’s faced years of vacancy and disinvestment without displacing the people who call it home? It’s a problem that Milwaukee’s Northside Housing Initiative has been tackling for the last eight years.
The Northside Housing Initiative (NHI), a project of national developer Gorman & Company, is in the business of restoring tax foreclosed houses. Formerly a booming neighborhood for industrial workers, the north side has seen high rates of vacancy in recent years, following the national housing crisis and the Great Recession. As part of the still-ongoing initiative, the city of Milwaukee acquires foreclosed houses for $1 and donates them to the NHI, which carefully refurbishes them over the course of about six months. Not all of the houses are historic, but roughly 20 percent date from 1910 to 1925, and their styles range from bungalows to Queen Anne to Victorian Revival.
“You do find some that are really in pretty good shape, they still have some pretty good bones to them,” says Marc Ott, lead architect for the Wisconsin market at Gorman, of the historic homes refurbished as part of the initiative. “And then of course you find some that are in the far, complete opposite end, really not habitable at all.”
He says that making sure that the heating and cooling, plumbing, and electrical systems are safe and up to code takes top priority in the rehab projects. Gorman & Company has completed eight phases of the initiative thus far, with a ninth slated for the spring of 2017. They’ve refurbished over 300 structures, including single-family homes and duplexes, to date, taking advantage of low-income tax credits to help finance the work.
Ott says that keeping the historic fabric of the neighborhood intact is also something that the NHI strives for. “We do take time and research the whole block and try to make sure it [the house] fits in and the color scheme is appropriate and etcetera,” he says.
One of the project’s essential components is a workforce development program, in partnership with the Northcott Neighborhood House, a local nonprofit that works with low-income or out-of-work community members. Northcott keeps a list of re-entry candidates who have committed felonies and are trying to get back on their feet post-incarceration, and works with NHI to train interested individuals in the areas of carpentry, electrical, HVAC, or plumbing, as well as providing them with a core curriculum at Milwaukee Area Technical College. Ted Matkom, Wisconsin Market President at Gorman & Company, explains that at the end of their training, people in the program have an opportunity to pursue an apprenticeship in their field of choice.
A duplex built in 1910 gets restored in 2012.
“Our goal is to have them pass the competency test to get into an apprenticeship in those trades,” he says. “Once they pass that, with our credit from the training program, they can get an apprenticeship job with a local union.”
The north side of Milwaukee has seen a shift in recent years due to the new Century City project, a formerly vacant A.O. Smith car parts factory that the city is in the process of transforming into an office park, at an estimated cost of around $40 million. While the new development should be economically beneficial for the area in theory, the city doubled down on its commitment to keeping longtime residents from being pushed out of the neighborhood by rising housing costs by partnering with the Northside Housing Initiative to rehab homes in direct proximity to Century City. It’s part of a larger plan to keep the North Side affordable for those whose families, in some cases, have called it home for generations.
“You can really see that this was probably the quintessential working neighborhood back in the ‘20s and ‘30s and ‘40s, with all the industry that was happening in Milwaukee,” Ott says. “Unfortunately, through the years and economics and whatnot, they’ve just transitioned, and people weren’t able to keep them up.”
For residents like Willie Bounds, who has called Milwaukee home his whole life, the house he’s renting through the Northside Housing Initiative provides more than enough room for him and his daughter. “I’ve never had a house with a basement before,” he says, laughing. “I really love the extra space.” He pays $950 a month for a four-bedroom, four-bathroom house.
“It really gives a lot of pride to the neighborhood,” Ott says of the project’s benefits. “It’s one thing to give someone housing. If you can give someone good quality housing that they’re proud to bring people back to—it’s been very fulfilling to see, as we work through these nine phases, how we evolve, how the community’s kind of taken hold of it, been proud of it.”