Residents Feared Low-Income Housing Would Ruin Their Suburb. It Didn’t.
Research has shown that tax-credit properties generally do not increase crime in affluent communities. They also tend to have little effect on property values in wealthy neighborhoods
Most working-age, able-bodied people receiving government assistance for housing have jobs or were recently employed, according to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
By John Eligon Nov. 5, 2020
NEW BERLIN, Wis. — When John Blaguski first heard about a proposal to build an affordable housing complex near his home in the Milwaukee suburb of New Berlin, Wis., his mind drifted to stereotypes of crime-ridden, shoddily constructed projects.
“If I wanted to live by low-cost housing people,” he wrote in an email to the mayor at the time, “I would have stayed in Milwaukee County.”
But now, eight years after a legal battle forced the city to allow the development to proceed, Mr. Blaguski, 62, said he regretted his visceral opposition.
The 102-unit complex is not the nuisance he had envisioned. When he drives by, he hardly notices it. And fears of a crime wave and plummeting property values — voiced by dozens of residents in public meetings — never materialized.
“I just shot from the hip on that and probably should have been more wary,” Mr. Blaguski said in a recent interview. “If they wanted to build another, more power to them.”
The story of the fight over affordable housing in New Berlin, a deeply conservative suburb about 15 miles southwest of Milwaukee, challenges a key pitch made by President Trump to voters in the suburbs — that “low-income” housing invites crime and hurts property values.
The reality in New Berlin is that the mixed-income development, surrounded by a pond, a farmers’ market and a library, is “really rather attractive,” said Mayor Dave Ament, who is white and staunchly opposed the project as an alderman a decade ago.
Still, while the complex, City Center at Deer Creek, may have defied expectations, it has not shifted the politics of New Berlin. Mr. Trump, who eliminated a regulation put into place under Barack Obama that could have spurred more affordable housing development in the suburbs and has not aggressively enforced fair housing laws, remains deeply popular.
And although Mr. Trump narrowly lost the state in this week’s presidential election, he captured about 59 percent of the vote in Waukesha County, which includes New Berlin, about the same amount he won four years ago.
To this day, residents hold lingering resentment over allegations that their opposition to the housing development was driven by racism. Many remain bitter at what they believe was improper meddling by the Obama administration.
“I don’t think they had any concern at all about whether or not people with limited incomes could live in New Berlin,” said Art Marquardt, 58, a resident since 1991. “I believe that they had a political ax to grind and that they wanted to push that into New Berlin just to start a fight.”
‘Our city is filled with prejudice’
Dozens of residents stepped to the microphone. It was June 7, 2010, and the city’s Plan Commission was holding its first public meeting since approving the affordable housing project a month earlier by a 4-3 vote.
It also had been nearly two weeks since Jack Chiovatero, the mayor at the time, wrote a blunt email to a constituent that caused outrage: “Our city is filled with prejudice and bigoted people who with very few facts are making this project into something evil and degrading,” he wrote.
Residents were appalled. Many insisted that their opposition had nothing to do with race, but instead with their belief that low-income housing did not fit the upscale vision that city officials had presented for the area where the development would be built.
“We built our brand-new home here because we worked hard to become residents of New Berlin — not because we got a handout, not because somebody paved the way for us,” one woman said.
One man described seeing an increase in crime when a “lower-income element” moved into his former Milwaukee neighborhood. “You put this low-income housing into this part of the city,” he said, and “I guarantee you this is what you’re inviting into our community.”
At least one resident wrote a letter teasing at fears that her city would turn into the North Side of Milwaukee, which is predominantly Black.
Mr. Chiovatero, who is white, said someone sprayed an anti-Black slur on his fence. A few residents, he said, privately told him things like “We don’t want those kinds of people here” or “I moved out of the city of Milwaukee — my neighborhood was turning Black, or my neighborhood was turning Hispanic.”
There was an assumption, too, that people who lived in low-income housing did not work. City officials and the developer perpetuated that myth by emphasizing that the development was “work force” housing and would attract working people, unlike “low-income” projects.
In fact, most working-age, able-bodied people receiving government assistance for housing have jobs or were recently employed, according to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The development proposed in New Berlin was relying on low-income housing tax credits, which were introduced in 1986 as part of the largest federal program for building new affordable housing. These developments are vastly different from the public housing projects the government built through the middle of the 20th century.
By the 1980s, the federal government had almost completely stopped building low-income housing, leaving it mostly to private developers through tax credits, said Edward Goetz, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Minnesota. Tax-credit developments, which must set aside a share of their units for people with low earnings, usually employ construction styles that mesh with the surrounding communities.
In New Berlin, neighborhoods consist primarily of tract housing with no sidewalks. Residents often leave their garage doors open, and over the years, they have openly feared that too much development could lead to the creation of direct bus routes to Milwaukee.
Research has shown that tax-credit properties generally do not increase crime in affluent communities. They also tend to have little effect on property values in wealthy neighborhoods, though a Stanford University study found that some nearby home prices fell in more prosperous communities.
One of the residents who spoke at that June 2010 meeting may have best summarized the community’s feelings when he explained that he had seen firsthand the negative impact of low-income housing in Milwaukee. The man, the only Black person to speak that evening, said he had worked hard to get his family to New Berlin, “to get away from that kind of deal.”
“So now my wife can go pump gas,” he said. “My son can ride his bike through the community.”
But all that would change if the housing development came to New Berlin, the man said, and the room erupted in some of the loudest applause of the night.
A sense of vindication
After that June meeting, the Plan Commission rescinded its approval of the development. The developer, Milo Pinkerton, then tried to put the affordable housing complex in a stalled condominium development, but city officials denied that as well.
“Maybe the issue is who you think should occupy that kind of housing,” Mr. Pinkerton said in an interview.
Lawsuits by Mr. Pinkerton and the Justice Department, which argued that the city violated the Fair Housing Act by denying dwellings based on the race of prospective tenants, led to its eventual construction.
In late 2012, Deer Creek opened — three prairie-style apartment buildings with facades of cement siding and brick, pitched roofs and balconies for each unit. Eighty-six of the 102 apartments are reserved for tenants earning significantly less than the city’s median household income of $81,000.
Mr. Chiovatero, 60, feels some vindication in what the complex has become. He pulled his car into a parking lot across the street on a recent wind-swept afternoon and nodded toward the apartments with a smile. “Does that look like low-income housing to you?” he asked.
It is the sort of place that Mareza Landeros had thought was out of her price range, with modern amenities like granite countertops, stainless steel appliances and large closets. But last year, Ms. Landeros, 28, and her two children moved into a two-bedroom unit for about $700 a month, less than half of the market rate.
“It’s a very relaxing, nice area,” said Ms. Landeros, who grew up in Milwaukee and works in nursing.
Still, she has felt like an “outcast” in New Berlin, she said. Ms. Landeros, who is Mexican-American, said she and her boyfriend, who is Black, have been harassed by the police. As a fervent Black Lives Matter supporter, she said she was discomfited by the “Trump 2020” and “We back the badge” signs that dot many yards.
She avoids taking her children to parks or other public spaces in New Berlin, which is 93 percent white, because it seems like people stare at them, she said.
Advocates for the development of more affordable housing say that when executed properly, the buildings should blend into neighborhoods. Crucial to achieving that, fair housing advocates say, is ensuring that cities across a region each take on at least a small share of affordable housing. Doing so avoids concentrating too much poverty in one place, they say, possibly preventing the deterioration and crime that critics of affordable housing worry about.
Alice Torres, 53, a lifelong Democrat, said that much of her opposition to the Deer Creek development stemmed from seeing the deterioration of communities where she had worked with a Milwaukee nonprofit organization to rehabilitate affordable housing. She worried that would happen in New Berlin, where she had moved for her children to get a better education. That concern was enough for her to ignore what she believed was the racism of some of the project’s opponents and align with them in resisting the proposal.
But the past several years have been an awakening, said Ms. Torres, who is white.
She has become so turned off by the political views of some of the Republicans she had teamed up with in opposition to the housing that she now ignores them when she sees them. She disconnected from some of them on Facebook.
And because the affordable housing development did not bring the problems she had experienced in Milwaukee, Ms. Torres said she would not be so quick to oppose future projects. With a caveat. “As long as it’s not in my backyard,” she said.
John Eligon is a Kansas City-based national correspondent covering race. He previously worked as a reporter in Sports and Metro, and his work has taken him to Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa and the Winter Olympics in Turin. @jeligonA version of this article appears in print on Nov. 5, 2020, Section A, Page 13 of the New York edition with the headline: Wisconsin Suburb Misjudged Housing Complex. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe