Saturday, August 14, 2010

Affordable housing, the newest threat to West Bend.

Hi everyone,

We've had some weirdness about a new affordable housing project going into downtown West Bend on an old railroad switching yard -- a classic brownfield development.

One of our alderpeople saw the phrase "low income" and stirred up the pot.

And thus, Saturday's Column

West Bend’s latest tea-cup-tempest arrived last weekend in the form of an anonymous flyer addressed to residents of District 7. It looked exactly like a big anonymous ad in the West Bend Daily News on Saturday. Both opposed the long awaited River Bluffs town-home development in TIF district 5.

If you’ve seen the flyer, or the ad, you know it opposes a housing development that city council just approved. The project has been percolating for over a year, but it’s only been boiling over for the last few months. Once you drain the air out of the irritability that’s been stirred up, you can fit the entire debate in a kid’s sippy cup. That’s because all the irritability and animosity seem to be based entirely on a misunderstanding.

The short version of this micro-controversy is that a real estate development company from St. Paul put in an offer with the city to develop some of the old railroad lands to the east of the Milwaukee River. You know, the stretch that’s been empty for 10 years. I find myself uneasily but happily rising to the defense of Tony Turner who recommended it to his colleagues on the city council as a member of the redevelopment authority. Everything looked pretty good and the process went forward -- and then someone used the phrase “low income housing” and everyone freaked out.

“Low income” housing aroused fears of crime and drugs and violence and, if the city council meeting I watched is any indication, a kind of racist hysteria that made me wonder whether we were in Wisconsin or Arizona. And all of this, other than exposing a dark underbelly of fear and resentment in some West Bend residents, serves no purpose. It’s based entirely on a misunderstanding. Whether that misunderstanding is accidental or calculated, you’ll have to judge.

The Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) makes tax credits available for projects like this one and the official WHEDA description is “low income housing tax credits”. The words “low income” appear in the phrase, all right, but this is bureaucratic argot, the dizzying slang of political administrivia. When you take bureaucratese literally, you’re bound to get into trouble -- or cause it. A better label, one that accurately describes this planned neighborhood is “affordable” or, even better, “work force housing”. We have plenty of examples of exactly this kind of housing in West Bend already.

These apartments are identical in funding and rental structure to the Amity apartments directly across from Badger middle school as well as the Enger Kress independent living facility next door to the selected site. You’d be rather hard pressed to suggest that the affordable housing in either of those locations was bad for West Bend -- quite the contrary. We need the housing for people in that price range.

In fact, the West Bend Economic Development Corporation sent in a letter of support, and for excellent, perfectly obvious, reasons. Affordable housing, the kind that a working family can afford, is a key component in economic development. If we only have $200,000-300,000 homes available, no one earning an average wage in West Bend could afford to live here. Look at it another way, the project has to follow WHEDA standards so the apartments have to be affordable to people earning 50-60% of the median income here; that means affordable for people earning about $32,000 a year. In what universe is $32,000 a year “low-income”?

Since this is a WHEDA project, a whole series of other safeguards are in place. There are, for instance, checks for criminal records whenever the rent is renewed and it is much easier to evict -- something nearly impossible under normal Wisconsin rental law. So much for the scary misrepresentations of this project as “low income.” It’s simply the kind of affordable housing most working people in West Bend can afford.

There is one other detail that should get everyone’s attention: that empty land costs us $500,000 a year, paid out of our property taxes. Remember, TIF 5 was environmentally contaminated and essentially unusable. The city needed to borrow money to buy and then remediate the land -- expenses incurred even before rolling the dice that we’d be able to sell it for development and pay off the bond. The economy is pretty tough right now, and we have urgent priorities that require our precious tax dollars more than an empty brownfield.

There is one apartment complex in town that does fit the knee jerk rightwinger stereotype of government subsidized housing, a Housing and Urban Development project right out of the heart of the crazed liberal agenda: Meadowbrook Manor. Even this den of iniquity has brought remarkably little crime to West Bend -- unless the senior citizens in there are running a secret meth lab and staging late night ecstasy-soaked raves the police undercover units haven’t penetrated yet.

We cannot afford not to have affordable housing.



CMHM said...

Affordable housing is always needed. The location is the question.

I do wonder how it came to this.Much was made about our ability to secure a hotel for that area.

At the time (before the recession) this was a pipe dream- yet the commitment was made and your point about the $500K per year is the compelling reason to do something.

One question I thought about is the # of similar sized cities (all with problematic vacancies in their downtown store front's ) who would encourage similar new developments a block from the struggling downtown.

I know some merchants are against it but I didn"t hear the supporters support the economic value to the city of having so many new consumers within walking distance of the downtown.

It doesn't make the idea wrong-but like the twin HS,
sometimes, when no one else does it, is because it"s just an incredibly bad idea absolutely no one would be dumb enough to duplicate.

This is probably a bad idea whose time has come.

I blame the still in power city planners, and local business wizards who sold us on the origional idea .

I give the project a thumbs up with an asterisk

Mpeterson said...

"Thumbs up with an asterisk" is, not incidentally, a brilliant phrase. ;^)

Miss West Bend said...

If this was really such a prime spot of land for development, it would have done been developed by one of our CSCWC business men by now, right? Kevin, wouldn't it be a good DQ location? Please save downtown West Bend from the less fortunate!

Fear and Loathing's take:

Kevin Scheunemann said...

Miss West Bend,

I do not own the rights to develop a DQ location in West Bend. That would belong to the current owner.

Also, I personally consider West Bend to have a very hostile and anti-business sign ordinance for my taste. I don't like limits on my speech.

So West Bend would not be high on my personal list of places to develop a business relative to less regulatory hassling communities.

Its not surprising at all to me that the TIF district is not developing and attracting businesses there.

I hope West Bend can eventually change that reputation, but it looks like low income housing will crowd out any business project at this point.

larryteufel said...

When Veterans Avenue was moved the city planners were approached to allow a gas station and 3 story office building. They were told that is not the type of business they wanted in that area. They were turned away. Now every city department who's job should be to attract something to this area is going to send this one packing too. The boutique hotel and movie studio along with others failed to materialize. I would like to know the occupancy rate at Rivers Shores. Those high end condos look very dark at night.

Several tax paying businesses were forced to sell to make way for this TIF district. I don't think 1 job stayed in West Bend. They all left town, if they remained in business. While these TIF projects sit dormant. It's the other property tax payers footing the bill until something is built. Even when something is built, the property taxes are frozen and the tax collections go to pay for the infrastructure. Nothing goes to pay for fire, police, parks, and any other municipal department. The rest of the city property tax payers pay for the public services to the likes of Wal Mart.

The anger over stimulus money, yet they take every dollar they can get. Yet they are silent on TIF's. I wish I could get such a sweet deal on my property taxes.

James Dionne said...

Just look what all that affordable housing did for that nice little retail district called Northridge....

Mpeterson said...

James, are your comments racist or classist?

Mpeterson said...

Larry, the TIFs look like a bad idea every way from Sunday. I am confused about the gas station though, since that whole area is zoned mixed commercial and multifamily... a gas station surely would have met the zoning requirements. Was it the planning commission or the city council that put the kibosh on those projects?

That boutique hotel, etc. bailed out because their financing never materialized, not because of the city planners...

And River Shores.. the fancy ones in the converted WB main office building, only have 2 or 3 tenants. The ones in teh old factory look fairly full... but I suspect the real money for the developer was in the senior center they built from scratch. That thing looks pretty full and I've suspected that that's where they made and got out with their money. Most of the others are still up for sale.

Michael Urban Schlotfeldt said...

I just want to comment on the gas station. The gas station and the Museum of Wisconsin Art were interested at the same location at the same time. It was felt by council that the Museum of Wisconsin Art should move forward and not the gas station.

First, the new Museum of Wisconsin Art is projected to bring in a number of visitors to the city a year and second it prevented the Museum from moving to another city like Kenosha.

As Community Development told the developer the council would be supportive of the middle parcel for an office complex.

Mpeterson said...

Hi Mike,

Thanks for the clarification!

I understand there are now some questions about whether the developer provided accurate numbers to the city.

Has Andy B been in your ear about this? ;^)


Michael Urban Schlotfeldt said...

As for the hotel and convention center it never got the financing. Plus all the marketing studies done said the hotel and convention center in the downtown would be unprofitable. The price would have been $150 a key.

larryteufel said...

It's unfortunate that the Daily News only goes back a week for e subscribers like myself. A person can't do a search. If I remember the idea was dead on arrival. I don't think the gas station idea lasted any longer than a week news cycle. I do remember at the time thinking it must have been a political decision. The petroleum business in West Bend are a close knit group of only a few operators.

Getting permits to build is difficult. Building a gas station adds a volume or two of more regulation. A gas station can't be built in a flood plane for obvious safety reasons. I would think Veterans Avenue being so close to the river would be denied if not by the city the DNR or EPA.

This past weekend I stumbled across a A&W. I miss those delicious frosty mugs of root beer. A&W in a can is root beer in name only. I'm hoping Kevin can open one on the corner of Veterans Ave and Washington. A drive Thu and traffic from the trails; I'm thinking its gotta work!

I am not a business owner, but in my observations I agree with Kevin about the business climate in West Bend. It's funny he mentioned about the banners. The police were diligent in having business take them down and any other signage they didn't like. I have nothing against the parks, but, there were those banners all over town about the Regner Park anniversary. It seems like the ordinances the city council writes are not meant for themselves. I see the city drive their lawn mowers, front end loaders and the like on the streets. Anyone else would get a citation for not trailering the equipment.

The paper awhile back had a story about (I think it was) Dennis Melvin talking to business leaders. He was telling them that West Bend is unfairly labeled difficult to work with. And he was tired of hearing about it. I wasn't surprised by his remarks, the city has been in denial for years. I was surprised none of the business owners didn't choke on their dinner. Maybe they were served A&W Root Beer to help things digest.

alan markus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Urban Schlotfeldt said...

I do understand the sign ordinance, I worked with a local Subway to get his banners displayed. It is a problem.

Every plan for the downtown TIF's since 1998 had some type of multi-family housing planned for on Wisconsin Street.

The MLG contract that was passed by council states that MLG can advertise that parcel as multi-family. If you drive past Wisconsin Street the middle sign says multi-family.

I do have some people in the downtown that want to revisit the hotel and convention center. The last study that was done said it was not profitable.

A good example about the problems that we have had in these TIF’s is Harris Bank.

Harris owns the corner of highway 33 and Wisconsin. It was the original site for their bank and they decided that they wanted a more visible spot, so they moved to Paradise.

The only numbers that trouble me about this housing development is the increment.

larryteufel said...

Thank you Alan Markus for the data. Ooouch! They were build during the real estate boom period.

And thank you Alderman Schlotfekdt for your input. My hat is off to you for taking the time to see all points of view on the River Bluffs project.

James Dionne said...

"James, are your comments racist or classist?"

Economic realist actually. I'm just pointing out what really happened to the many booming retail outlets once concentrated affordable housing was built nearby. There's no denying it. Is that why you played the race/class trump card to denounce my valid point? That play is a weak, tired, outdated knee jerk response from the nostalgic left. It's 2010 Mark, we have an ethnically African President. People under forty don't think twice about race. It's time for the old hippies to let go of the "everybody against spending tax dollars are racists" thing. Thanks.
The free market forces currently dictate that West Bend doesn't need more housing, regular or low income. By building more residential or commercial capacity in a city already highly vacant, you are inviting slums to develop. Ever played Sim City?
What we really need to concentrate on is light to heavy industrial. West Bend has a large base of highly trained workers with excellent work ethic. Menomonee Falls has done a pretty good job of this. Everything else will fall into place if there is sufficient demand for it.
Now, if you want to build a housing complex along the river and require a devotion of occupancy to whatever percentage the low income ratio of West Bend is, I'm all for it. (This could very well be the case, but our lovely media in this area doesn't report these things well) But, how I understand it they want the housing to be mostly low income. How is that class diversity? It's actually segregation of the poor. Race really has nothing to do with it. Class on the other hand is in the eye of the beholder as I know many rich person without it.

Mpeterson said...

James, I keep hearing that race isn't an issue about anything in America and that the only reason *I* (and most of the people I know) keep seeing it everywhere is that we're a bunch of Old Hippies.

I suspect you're wrong about race no longer being important in American culture, and I suspect that you simply don't see because you live inside the kind of goldfish bowl that hides it from you.

Sorry to be sharp. I hope more than you know that you are, in fact, correct -- but the first trick of the Devil was to convince people he doesn't exist... and the tired trick of the Right wingers is to convince white Americans that all this race talk is old hat and that they don't need to think about it. Some examples: Birthers. Tea Bag members of the TP calling Rep Lewis names. "Makaka." Insurance red lining. Blaming people for being lazy after we've allowed their jobs to be outsourced to China. The concept of "reverse-racism" from people who haven't read Cone's book on racism. The list goes on and on.

But I'm sure your attitude is just economic. Look what happened when they converted the Amity building into affordable housing. Gasp... teachers moved into it! Or Meadow brook Manor, or the Enger Kress building. Terrible to think all those middle class seniors and working people are going to bring down our property values.

"Free market forces" is not like gravity... you can't predict that prices will fall at 32feet/sec squared (although Smith borrowed the phrase, invisible hand, along with the concept, from Newton).

And I'm not sure I trust Sim City to dictate this sort of thing anymore than I trust free market economics to deliver wealth to everyone.

What has happened in WB is that we've gone to boutique manufacturing -- and that's working rather well.

And again, is $32,000 a year "low income" to you James? Glad to hear you're doing so well!