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.