Saturday, September 18, 2010

A million dollar tea cup? The "Common Sense" activism against Fair Housing in West Bend.

Hi everyone,

This week, some thoughts about the "Common Sense" activism against fair housing in West Bend.

Saturday's column

A million dollar tea cup
River Bluffs vote may precede tempest

What do you call it when someone’s political and economic principles violate common sense politics and economics? Alderman Steve Hutchins’ principles, on display in last week’s council vote and supposedly grounded on what passes these days for “Common Sense,” could cost taxpayers a million dollars this year – and a million dollars next year, and a million dollars the year after that.

He doesn’t approve, on principle, of housing developments funded with WHEDA tax credits, even socially desirable developments built on land zoned for that purpose. The math is easy. TIF District 5 costs the city about $500,000 a year. (The 2010 budget lists this year’s cost at $573,030.) TIF District 9, where some new senior housing is under consideration (another WHEDA funded project the alderman opposes “on principle”) is budgeted to cost the city $364,963 in 2010.

Fortunately, those projects are still in the pipeline, but think about the cost to us in 2010 had this close vote had gone the other way? That would be $937,993: almost a cool million, and taxpayers will pay approximately this amount each year these TIFs remain undeveloped. But we’re not out of the woods just because the Common Council voted not to rescind the development agreement.

Two general sentiments in opposition to this business project have been visible in the media coverage and council meeting Q&As: 1) a kind of Tea Party fueled allergic reaction to government help for working people (the alderman’s hysterical principles, which include the belief that WHEDA funded housing is not well earned assistance for hard working Americans, but a creepy Nanny-State socialism) and 2) a kind of “we don’t want those people moving into West Bend” xenophobia. While members of the Common Council have avoided uttering the latter explicitly, or at least not in a way that will bring down the wrath of the Federal Housing Act, some of our neighbors have expressed this view in open council meetings.

Both sentiments are the product of the current ideological culture wars and, more simply, fear. Folks, get a grip. We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

Oh, and possible FHA violations. We should be afraid of those.

In a July council meeting there was an acknowledgement that a form of rental property would work on this site, “just not WHEDA housing” and, since then, we’ve seen comments in the press to the effect that there would be “too many children” in the area. Statements like this could easily be construed as violations of the Fair Housing Act, which, for starters, “prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of dwellings, and in other housing-related transactions, based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status (including children under the age of 18 living with parents or legal custodians).”

I’m just saying.

Oops, and one more. We should also be afraid of a city council that violates Wisconsin’s open meeting law. If a quorum of aldermen discuss this case with each behind the backs of voters — that is, outside of council meetings — even if the conversation is serial (you know, like the game of “Telephone” where one person talks to a person and that person calls another person and so on) they’re in violation of the law. Playing Telephone can form what’s called a “walking quorum.” Sorry to be technical, but technically, that’s conducting the peoples’ business behind the peoples’ backs.

Another player stirring the teacup with print ads is a group of Johnny-come-lately businessmen riding into the newspaper like the cavalry to disrupt the housing development in TIF District 5. They’re late. The area was zoned for multi-family residential housing in 1998. Why didn’t they say anything then? And now they say they’d like to find some alternatives to the WHEDA development, maybe find some businesses to move into the zone? This is nonsense. A well-known, politically and economically savvy business leader in this community beat the bushes for years to encourage businesses to move into that TIF district — during a time when commercial real estate was booming — without success. Why should we expect anything to happen now, during what amounts to a Depression in commercial real estate?

We have no reason to. In fact, reason suggests that this cartel was formed for reasons that have nothing to do with helping businesses move into TIF District 5 but, rather, to keep affordable housing out. So what’s the real reason?

A lot of people would probably like an answer to that question – and some of them work at federal agencies.

On Monday night, the city council failed to pass a motion to rescind the developer’s agreement with REE: a first in West Bend history. Before taking this step, Mr. Hutchins should have asked himself whether he really expects the taxpayers of West Bend to subsidize his principles for nearly a million dollars a year. A lot of taxpayers will be asking themselves that question.

[...and here's the closing paragraph that was cut during final editing for length... I assume length was the reason....]

Of more immediate concern to Alderman Hutchins, however, are his constituents, especially the nice folks who live across the street from REE’s affordable housing development and down the street from the other, proposed, senior housing center on Auxiliary Court. How do the residents of the Enger Kress building -- all of them voters, by the way -- feel now that they know their own alderman would have voted against their beautiful building because he believes WHEDA housing, like theirs, is full of undesirable, low-income, government aid recipients?

They probably feel like voting for someone else.



alan markus said...

Too bad that last paragraph wasn't included - one of the dirty little "secrets" is that the data for that census tract that includes the downtown area shows that being the lowest income tract of all the the Census tracts in the City of West Bend. So, actually, the presence of this type of housing might bring the statistics up, if it attracts workforce housing. Looking at the rentals that are going to be charged (don't have them in mind right now, but I thought you are talking average $750), that is quite a bit more than what the Main Street rentals are. So, if the downtown property owners are concerned about losing their tenants to this development, I don't think they have to worry. I've observed that quite a few of the downtown residents are disabled on SSI (which I'm pretty sure the monthly SSI amount wouldn't cover the minimum monthly rent at this facility, so they wouldn't be able to rent at this new complex, anyway. Thus, the need for "working" tenants). Other type of renters you might see downtown are very young singles that won't be long-term renters - going to school, etc., willing to accept very small apartments, downtown noise, and no parking for the short-term.

Sorry I don't have time to link to the census data or to look up the proposed rents. I'm just wondering if the downtown business opposition is based on the assumption that they will lose their low-income tenant base to this development?

larryteufel said...

The ignorance of this business group explains to me why nothing seems to work to revitalize downtown West Bend. They would rather have parking lots in the TIF (which of coarse would be financed by property tax payers, since it would not generate any revenue) than have paying customers to live there. Know one is going to park there and walk around to Main or Oak Street, or climb up to the remains of the bridge to know where, needless to say it's not handicapped accessible. Rivershores are high end residences. As shown in earlier postings it is a flop and the city property tax payers are funding that too. Move around to the South to the Gehl Company. I'd love to know how many high tech jobs that were promised for that TIF that replaced the factory job eliminated. Nobody banged their drum, so I am assuming that too is a failure.
Now, the loudest anti socialist around here; John Torinus wants a TIF to consolidate (read eliminate due to "efficiencies")Serigraph jobs in West Bend. Lets see if the business group raises their arms saying "we don't want those low paying jobs here".

I'm sure he'll get his money without any commitment to the community. A few years down the road those jobs, as done in the past, will be sent to Mexico and China and close that factory. Leaving it for a city department to move into another white elephant. Guess who will pay, the property tax payer.

Democurmudgeon said...

A beautifully explained story. "Keep those people out" disguised as small government.

Mpeterson said...

Alan! That is an angle I hadn't even considered. It rings.

alan markus said...

If you follow this link you will find a map that shows census tracts. Will need to magnify it to at least 100%:
Census Map - West Bend

This site shows data related to Percentage of Households less than 60% of Median Income & Poverty Rate. Farther down the page there is a pull-down menu where you can click on the Census tract:

Tract 4204: 38% <60% Median Income/9.2% Poverty Rate. This is the tract that includes the downtown area.

Tract 4201.02: 19% <60% MI/4% PR. This is area north of Tract 4204.

Tract 4203: 26.9% <60% MI/8% PR. This is the area east & south of Tract 4204

Tract 4202: 22% <60% MI/2.9% PR. This is area west & south of Tract 4204.

Sorry to lay out so much data & links, but that is the price to be paid when one seeks factual information.

wbman said...

This issue was clouded from the start, thanks to the machinations of Ald. Hutchins, who was able to exploit the fears of the residents, and our more idiotic business owners, about "those people". He tried the crime angle until the police department refused to play along; notice how that issue disappeared? He was more successful with the "low income" and "subsidized" labels, which still persist. And don't forget "prime real estate". I didn't see any of our business leaders lining up to buy that land for the past 10 years. A certain businessman who likes to wear Lederhosen at Germanfest suggested putting a nice retail strip there. That's what passes for imagination.

Mayor Deiss knew her vote to sustain the project would come at a political cost. She didn't cave-in and deserves praise.

The Museum of Wisconsin Art is building an $11 million project nearby, and welcomes River Bluffs. Doesn't that register with anyone?