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