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Civil Rights complaints target Milwaukee agencies

Sean Ryan

The National Black Chamber of Commerce this week filed federal complaints charging three Milwaukee-area government agencies with failing to hire enough low-income people on projects.

According to the complaints — filed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — the city and county of Milwaukee and the city’s housing authority did not file federal reports in 2008 indicating compliance with federal hiring and contracting rules. Local governments that get HUD money for projects must encourage contractors to hire people living in low-income households and file reports showing how many participate on jobs.

“We’re serious as a heart attack,” said Harry Alford, president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.

“We don’t pick a fight that we can’t win.”

But at least one of his Milwaukee targets — the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee — did file its report to HUD, said Maria Rodriguez, the authority’s youth and family services manager. Representatives from the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County were unavailable for comment.

“We do our best to influence our contractors to whatever degree we can,” Rodriguez said. “And we have met with some success. The housing authority has met its minority, emerging and women-owned business goals every year.”

The authority hires people who live in its houses. It also connects those people to contractors that provide services other than construction, such as those that clean authority buildings, Rodriguez said. The authority has had some success getting jobs for low-income residents: Between 1997 and 1999, when the Hillside Terrace housing project was being redeveloped, the authority trained 113 residents of its facilities and helped 63 land jobs, according to the authority.

Alford said his targets in Milwaukee are part of a first-round attempt, in conjunction with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to increase hiring on HUD and other federal projects. He said low-income residents in those communities will be no worse off if the local agencies that do not comply get cut off from federal money.

“It’s not going to hurt them,” Alford said. “They’re already not getting the business.”

But hiring low-income residents for construction work has challenges, so the Milwaukee housing authority often doesn’t meet federal goals, Rodriguez said. The federal rules require low-income residents be favored for new jobs created on HUD projects, but contractors often do not hire additional workers, she said.

Another hurdle faced by low-income residents, she said, is that in a market such as Milwaukee dominated by union builders, new hires must complete the union training and hiring process to work on projects.

But the authority does what it can by partnering with training organizations such as the Milwaukee Community Service Corps and Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership/Building and Industry Group Skilled Trades Employment Program’s Center for Excellence. The agency also sets money aside to buy incidental equipment such as steel-toed boots if residents need them for on-site training, she said.

“We are trying to move our residents who are interested in that type of work to go into that,” she said.

In addition to filing the Milwaukee complaints, Alford this week filed complaints against 29 government agencies in California and other complaints against agencies in Detroit, Jacksonville, Fla., and Buffalo, N.Y.

“I’m doing about 30 or 40 a week,” he said. “So, honors, you made the first cut.”

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