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Low incomes, not high rents, are housing barrier in Milwaukee

Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Elizabeth Brown, a lifelong Milwaukee resident, currently lives in the Amani neighborhood with four of her nine children in a three-bedroom house she rents for $775 a month. She said it’s too much, given the rundown condition of the property and the fact that she doesn’t have a paid job.

Brown began to count the number of houses she’s lived in and quickly gave up.

“I mean, wow, it’s a lot,” she said.

Two of her sons, who are in their mid-20s, are in and out of the house and help Brown pay rent while she searches for a job. Brown was working toward a degree in human services but had to leave school the last time she couldn’t afford her rent. She lost her house.

“On 11th and Burleigh of all places,” she sighed.

Brown has worked in child care, housekeeping, food service, human services and personal care, as a night auditor for Hyatt and as an administrative assistant. She now volunteers at the Ethel Nutis Gill Family Resource Center at COA Goldin Center almost every day.

She cannot find a job and many of the places she has applied to have told her she is overqualified.

Brown is like many of the people described in a recent report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum, which found that just over half of renters in Milwaukee County are considered burdened by rental rates. This means they spend at least 30 percent of their income on housing.

Officials and residents have sought to increase the supply affordable housing. However, “The Cost of Living” study showed that low income is a bigger cause for concern.

In 2016, there was demand in Milwaukee County for about 63,000 affordable housing units for households in which the residents earned less than $25,000 a year. The median income in the county is $31,572 a year.

In this Sept. 5, 2018 photo provided by the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, Elizabeth Brown sits inside the COA Goldin Center in Milwakuee. Brown, who struggles to pay her rent, takes advantages of resources available at the center. (Photo by Analise Pruni/Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service via AP)

Elizabeth Brown sits inside the COA Goldin Center in Milwakuee on Sept. 5. Brown, who struggles to pay her rent, takes advantages of resources available at the center. (Photo by Analise Pruni/Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service via AP)

Since the Great Recession of 2008, home ownership has become less common and renting more. According to the policy forum’s report, Milwaukee County has the 11th highest percent of renters — at 50.6 percent — among similar-size counties in the U.S. Even Milwaukee County residents who earn the median income can’t afford the median rent, unless they spend more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing.

In an attempt to improve the situation, the Milwaukee Housing Trust Fund was set up in 2007 to provide affordable housing to low-to-moderate-income households.

“You have really deep poverty in certain parts of this community — with the African-American community, (and) to a certain extent Hispanics,” said Ald. Michael Murphy, the leading force behind the trust fund.

Murphy acknowledged that simply providing more housing is not enough. He proposed a “multi-pronged attack.”

“I think all the issues that revolve around poverty are interrelated,” said Murphy. Providing housing, schooling and transportation to jobs would be part of the solution. “It’s just not one single thing. If it were, then somebody would’ve done it already.”

In the four-county Milwaukee metro area, about 40 percent of the households in which the residents are black use at least half of their income for rent. Among white households, the comparable figure is 21 percent.

For Brown, it’s unfair that she has to spend her own money make basic repairs to things such as windows and doors. She said sometimes landlords are willing to work with poor tenants. However, tenants who are behind on rent can ask only for so much and they still end up falling behind trying to improve “unlivable” situations, she added.

Marilyn Green, a part-time food pantry assistant at the COA Goldin Center, wonders why anyone would want to live in the neighborhood.

“Everybody wants to get out,” said Green. “You come here when you have nowhere else to go. You have people living with people, living with people.”

She said that even if poor families living in overcrowded conditions are making rent, it can still be hard to pay for basic necessities such as food.  The report concludes that federal or state action may be needed.

“Low incomes, rather than high rents, appear to be the primary issue,” the report said.

Brown acknowledged the complexity of Milwaukee County’s shortfall in its supply of affordable housing.

“It’s not just black and white,” said Brown. “It is so much in between.”

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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