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Milwaukee council dismisses deconstruction concerns, overrides mayor’s veto

The Milwaukee Common Council defeated a mayoral veto Tuesday that would have slashed cash from a city blight-removal policy often requiring the deconstruction, rather than demolition, of historic homes.

The action overturned Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s veto of an amendment calling for $1.5 million to be added to the $1 million the city now sets aside for blight removal. Barrett said his veto came in response to a city policy that, since Jan. 1, has required historic homes to be deconstructed rather than demolished, a mandate that Barrett argued has hindered needed demolition and redevelopment work.

The mayor’s veto was overturned on Tuesday in a 12-3 vote, the same count by which the original proposal to set aside an additional $1.5 million to combat blight had been passed at a meeting on Nov. 13.

Alderman Bob Bauman, who helped devise the city’s deconstruction policy, said Barrett’s official explanation for his veto contained misleading statements. Barrett had argued that any additional money set aside for blight removal would be “intended” to support the deconstruction policy — a contention Bauman disputed.

“The biggest red herring is you turn this into a deconstruction issue and, of course, there’s no substantive legislation before us to change, modify, alter or abolish the deconstruction requirement,” Bauman said. “It simply deals with how much money we have available to deal with blighted properties of all kinds, commercial properties, industrial properties, apartments, to which deconstruction would not apply.”

Barrett was not immediately available for comment by press time Tuesday.

The city’s deconstruction policy was not without its critics, some of whom argued it could make removing blight pricier. Before the policy was adopted last year, officials in the Department of Neighborhood Services had estimated it could both curtail the number of blight-removal projects the city pursues in any given year and push up the cost of removing homes from about $15,700 to $24,000.

Barrett echoed some of those concerns, contending the deconstruction policy had made it more expensive for property owners to have homes torn down.

Responding on Tuesday, Bauman deemed the mayor’s arguments “rather humorous.” Bauman said there are more than 3,000 vacant lots in the city, a number that isn’t expected to dwindle by much next year.

“I don’t think we’re building over 3,000 new infill housing next year,” Bauman said. “So the deconstruction ordinance does not affect new development one iota.”

The city’s deconstruction policy applies to homes built before 1930 — a category taking in about 43 percent of the city’s housing stock — or those that are designated as historic. The policy, however, excludes homes that are deemed unsafe or that contain building materials that can’t be recycled.

By deconstructing a home, crews reuse building materials that would otherwise go to a landfill. The policy, proponents argue, saves taxpayer money by avoiding landfill tipping fees and can provide more job opportunities than typical demolition work. Penalties to enforce the city’s deconstruction policy allow the city to impose thousands of dollars worth of fines, and contractors who fail to follow the policy can risk losing a designation as a city-certified deconstruction contractor.

Alderman Russell Stamper voted to override Barrett’s veto on Tuesday, arguing that pulling cash from the city’s blight-removal endeavors could hinder work to make neighborhoods cleaner and safer.

“It’s hard for a resident to come outside every single day and see a house that’s burnt up, dilapidated, full of trash, needles,” Stamper said. “I have 174 properties that need to be demolished, which means that there are 174 blocks full of people who wake up every day and see a piece of blight on their block. I know it’s frustrating, I know it’s concerning.”

About Nate Beck, nbeck@dailyreporter.com

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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