Milwaukee scholars urge Congress to address wealth gap stemming from decades of housing discrimination


“We need nothing more than a national stocktake on racial exclusion and housing,” said Anne Bonds, professor of geography and urban studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “Focusing on access to housing is essential for thriving communities and for our collective well-being.

A second researcher also recommended measures to reduce the risk of tenants being evicted, programs to retain more local rental properties instead of letting them fall into the hands of large investment firms, and stronger support for future landlords.

The recommendations came on the second day of hearings in Wisconsin by members of a congressional committee tasked with examining wealth and income disparities in the United States and proposing policies to address them. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the creation of the Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Growth Equity in December 2020. Since then, the panel has held a series of hearings across the country.

Congressman Jim Himes (D-Conn.), the committee’s chairman, said at the April 12 hearing in Kenosha that he wanted the committee to come up with proposals that Republicans and Democrats could vote for. “We are committed to finding those solutions that could attract bipartisan support,” Himes said. “Like it or not in the United States Congress, if anything is going to become law, it almost certainly has to attract support from both sides of the aisle.”

Moore, Steil participate

Along with Himes, two Wisconsin members of the committee, Congressman Bryan Steil (R-Janesville) and Congresswoman Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee), took part in the hearings. They helped organize their content, Himes said.

The April 12 hearing was held at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in Kenosha County, which is in the Steil District. It was focused on education and workforce development. Witnesses testified about the apprenticeship programs; on the role of technical colleges in vocational training and access to a four-year university degree; and on the changing role of the university in today’s economy.

The April 13 hearing, held at the Milwaukee Public Library, followed a visit the committee and staff members made that morning to neighborhoods on the city’s north side, heart of the Milwaukee neighborhood of Moore.

In addition to two researchers who examined the area’s housing data over time, other witnesses represented nonprofit programs: one to help first-time homebuyers and another to promote housing. and community development.

A fifth witness represented a group of private Lutheran schools located in the city that benefit from the state private school voucher program in Milwaukee. Shaun Luehring, CEO of Lumin Schools, touted school choice as another way to help “reduce barriers like health and housing” for city residents.

Of the three congressmen present, Steil, who is the ranking Republican on the committee, was the only one to ask questions of the schools chief. At Steil’s request, Luehring said Lumin students come primarily from the “urban core” of Milwaukee. Both indirectly equated school choice with a family’s ability to choose where to have a home.

Most of the audience focused on the causes and possible solutions to housing inequality in Milwaukee, “to improve financial security and expand wealth creation,” Himes said as he opened the session.

Moore quoted Milwaukee historian John Gurda, who described how the Great Migration brought black people from the South, many of whom were able to obtain well-paying union jobs in manufacturing that propelled them into the middle class.

“The middle class that grew up with those great manufacturing jobs was not able to turn that into generational wealth because the loss of those jobs happened within that same generation,” Moore said. This massive downward slide combined with what she called “endemic segregation” in the city dating back to the 19th century, the effects of which have lingered.

Racial zoning and covenants

Bonds, the UWM professor, testified that initially racial zoning laws limited where black people could live. After the practice was ruled unconstitutional in 1917, the real estate industry and lenders, including the federal government, forged private covenants that kept blacks out of certain neighborhoods and out of Milwaukee-area suburbs until in the middle of the 20th century.

Even though they were banned 50 years ago, Bonds said, those covenants left a mark that remains, not just in housing patterns, but in the generational wealth gap between white and black Wisconsin residents. .

“We gather today in a city consistently ranked as the most racially segregated in the nation and a metropolitan area with the lowest township rate in the nation,” Bonds said. Today, she added, 27% of black households own their own home, compared to 56% of white households and 38% of Hispanic households.

Beyond segregation, there were also disparities in the resources provided to wealthier communities where white people lived, Bonds told Himes in response to a question he posed. “This kind of [segregating] policies and practices have channeled investment to areas outside the city, so to suburban areas in particular,” she said.

Because of the long reach of racial discrimination, Bonds said, Congress must “specifically target and invest resources in non-white communities who have been denied equal access to housing loans, and types of federal grants and supports that built the white milieu. classroom.”

She also called for federal policies that provide more protections for renters and support for people with insecure housing, “while expanding fair lending and housing practices to expand access to homeownership.” .

Moore asked Bonds how she would respond to claims that such targeted practices amount to “reverse discrimination.”

“Once again, as we heard throughout the testimony, today home ownership is the primary means by which average Americans create wealth,” Bonds replied, “and people of color have been systematically denied the opportunities that were afforded to white and middle class workers, and so it’s just a way of giving people the opportunity that was denied them in past generations.

John D. Johnson, a researcher at Marquette Law School Lubar Center who has examined Wisconsin politics, demographics and housing, described how a wave of foreclosures during the Great Recession of 2008-2009 “decimated home ownership. property in Milwaukee”.

Foreclosures and falling prices attracted investors who bought single-family homes and duplexes at low prices, he said. “Initially these investors were mostly high net worth individuals,” Johnson said, “but recently they have been joined by large investors backed by private capital.”

These out-of-town or out-of-state landlords are more likely to file for eviction than local landlords, “and they also get in the way of potential landlords by buying and selling properties in bulk,” Johnson said. “The influx of new homeowners threatens Milwaukee’s long tradition of working-class homeownership.”

Johnson recommended improving tenant protections, such as establishing that tenants facing eviction have the right to an attorney. He also suggested bolstering programs already in place to help homebuyers so that homes on the market can be bought more quickly locally rather than falling into business ownership.

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