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Reclaiming the block: Local group tackling Milwaukee African American quality of life one house at a time

Posted at 6:47 PM, Nov 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-17 19:47:17-05

MILWAUKEE — As Milwaukee battles with its title as the Worst City for African Americans, a local pastor is trying to change that, one house at a time.

“There is some good homeownership that exists on our block,” Pastor Kurt Owens with Bridge Builders said. “But right across the street, you might find eight or nine houses that are all renters. So, while you may have some homeowners, there are a good number of rental properties as well.”

Owens says many of the neighborhood issues seen throughout Milwaukee, like drug problems, violence, prostitution, etc., can be attributed to the dwindling homeownership rates in the city.

Overall, 60 percent of Milwaukee residents rent their living space, which is 8th most in the country. However, for African Americans in the City of Milwaukee, just 27.4 percent are homeowners. It’s the second-lowest rate in the country.

“When we go door to door, there are people who actually care about the neighborhood,” Owens said. “They want to live in a neighborhood that’s peaceful and calm. Unfortunately, when you have people who don’t have an ownership stake in the community, the standards of living are far less than those who continue to live here.”

It’s why Owens is trying to raise $1.9 million to purchase and renovate 20 problem homes in his neighborhood. With the help of Acts Housing, Owens hopes to help local residents, who may be stuck in a cycle of renting, get the opportunity to purchase a home.

“Specifically, for those longtime tenants,” Owens said. “It’s a great way to spearhead homeownership for those long-time tenants who have been in the community for quite some time. What does it look like for them to be homeowners?”

It’s something Kafre McClenton would like to see. She’s been a homeowner in the neighborhood for 14 years.

“Compared to just five years ago, it’s a completely different neighborhood,” She said.

McClenton grew up in the house she lives in. She says as a kid, they knew all of their neighbors and everyone would look after the block. Now, as a mother of five, she wished she could raise her kids in the same neighborhood.

But that’s changed.

“There was a sense of pride, a sense of ownership,” McClenton said. “But people are losing their homes and there are a lot of absentee landlords. There’s a constant change in tenancy to the point you don’t know your neighbors anymore.”

A house near McClenton’s home was recently shut down because of apparent drug and prostitution activity. She says she called police every day for months because of it. Already, she’s seen an improvement but she fears it’s only temporary before another temporary tenant moves in.

Kafre McClenton thinking of mov
Kafre McClenton says her neighborhood has gone down hill and she's seriously thinking of moving

“For me, personally, I don’t think I can do it any longer,” McClenton said. “I don’t think changes I need to see will happen in a year.”

This is a problem Owens faced head on himself. He and his wife debated leaving their home on Hampton Ave.

“I was ready to leave,” Owens said. “We made the decision to stay and be part of the solution. Not the problem. Leaving is part of the problem.”

Owens feels by moving out of the neighborhood, it opens up these deteriorating areas to more negligence. Marquette Law School published a study earlier this year saying half of all rental properties in the city are owned by people who do not live in Milwaukee.

A house near Owens suffered fire damage within the last year. That house now has a metal sign on its entry, urging people to call if they are interested in living in the home. That company is based in California.

Kurt Owens talking about problem houses
Kurt Owens talking about problem houses

“It certainly can be problematic if landlords are not really committed to really advancing the city as a whole and less committed to the quality of life for their tenants,” Lafayette Crump, Commissioner of City Development said. “It certainly creates a problem when money is flowing out of the community to elsewhere and there are some landlords who are simply concerned if they’re getting income this month.”

Crump says Mayor Tom Barrett has committed some $6 million to the upcoming budget to help increase homeownership in the city.

In addition to advancing generational wealth, Crump says increasing African American homeownership could alleviate a lot of the problems people of color face.

“It’s not a cure all, but it’s one very major step on the way to changing some of the statistics we see about the City of Milwaukee,” Crump said. “When someone knows that they’re going to be here for a longer period of time, they have much more interest in seeing positive things occur in their neighborhood. We think, ultimately, that’s beneficial for not just each neighborhood, but the city as a whole.”

It’s why Owens isn’t just targeting buying houses in general, but problem houses. Houses known in the neighborhood for drug activity or prostitution activity. Abandoned houses which have become a haven for neglect. He wants to take the problems and make them the solutions.

“What would it look like if we bought drug houses or prostitution houses?” Owens said. “Because, we’re not going anywhere. We’re in the community with the residents. We feel we can be better stewards of those properties than those who live outside the community.”

So, little by little, they can start to see the neighborhoods begin to flourish as one block’s trash becomes the city’s treasure.

“It only takes one problematic house for gunshots to start ringing,” Owens said. “It would do us all the good in the world if we’re able to turn this property into a homeowner that can simply be invested in our community, as opposed to taking away from it.”

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