YWCA Southeast Wisconsin
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October 2016

By Paula Penebaker, President & CEO, YWCA Southeast Wisconsin

Segregation: Will We Catch the Clue Bus?

A lot has been made of Milwaukee segregation. Recently, a Marquette student—after having heard me speak to a class of senior education majors—asked if I had any idea or predictions as to how this polarization in housing might ever be stabilized.” My response to this and a couple more of her questions is contained herein.

Recently, there was a discussion about segregation in Milwaukee neighborhoods as highlighted in a NY Times story. One of the things that came up in the discussion, A Seat at the Table, is that housing values in predominantly black neighborhoods don’t appreciate as we’d like to see. For instance, there is a lot of NEW housing stock in Lindsey Heights. Residents in the area report disappointment that their assessments have not increased as they would have hoped. Now, that’s a double-edged sword: Increased assessments mean higher property taxes, but when assessments aren’t increasing, the ability to make money on a sale is limited.

What this tells me is that savvy investors are not going to want to buy in a neighborhood where their investment is not going to appreciate in value. And what happens when white people do want to live in the City, they move in, property values rise, tax assessments go up, less affluent people—often black and brown people—have to move, and a once (albeit short-lived) integrated neighborhood becomes predominantly white. The idealist looks at that and asks, “Why does it have to be that way?”

“…is it possible for stable, diverse neighborhoods to exist without white folks inevitably pushing out people of color?”

I think the polarization in housing will not stop until white people first, acknowledge and say something about what they see—the gentrification of neighborhoods that occurs when they move in—and work with people of color and institutions, i.e. the City of Milwaukee, to find solutions that stop creating displacement when they move in.  Of course, that assumes that they really WANT to live in integrated neighborhoods. 

Personally, I think many whites that move into the City don’t really care about integration. They like the convenience and amenities of being close to or in downtown. It’s chic, hip, trendy. Diversity is a by-product, not necessarily a driver.

I live in Washington Heights, an integrated neighborhood, in a house I have owned for a little less than two years. My assessment has gone up each of those two years. Not one of the white people in my little subdivision has moved since I’ve been there. It’s a wonderful neighborhood, but not devoid of problems. For example, we have a neighborhood bulletin board, chat kinda site. One resident regularly refers to “suspicious AA male(s)” walking in the neighborhood. There are “AA males” that LIVE in the neighborhood! But, while there are tensions, we have found a way to co-exist.

“Do you know of public policies in other cities that have made integrated housing/neighborhoods possible?”

Unfortunately, I do not.

If you’re interested in the housing crisis that exists for poor people in Milwaukee, read the book Evicted. It is a nonfiction horror story that provides great insight into the challenges. Also, if you want to read an interesting perspective on gentrification, read Nathan McCall’s essay from What’s Going On entitled “Old Town: The Negro Problem Revisited.”

I concluded by appreciating her for her message, hoped that my response was helpful and that she--when life permits-- will be a part of the solution!

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