City Struggles to Remove Condemned Houses; Asks State for Help

Mar 8, 2013

The cost of demolishing condemned properties in Milwaukee is squeezing city finances. So this week, leaders will ask the state for more aid to combat the problem. It grows bigger by the day. We took a first hand look.

Huge metal teeth bite into the second story of a house on North 26th Street. Moments later, support beams crack and the walls fold. Finally, the roof collapses. Perhaps that’s an apt metaphor for the effects of the recent economic downturn. The recession caused the roof to fall in on many homeowners. Hundreds, unable to make monthly payments, abandoned their homes.

It costs about $15,000 to demolish a house, and takes 2-3 days to remove the debris, leaving the lot ready for redevelopment.

"In many of our neighborhoods once those buildings no longer have a person living in them that seems to be a green light for opening the door for criminal activity," according to Art Dahlberg, commissioner of Milwaukee’s Department of Neighborhood Services. It hustles to secure properties – board up the windows and lock the doors, as soon as they’re vacant, but other visitors often arrive first. Dahlberg says it’s amazing how quickly empty houses attract “scrappers” –slang for renegade recyclers who illegally rip out anything of value.

" What they do is they come in there looking for all copper, all of the electrical, sometimes the electricity hasn't even been turned off yet. The water may still be on as they’re cutting plumbing out, so that creates a pool of water in the basement that fills the house with humidity that causes all of the plaster to start dropping, causes all of the floors to buckle, and then when you look at how much it costs to repair that property, it’s not an economic viable alternative," Dahlberg says.

Dahlberg says ruined houses victimize the neighborhood. In addition to hurting property values, they often attract criminal activities – drug dealing and arson, spreading fear among those living nearby.

Raymond Moody's home was flanked by boarded up properties. Two on a lot to the south were removed. One is still standing to the north of his house.

From his front porch on North 30th Street, Raymond Moody saw people strip a pair of vacant houses. Afterwards, he says people took up residence in them, despite their decrepit condition.

"Unfortunately, some homeless people was squatting and they were just looking for shelter. They didn’t really care if it had any utilities or working water or things like that. It was sad. You know you pray for yourself but you also pray for others, but it was sad," Moody says.

He says he was also frightened.

"Because you don’t know what might happen, fire or something, then that would put my property in immediate danger," Moody says.

Moody says he lobbied for three years, and finally the city had the resources to clear the lots. Now he hopes they attract new housing. In the meantime, Moody has posted a sign in his yard, identifying himself as “block captain.” He reaches out to neighbors to try to strengthen their street.

"You know, we’re put here to serve a purpose, what is your purpose. I feel in my heart, I pray that I know that mine’s is to serve society, you know, make the world a better place," Moody says.

That kind of community activism is not always visible.

In his recent State of the City address, Mayor Tom Barrett said the foreclosure crisis has hit three areas particularly hard: the Washington Park, Amani, and Metcalfe Park neighborhoods and affected everyone living there.

"These neighborhoods are just two percent of the city’s land area, but in 2012, 13 percent of the city’s violent crime and eight percent of all crime were committed in these three neighborhoods," Barrett says.

The city recently received a pair of federal grants to pay for increased policing and code enforcement in those areas. Still Milwaukee needs $7.5 million to remove their boarded up properties. Jennifer Gonda directs intergovernmental relations for the city. Today, she and other local officials will detail the scope of the problem for the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.

"When we start to give them the numbers that we have 8,000 vacant or foreclosed homes right now in the city, that’s really a very impact number. The bottom line for us is that this takes resources. It’s an issue that the city did not bring on itself, and it’s very difficult in times of levy limits and declining shared revenues for us to come up with the dollars to pay for it," Gonda says.

The city will request $750,000 state dollars over three years to remove 150 severely blighted properties in the hardest hit neighborhoods. Gonda predicts their crime rates will then fall, proving the state investment was wise. While the state considers Milwaukee’s request, Art Dahlberg of the Department of Neighborhood Services says it will continue working to intervene at earlier stages.

"Last year we did 50,000 inspections of vacant or foreclosed properties. We are constantly dealing with the lending institutions, the investors that are holding the properties, it’s a wide mix. We don’t want to be talking about just neighborhood after neighborhood being clear cut," Dahlberg says.

If the city can secure abandoned properties so they remain livable, they won’t be added to the list of hundreds awaiting demolition and destabilizing neighborhoods.