Milwaukee Housing Authority Works to Create Independence

Jun 3, 2013

Berryland Public Housing is owned and operated by the Milwaukee Housing Authority

Public housing was designed to help people fallen on hard-times.

However, in cities including Milwaukee, some people remain in the safety net for significant amounts of time.

Many people have lived in public housing anywhere from 11 to 20 years. The Milwaukee Housing Authority seeks ways to help able-bodied people transition to independent living. Now, as WUWM’s LaToya Dennis reports, the agency hopes the federal government will expand its “Moving to Work” program. It gives communities the flexibility to tailor-make programs.                     

Sayvon Friend has spent about 14 of his 18 years in public housing.  

“We lived in Westlawn for a while and then moved over in the Burleigh area for about, like five years. And then we moved into the home which my mom is in now for about five years,” Friend says.

Sayvon is the oldest of five. He says the environment growing up clouded his future.

“I was caught in a loop. It was at a point where I really didn’t want to do anything, and I didn’t want to further my education. I just wanted to be like everybody else,” Friend says.

Sayvon says it wasn’t until 10th grade that his attitude began to change. He credits a couple great teachers and the Milwaukee Housing Authority’s education program.

“They have a coordinator, Mr. Finch, my junior year of Messmer is when I was like in the swing of getting ready for college and preparing. I never had anyone else in the family who really went to college, so I really didn’t know that much of what to do and I was trying to prepare myself, but he helped out a lot,” Friend says.

Sayvon recently finished his first year at UWM; he rents an apartment with a couple friends. His accomplishments highlight a success story for the housing authority. Tony Perez heads the agency. He says one way it tries to end generations of families in public housing, is by encouraging the young people to attend school.

“Even if their parents and grandparents choose to remain in public housing, they might find it that this is not where they actually want to live because they happen to be successfully engaged in academic endeavors,” Perez says. 

The agency requires kids in three of its buildings to attend school – it’s part of the family’s lease. However, there’s no way to enforce the mandate.

The “Moving to Work,” program exempts housing authorities from many existing rules. Perez says if Milwaukee could take part, it could be more creative - although its goal would not be to simply push people out.

Of the 35 or so authorities already participating, many have imposed work requirements and a maximum amount of time people can stay in public housing.  

Linda Couch worries about the trend. She works for the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“We’d much rather see housing authorities be housing agencies and let other agencies try and increase peoples earned income; try and decrease the unemployment rate. I would hope that the housing people who have enough problems of their own with funding, could stick to housing,” Couch says.

Couch says there are non-demeaning ways to help move out of public housing.

“One is to increase people’s income to a point at which they can afford market rate rent,” Couch says.

Another option, according to Couch, is to increase the number of affordable units available.  She says both strategies would help ease the bottleneck.

Milwaukee has a waiting list of around 13,000 for public housing. Another 1,100 are waiting for Section 8 vouchers.

They help subsidize a household’s rent.