Why Some People Live Where They Do, in Segregated Metropolitan Milwaukee

Mar 6, 2017

Several reasons emerge as to why people in metro Milwaukee live in either segregated or integrated neighborhoods in what is the most racially segregated metro area in the country. Sometimes people have a choice, other times they do not. And one statistic sets this area apart from all others, according to UWM researcher Marc Levine - the rate of affluent African-Americans opting to live in neighborhoods saturated with poverty.

Black households earning $100,000 or greater are more likely to live in areas of concentrated poverty in metro Milwaukee.
Credit : Marc V. Levine, "The Most Segregated Metropolis in America? Race, Poverty, and Schooling in Divided Milwaukee." (UWM Center for Economic Development, forthcoming)

“You’ve have black households with incomes of $100,000 a year and up or $200,000 a year and up living in which the overall poverty rate is 40 percent,” Levine says.

Now that Levine has painted the picture, meet Clifton Phelps.

“I’m one of the partners of JCP Construction and also Equity Supply Group, which is a supply company. We are three brothers that started a construction company probably around eight years ago,” Phelps says.

Phelps and his brothers have their hands in a number of major commercial projects now taking shape in Milwaukee, including Northwestern Mutual, the Bucks arena, Pete’s Fruit Market and Bader Foundation’s headquarters.

Phelps grew up on 2nd and Locust. He went away to college, but came back after graduation and settled on Milwaukee’s east side.

Clifton Phelps says he and his wife choose to live in Milwaukee because they care about the city.
Credit LaToya Dennis

“I like diversity. I came from the deep east side and I loved the way the block worked. There were Halloween (parties), the neighbors knew each other, everyone was on the same page,” Phelps says.

So when Phelps and his wife were looking to purchase a home five years ago, he wanted a family-friendly community for their kids – they have four. Phelps says he has found that culture on Milwaukee’ north side. The couple bought a five bedroom brick bungalow on a tree lined street in the diverse Sherman Park neighborhood. Yet Phelps admits, the surrounding areas have their problems. For example, the unrest last summer happened just a couple blocks away.

“So like the riots happen and you’re like oh, should we move? And then you know like two weeks go past and nerves kind of die down and you’re like you’re okay. There was a shootout on this block by people who weren’t even from his block. Some car saw another car they didn’t like and it was a big shootout and everything was taped off. And my wife was panicked, I was panicked. And then like two weeks later I didn’t see any for sale sighs so I was like okay, we’re good,” he says.

Phelps says that while it may sound bad, the reality is that people get used to crime. As for why he and his wife stay… “I think it’s the good thing to do to stay in the city of Milwaukee so that you’re not moving out and not caring about what’s going on in the city. If you work and you’re a part of the community, you want to be part of the community."

While Phelps and his wife have decided to live in Milwaukee, 33-year-old Uniqueka Bailey has moved out with her three kids. Bailey is a medical assistant and says she wasn’t looking to leave – she had spent her entire life on Milwaukee’s north and northwest sides. But she had trouble securing a place to rent because of a previous eviction, so Bailey was thankful when her cousin told her about an apartment in the City of Waukesha.

READ: 'Evicted' Book Paints a Heartbreaking Picture of a Milwaukee Under Stress

“She talked to the landlord about getting me an apartment here. She already lived here and talked to the landlord and it was like an easy move in. I didn’t have to go through the obstacles and hurdles just to get in here,” she says.

Bailey pays $650 a month for a two bedroom apartment. She says a lot of the tenants in her complex are people of color, but that’s not the same outside.

“Driving around Waukesha, I don’t really see too many others people of color," she says.

And Bailey says she doesn’t always feel comfortable. “When I shop out here, at something like Walmart, like if we’re walking down the aisle, they expect me to move instead of them moving to the side. Things like that. So that’s the only time it bothers me. Otherwise, they stay out of my way and I stay out of theirs."

Still, Bailey plans to stay. She says she likes her neighborhood because it’s quiet and she feels safe.

While the city of Waukesha offers affordable housing, other more affluent parts of Waukesha County are a different story. Kori Schneider Peragine, who works for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council, says there’s a long held theory about people who fled Milwaukee decades ago.

“Communities that were sort of the recipients from white flight back in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s have more opposition to any potential diversity or affordable housing coming into their communities,” she  says.

The fair housing council recently settled a discrimination complaint against Waukesha County after alleging that it is not providing enough affordable housing, thus locking out minorities.

READ: Waukesha County Reaches Settlement Over Housing Discrimination

Schneider Peragine says she knows through experience that “a lot of things get said behind closed doors in some of those community meetings and so you know that there’s racism or classism or some sort of -ism, some sort of nefarious thing going on. But once you get into those public meetings that language is gone. They come up with a valid reason for it when the underlying cause is much uglier."

"I've noticed people who have very similar incomes and very similar credit scores are not approved for the same amount of money and are not approved with the same interest rates."

Lending institutions have also limited where black people live in metro Milwaukee, according to realtor Damion Thompson.

“I’ve noticed people who have very similar incomes and very similar credit scores are not approved for the same amount of money and are not approved with the same interest rates,” he says.

Thompson says smaller loans mean you may not be able to purchase in certain areas, while higher interest rates mean you’d have to pay more. And he says the consequences of confining black families to lower-income neighborhoods can be long-term.

“You go to a place where your property values are going to continue to escalate and I go to a place where my property values, if something bad happens, they’re cut in half, now, 20 years later, when my small children are college age, I can’t take equity out of the house and send them to school,” he says.

That’s the problem with segregation, David Pate says – it creates winners and losers. Yet the UW-Milwaukee researcher says he understands why many black people remain in segregated, less-than-ideal neighborhoods that lack resources.

“You need to have a space that makes you feel like okay, I’m at home and I don’t have to do anything that’s going to make me uncomfortable,” Pate says.

Clifton Phelps seems content in his Sherman Park neighborhood, yet admits he and his neighbors are concerned about renters.

“That house right there just got sold, we could not wait to find out who the owner was. We wanted to know is this house for sale because we would buy it from them to put a family…as a matter of fact, we were talking with some neighbors over here to see if we could bundle up the money for that house over there just so we could sell it to someone that we knew,” Phelps says. 

Phelps says the goal is to maintain the neighborhood’s positive dynamic and its property values.

For more on this topic, explore our Project Milwaukee: Segregation Matters series.

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