After three forced apartment evictions, leaders are pressing for answers
Written by Princess Safiya Byers
This story was originally published by the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories about fifteen neighborhoods in the city of Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
After three forced residential evictions this year, including two in Milwaukee, city leaders are searching for answers.
On September 5, tenants at the SoHi Lofts at North 26th and West Wells streets were evacuated after stairs collapsed.
In March, residents of a community housing project within the corridor were forced to evacuate due to dangerously high levels of trichlorethylene, or TCE, which has been linked to fatal fetal heart defects, kidney damage, liver damage and death.
Three months later, six units at The Lydell Apartments next to Bayshore Mall in Glendale were evicted for the same reason.
During the Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee meeting on Tuesday. Robert Bowman questioned representatives from the city’s development department and the Department of Neighborhood Services, or DNS.
“When was this issue first noticed or made aware by DNS through scanning? When did they receive the complaints? How do they respond to those complaints?”
“What investigations were conducted? Were orders issued where emergency orders were issued? What was the response to the property owner? What was the timeline and actions taken before the evacuation and final evacuation of the building?” he asked at the meeting.
Representatives of both departments said they acted in accordance with city code laws.
The Department of Neighborhood Services was officially notified of the problem with the stairs at North 26th and West Wells streets in October 2021, and has been in contact with the ownership group to fix the problem, said Juman Cheatham, director of the Commercial Enforcement Division.
“We’ve been to the property about 20 to 30 times since that initial call in 2021,” Cheatham said. “And at least once a quarter specifically for the problem with the stairs until they collapsed two weeks ago.”
He said the property management company provided temporary fixes and paid the fines when they were issued.
He also noted that tenants of four of the 16 units in the building have withheld rent due to unresolved issues related to building conditions.
Also, according to the property owner, the original contractor built an outdoor elevator that only worked for a little over a year and had been a code issue for years.
“We are waiting for a miserable failure.”
“It’s like we’re using tenants as canaries in the coal mine, you know. “We’re waiting for a fiasco,” Ald Michael Murphy said. “Since 2021, when I gave the initial orders for a chartered architect to come in and re-handle the whole thing, hasn’t there been “What’s the point of all that time between 2021 and the last accident where engineers assumed this would fail?”
The Lofts were initially created by a non-profit organization that is no longer in operation. Bowman said he believes the eviction may be the result of a failure to hold nonprofits to the same standards as other developers.
He said the city should provide closer scrutiny to some nonprofits because they don’t have much to lose.
“They have no skin in the game, no stocks going worthless, no bankruptcy. They just went out of business,” he said. “They are doing a project. They got a bunch of money because they came and gave us the song and dance about assistance and affordable housing. We fall in love with it, put resources into it, and then they fail.
He said the results are disastrous for renters who lose their homes, for owners who later purchase properties, and for city residents whose tax dollars are used to fund these projects.
The biggest problem, Bowman said, is that the city can’t provide certainty to residents displaced by evictions.
“When we force residents to evacuate private property, we, the city, have no mechanism to help them,” he said. “We don’t have resources. We don’t have a program that we can call. We can call third-party nonprofits. We can call the Red Cross. But we don’t have a formal process to help them, provide rent vouchers, find new housing. They’re basically on their own.”
Emergency housing resources
the Red Cross Helps connect people to resources after unexpected experiences and catastrophic events.
Effect 2-1-1 Able to direct displaced tenants towards any available emergency housing if available.