Banks say they'll work with community advocates, agree to maintain vacant properties
by Georgia Pabst for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
October 24, 2010
Representatives of five of the nation's leading banks told a crowd of 1,100 Sunday that they would work with the advocacy group Common Ground to deal with Milwaukee's foreclosure crisis, including maintaining vacant land and boarded-up properties.
The banks' response was much different a year ago, when Common Ground, then a new community organization, launched an initiative to hold major banks accountable for the mounting foreclosure crisis that has helped to depress Milwaukee's housing market.
Then, some banks responded, some didn't.
Now, the bank officials also said they were willing to commit to work with Common Ground and a developer on a revitalization plan in the Sherman Park neighborhood.
"Twelve months ago we were nowhere," said the Rev. Jason Butler, pastor of Transformation City Church and a member of Common Ground, describing the start of the foreclosure effort. "Now we have five major banks committed to be part of restoring the city of Milwaukee.
"It's been a tough, rocky road, but today marks the beginning of a new story."
Representatives from U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Deutsche Bank were at Sunday's meeting at the Harley-Davidson Museum.
All bank officials responded to a list of six questions dealing with their commitment to deal with the properties that their bank owns, holds in trust or services. This includes registering their properties with the city, working to maintain the properties by securing the properties so they are safe, mowing the lawn, removing trash and making periodic checks.
"We have quality control and we meet with the city monthly on code violations," said Eliana M. Williams of Wells Fargo.
During its research for the foreclosure campaign last year, Common Ground found that the majority of the foreclosures in Milwaukee were held by three banks - Deutsche Bank, Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank.
When Common Ground could not get a response from Deutsche Bank, it sent two representatives from the organization to the bank's annual shareholders meeting in Frankfurt, Germany, in May to ask for a face-to-face meeting.
At the meeting, which occurred this summer, Deutsche Bank CEO Josef Ackermann said he would send a representative to Milwaukee to meet with Common Ground. Since then Deutsche Bank officials have participated in meetings with Common Ground and the city.
John Gallagher, a spokesman for Deutsche Bank in New York, attended Sunday's meeting and said relations with Common Ground got off to a rough start, but things have improved. "This is the most impressive organization we've met with because they are well-informed and bring the appropriate partners together to find common solutions," he said.
Others at the meeting included Ald. Michael Murphy, state Rep. Jon Richards (D-Milwaukee) and state Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale), along with Milwaukee Episcopal Bishop Steven Miller.
Health Care Cooperative
Also at the meeting Sunday labeled "Healthy Neighborhood, Healthy People," Common Ground officials announced they have been working for nearly two years with the Wisconsin Health Care Cooperative and plan to form a new health insurance cooperative for small businesses, nonprofits and the self-employed in the region.
Enrollment for the cooperative will start in November with a goal of signing up 3,000 to 5,000 people over the next several months, said Bob Connolly, a small-business man who said his insurance costs climb constantly.
From his pocket he pulled out an insurance bill that totaled $8,061 a month for four employees in his company.
"This is a citizen-driven initiative to organize to solve problems created by others," he told the crowd.
Common Ground, a diverse coalition of faith and community groups from the four-county area, formed in 2008.