When homes are boarded up and taken over by the bank, the neighbors know well the decay, crime and danger that can follow

by Georgia Pabst for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

November 23, 2009


Seven years ago the Greater New Birth Church built a new house of worship that's a bright and sturdy structure on the corner of N. 22nd and W. Center streets.

The needs for food, jobs and counseling have remained the same for the church, which was designed to serve the low-income Amani neighborhood, youth pastor Willie Davis said.

What has changed, he said, is the growing foreclosure crisis that's cast a shadow over the neighborhood. More and more homes have been boarded up and abandoned, left to decay and serve as magnets for crime, vandalism and growing fears for those who remain.

An estimated 80 homes within a six-block radius of the church have been boarded up or abandoned, he and others who walked and surveyed the neighborhood said.

"The foreclosures combined with job layoffs have been devastating," said Bishop R.J. Burt, the leader of the church.

The crisis takes its toll on families, especially young people, who have come to him scared and feeling helpless, Davis said. He recalls a young man who told him tearfully that his mother said he should keep his toothbrush and clothes in his locker at school because she couldn't be sure where they would be staying that night.

Or the 8-year-old girl who was shaking and terrified when she asked him if he could take her and her mom to their car because of the drunks and crack heads who were lurking around abandoned houses near them.

Davis, along with bankers, Realtors, city officials and others discussed the impact of foreclosed and boarded-up homes on residents, neighborhoods and the city at a hearing last week held by Common Ground and attended by nearly 250.

Common Ground is a four-county, diverse organization of more than 50 religious and community groups that organized last year to work on political, nonpartisan issues.

With 160 volunteers, Common Ground did several neighborhood walks around Amani and other areas, knocked on 400 doors and spoke to more than 100 residents who voiced their concerns about the problems foreclosed and abandoned homes cause, said the Rev. Jean Down, associate pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church.

The group then did research on foreclosed homes and their ownership, which rests with large, national banks, she said.

While there were 2,000 foreclosures in Milwaukee County in 2001, there were 6,300 in 2008, and that number is expected to rise to 7,000 in 2009, said Catherine Doyle, chief staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society.

Low-income people, the elderly and women are those who have been hardest hit by foreclosures, she said.

"It's a huge problem," said Ald. Michael Murphy, chairman of the Common Council's Finance and Personnel Committee, in describing the impact on the city. "We're facing a $1 billion impact, which is significant in driving down values and more requests for services on foreclosed properties."

Al Jansen, a Milwaukee firefighter, said empty homes "become treacherous and dangerous places." Dog-fighting rings and meth labs have been found, along with squatters who light fires that can affect neighboring properties, he said.

There have been gas and electric fires in vacant houses, and often the homes are stripped of wire and mechanical devices, he said.

"There's a huge (financial) cost to bear on the city and on the mentality of the city," Jansen said.

Margaret Henningsen, the founder of Legacy Bank in 1999, said that in the late l960s and l970s Milwaukee underwent a similar housing crisis when FHA loans were made "to anyone who could breathe."

"There were more than 8,000 board-ups in four ZIP codes," she said. "I feel like it's déjà vu. It took 30 years to get the community back, and I'm stunned that this is happening again."

She urged the group to "put your money where your mouth is" and to pay attention to where they do their banking because national banks located around the country bought the bundled-up mortgages that helped cause the current situation.

While the problems are dire, the city and others, like Greater New Birth Church, are offering counseling and trying to assist individuals, said Britt and Suzanne Dennik, project manager for the Milwaukee Foreclosure Project Initiative.

To date there have been 313 requests for mediation and 97% have worked out modifications to their loans, she said.

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