New project working to fix up foreclosed houses hires ex-offenders

by Georgia Pabst for The Journal Sentinel

June 14, 2012

Martin Sinclair stood Thursday on the steps of the vacant, neglected house in the 2500 block of N. 52nd St., and before a gathering of bankers, government officials and area residents, he confessed.

"I came from the streets and I ran with guys who tore up the community," said Sinclair, 28, an ex-offender. "Now I have the opportunity to give back and fix what I helped to destroy."

He called it "a blessing and an honor" to be the first Milwaukee crew member hired for the new 180 Properties program, which creates jobs for the difficult-to-employ and works to clean up and service foreclosed properties.

There are now two crews of three to four people and soon a third crew will be working in Milwaukee, said Chris Rintz, the CEO of 180 Properties.

The crews are paid $12 an hour plus benefits, get training and then go to work to clean up bank-owned houses that have gone through foreclosure and are vacant, vandalized and a blight on neighborhoods.

The program was rolled out in Milwaukee at a sidewalk news conference Thursday. It's part of the group Common Ground's Milwaukee Rising effort that succeeded in getting five major banks to commit $33 million in support over five years to deal with the foreclosure crisis in the city.

Of that, $500,000 will go to finance the 180 Properties program, which is a partnership with Common Ground, an organization consisting of more than 40 faith-based and community organizations.

Program A Joint Venture

Started in Chicago four years ago, the 180 Properties program is a joint venture created by Mercy Housing Lakefront, a nonprofit community development group, and the Cara Program, an employment training organization that provides skills training for difficult-to-employ individuals, such as those with an unsteady work history, those who have been incarcerated, or those with little education and skills.

"When all of us were experiencing the financial collapse four years ago, we could see there would be a huge problem with the tons of foreclosures and we knew we had to respond with solutions," said Cindy Holler, president of Mercy Housing Lakefront.

As a result, 180 Properties was created to clean up foreclosed houses as they became vacant and to cut the grass, patch a leaky roof, and hire and train people to do the work of servicing such properties, she said.

"Our vision was shared by Bank of America, and they've been a great partner," she said.

Patricia Holden, senior vice president for government relations with Bank of America in Chicago, called the 180 Properties idea "fabulous."

"It's people in the community doing the work, knowing the neighborhood, and it's those who feel they can make a difference," she said. "We can't have good customers without good communities."

Fixtures Stripped

Bank of America owns the foreclosed home on N. 52nd St. where the news conference took place. Holden said the bank plans to donate the home to Common Ground for rehabilitation.

Inside the two-story house that has six bedrooms and two baths, gang graffiti is scrawled on the dirty walls. Some of the walls have holes. The copper and fixtures have been stripped from the bathroom. There's now a hole in the counter where the kitchen sink once sat.

Trash and debris already have been hauled out of the house, which has stood vacant for nearly a year.

But now there also are buckets, mops and cleaning supplies in the enclosed porch. On Thursday, 180 Properties crews were cleaning out the yard and the alley, and starting to fix some doors and windows on the neglected house

'We're Making Progress'

"We know we're making progress and making a difference," said Ald. Michael Murphy, who has been active in working on the foreclosure crisis. Common Ground helped lead the way to forging a collaboration with the banks, the city "and all of you," he said to those gathered on the sidewalk under a shady tree.

After making his comments to the crowd, Sinclair returned to work.

In December he was released from prison, where he served 10 years for recklessly endangering safety, and, he said, he welcomes the chance to work with 180 Properties.

"This is pretty hard work because you deal with abandoned houses and some have mold and you have to clean out trash," he said of the job he started in April. "But this is giving me an opportunity to take care of my family and work with a team of really good people. I've learned a lot. And everyone wants to see each other prosper and grow."

View article here