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Where The Heart Is
For some, a building on Center Street is the only thing standing between their lives and homelessness.

The Webb family has a place of its own now, at Maskani Place. Photo by Erich Schroeder. 

It all started in Lisa Webb’s hometown of Gary, Ind., when she divorced her high school sweetheart, a man who had repeatedly cheated on her. After the separation, Webb endured a period of new homes, new jobs and, eventually, homelessness. Coping with her situation proved worrisome for Webb and her four kids, whom she sent to live with their father in Milwaukee, part of an attempt to regain her post-divorce footing. Webb herself moved out to California for a door-to-door sales job, where her troubles would continue.

“It was bad, but it could have been worse,” Webb says. “I tried to keep a positive outlook through everything.”

She’s recounting her story in the sparse apartment where she now lives with her children. It’s one of 37 units at Maskani Place, a new housing complex now standing at 320 E. Center St. The four-story structure is the third Milwaukee development from Heartland Housing, a Chicago organization that’s used tax credits available to developers building affordable housing in Wisconsin.

Apartments at Maskani Place are offered to the low-income and homeless residents. In a town with brutal winters, some 2,000 people are without a home each night, according to federal estimates.

Webb is no longer among those ranks, but she vividly recalls when she was. With fresh muffins sitting nearby, atop her new stove, she describes the lost jobs and the abusive boyfriend that preceded a momentous call from her children – reaching her where she was staying with family in Gary. “Daddy is in jail,” one of them said. 

Desperate to find a way back to Milwaukee and her kids, she borrowed money for a bus ticket and arrived with just $15 in her pocket.

When Webb arrived, she found her children living in a house infested with bed bugs. Effecting yet another move, she checked the kids into the Casa Maria Hospitality House, a temporary shelter on the North Side, and next migrated to a two-bedroom duplex on Capitol Drive that’s operated as transitional housing by the YWCA.

This gave her enough time to apply for Maskani Place, which she says became like a light at the end of the tunnel. After completing the application process, she received the keys to her new apartment in May. Emboldened by her success, Webb recently applied and was accepted to Milwaukee Area Technical College. Her daughter, who just graduated from high school with honors, will attend the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee this fall.

Today, Maskani Place’s apartments are filled to capacity, and friendly banter fills the lobby. Heartland Housing (an offshoot of the Heartland Alliance, a larger anti-poverty organization) paid $6 for the land on which the building was built, a spot city officials selected because the neighborhood is on the rebound, according to Hume An, the housing group’s director of real estate development.

The development has sought to blend into its environment, which is important in the construction of low-income housing, says Gregory Squires, a sociology professor at George Washington University. Without an appealing physical appearance, neighbors in the area tend to worry about declining property values and rising crime rates, and more established residents will move out. Low-income residents gradually “become stigmatized,” he says. “It’s a vicious cycle.”

Multiple studies have found no correlation between low-income housing and increased crime rates, in the case of smaller developments (fewer than 50 units), although a state report from Minnesota found a link between an area’s concentration of affordable housing and its crime rates. With such mixed results, “We need to get away from a polarized way of thinking,” Squires says – the sort that can doom projects like Maskani Place.

Tax credits issued by the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) – a key source of financing for apartment projects since the real estate bubble burst in 2008 – covered $9.6 million of the $10 million it took to build Maskani Place. To residents like Webb, it was money well spent.

“I’m so thankful,” Webb says. “Milwaukee has been a blessing.” ■

This article appears in the August 2014 issue of
 Milwaukee Magazine. 
Read the rest of August issue online here, or subscribe to Milwaukee Magazine.

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