Milwaukee's condo shortage stems from a lack of new construction dating back to the collapse of the market about a decade ago.
When Mari Cohn landed in Milwaukee after a job transfer, she and her partner, Micheal Haven, set out on an often frustrating quest for a scarce commodity: a Downtown condominium.
They put their suburban Chicago house on the market, and Cohn reluctantly moved into a rental unit as the search intensified.
“We looked at everything. If we liked it and it was a good price, it would be gone right away,” recalls Cohn, a nurse liaison for the city of Milwaukee.
In April 2018, about a month after they’d been searching seriously, the couple toured a condo at Cathedral Place. Fed up with renting and in love with the building, they made an offer that same day. They offered $135,000, well above asking price, even though they knew the studio unit was too small to comfortably fit them and their 85-pound Lab mix, Izzy. The offer accepted, Cohn and Haven finally had a place of their own, though their search continued for something bigger.
“It was very disheartening,” Haven says. “There just wasn’t a lot out there. We saw condos that were really overpriced and others that were in really bad shape. There seemed to be a lot of apartments, but we didn’t want to rent.”
A few months later, the couple purchased a second condo for $290,000 at The Waterfront, a sprawling Third Ward development along the Milwaukee River. Again, they offered above what the seller sought. (Cohn and Haven are leasing their Cathedral Place condo.)
“Buyers are frustrated with the urban condo market because we have no supply,” says Mary Beth Waite, owner and broker at Cornerstone Realtors in Milwaukee. “That means fewer choices and more competition for the best units.”
The shortage, which stems from a lack of new construction dating to the collapse of the market about a decade ago, has caused prices to climb in periods of strong demand.
Last year, however, the average condo sale price increased only a fraction compared with 2017. “We saw some adjustments due to prices pushing up too far, too fast,” Waite says. “Buyers still want value.”
This year, the average sale price for a Downtown condo jumped 23% to nearly $400,000 from Jan. 1 through the first three weeks of May, according to the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors.
Waite sees strong demand at all price points from a wide array of buyers. But tight supply remains a reality.
In mid-June, 150 condominiums were listed for sale, but only 82 had no accepted offers, based on Multiple Listing Service data for the five ZIP codes that include Downtown, Walker’s Point, the Historic Third Ward, the Lower East Side and Riverwest. They ranged in price from $72,000 to nearly $2.5 million. At the end of 2010 – the last year in which a major Downtown condo project, The Moderne, gained approval – there were nearly 1,300 condo units for sale in the same area.
Growing demand has led to a surge in Downtown Milwaukee condo buying. But a lack of new construction has created a severe shortage of units, leading to remarkably quick sales.
“Buyers are frustrated with the urban condo market because we have no supply. That means fewer choices and more competition for the best units.”
— Mary Beth Waite,
owner and broker,
Cornerstone Realtors in Milwaukee
Many factors have stymied Downtown condo development, explains Andy Hunt, director of the Center for Real Estate at Marquette University. “We had some bad actors in the mortgage market, and a number of developers were left selling condo units below cost,” Hunt says. “So banks haven’t been overly excited about financing condo developments.”
As a result, recent Downtown residential development has focused almost exclusively on apartments.
The market has been slow to react, but plans are finally taking shape for the first new sizable condo development in the Downtown area since the market collapse. Wangard Partners has unveiled plans for as many as 250 condo units in three towers along the Milwaukee River at East Brady and North Water streets. Construction is expected to begin this year.
At first, the Wauwatosa firm considered building apartments on the property, says CEO Stewart Wangard. Financing as a condo project requires more capital, he says.
“Lenders are a little bit shy about being involved with a new condominium project, so it takes a lot more equity than normal,” Wangard says. Still, “We felt the market was ready for condominiums. We feel this is such a special site, and the vibrancy Downtown is unbelievable right now.”