When Gail Crockett moved into a house in Milwaukee’s Midtown neighborhood in 1999, she noticed her neighbors were afraid to come outside. “It was kind of scary,” she says. “There were a lot of slumlords and dilapidated homes.” But Crockett, whose family had worked with the nonprofit organization Habitat for Humanity to build the home, was confident things would change for the better. “I told them, ‘Give it five years,’” she says.
Her instincts were right. One of several Habitat homeowners in the area, Crockett has seen dramatic changes. Streets are cleaner. Homeowners tend gardens and help each other out. Crime is down, and Crockett volunteers as a block watch captain. Those once-guarded neighbors now are on a first-name basis. “They call me Mrs. Gail,” she says.
Crockett’s block is just the beginning of a major overhaul of the area. Over the course of three years, Habitat’s Midtown 100 project will invest more than $10.3 million in building, repairing and rehabilitating 100 homes between North 21st and 30th streets and West North and Lisbon avenues. A series of corporate sponsorships will fund the effort, starting with Plymouth-based cheesemaker Sargento Foods, which in 1992 became the Milwaukee Habitat’s first corporate sponsor. The three-year vision of the new project is “bold,” says company spokeswoman Portia Young. “We believe this contributes to a healthy community.”
The effort is modeled after a similar one in the Washington Park neighborhood, an endeavor that took about five years to complete. Once identified as a “hot spot” by police, Washington Park has seen crime drop by more than 40 percent, and the neighborhood now has a bank and a grocery store selling fresh foods.
“Habitat has a model that has been proven to work,” says Brian Sonderman, executive director of Milwaukee Habitat. On March 21, the organization held a groundbreaking ceremony for the Midtown project, which he hopes will raise the neighborhood’s profile. “We want to recruit others to invest in the area,” he says.
About a mile and a half from Downtown, Midtown is home to about 8,000 residents, a number Crockett thinks will go up as the work advances. Sixty-five houses will be built, 20 will be repaired, and 15 (mainly foreclosures and blighted properties) will undergo major rehabs. “This will bring more families to the community,” she says.
Typically, Midtown residents earn between 30 and 80 percent of the average Milwaukeean, and rent costs often exceed 60 percent of their income, leaving little money for other living expenses. To avoid putting first-time homebuyers in a similar squeeze, Habitat sells only to those for whom zero-interest mortgage and tax payments would take up 30 percent of their income or less.
“These are not free homes,” Sonderman says.
The building of new houses will begin in May and conclude sometime in November, he says, while current Midtown homeowners can apply for up to $15,000 in interest-free loans to use on roof, electrical and accessibility projects. “We want to see dozens and dozens of homeowners.”
Gail Crockett took out one of the interest-free mortgages in Washington Park when she moved into her home 19 years ago. “I was able to pay my house off,” she says. The goal is to find more people like her.