How This Milwaukee Native Is Working to Create Affordable Housing in Wisconsin

MilMag Interview: South Side banker Joaquín Altoro is trying to crack affordable housing issues from atop a state agency.

One year ago, Gov. Tony Evers tapped Joaquín Altoro to lead the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, a choice confirmed by the state Senate in January. The Milwaukee native took over a little-understood office, 150 people strong, charged with addressing the state’s housing issues. Though a state agency, WHEDA funds its programs through a mix of tax credits and federal government bonds rather than taxpayer dollars. Altoro, 46, stepped into the role after a career in banking that began when he was a teenager. He’ll need to muster all his financial savvy to make headway in rural areas and marginalized neighborhoods.

MILMAG: You grew up in Milwaukee. How has your neighborhood changed over your life?

ALTORO: I grew up on the near South Side of Milwaukee. There were a couple of different places we lived in because my parents did not own a home. We ended up on the near South Side because my grandfather, in 1918, was one of the first Mexicans to come to Milwaukee and work in the leather tannery in the Walker’s Point neighborhood. He set up shop in that area and had 15 kids. My grandfather has a direct relationship with the growth of the Mexican American community in Milwaukee.

There was a job for him at that point, and he was able to support a family of 17. He was also able to purchase three duplexes on one lot and house his family. It’s an interesting dynamic about the interplay between community, home and work. All those things allow for the growth of a working-class family.

What we did see over the years, and which had an impact on my aunts and uncles, is a move of manufacturing from inside the city to outside. We see disinvestment in neighborhoods. We see jobs leave that directly impact the income levels of communities and we see health and education changes because of the income in our tax base that is collected. That story can be replayed many times throughout the city. And then there was always this overlying impact of redlining. We had banks and insurance companies either not insuring or not lending, or only lending and insuring particular areas of Milwaukee.

Now we look at Walker’s Point – and I love when people say this is the up-and-coming neighborhood – Walker’s Point is one of our oldest neighborhoods. It was built by the Polish community. They built beautiful churches; they had commercial corridors. Now, as people move back into urban centers, what we’re seeing is a change of the demographics of people, income levels and race. That is the future of Milwaukee, and why people are talking about the need for affordable housing, mixed-income communities and integration.

Is housing only an issue in densely populated areas of the state?

Absolutely not. Rural communities in Wisconsin are dealing with this perfect storm of situations that are making it difficult to provide housing. A lot of the youth is moving out. What remains is our elderly community. Sometimes they don’t want to age-in-place, but there is no other choice for housing. Developers are not flocking to rural communities because the need there might only be in the dozens, where developers can find opportunities in densely populated areas in the hundreds. [Also challenging is] finding a workforce out in rural communities, finding a pledge to support the debt, municipalities having the capacity to perform on new developments – do they have urban planning professionals, do they have a department of city development, do they understand and are they ready for the type of zoning that needs to be in place? When you add up all these things, it creates that perfect storm.

You view your charge as CEO to make WHEDA a more significant force in community development. What do you hope a more dynamic WHEDA looks like?

It’s important to pay respect to what WHEDA has been doing. If we were to remove WHEDA from the ecosystem in the last 10 years, I would not want to know what Wisconsin would look like. I want to lead an organization that will produce more. The first thing I did was create the WHEDA lab to make sure we’re not just building four walls and housing somebody. Where can we have a healthy thought process around the hybridization between housing and economic development? Those two things have been siloed so long. We have organizations that work solely on development, making and building and producing more small businesses. And we have other organizations that work just on housing. How do we think outside the box so that we’re creating wealth and in lower- and moderate-income communities? Is there a way that we build a building that a developer can create affordable space for small business on the first floor? Urban areas like Milwaukee are having problems recruiting teachers. If we were to partner with a developer that created affordable housing units for teachers, could that be a recruitment tool?

You have a long background in banking. What’s it like going from the banker everyone wants to partner with to the person pushing for bank partnerships?

I thank Gov. Evers for recognizing something I always knew about myself: I was a banker that wanted to know intimately the community I’m serving before I offer a product. As a young banker – I’m talking about in my late teens – I realized that banks weren’t doing a good job of connecting with the communities they were serving. I’ve had state senators ask me, what does a city boy know about rural communities? I told them I didn’t just study the South Side of Milwaukee – I studied urban and rural communities to a point that eventually I got over to a community development financial institution [Forward Community Investments] that supported lending in rural communities.

Recently, the National Association of Realtors issued a report on race and homebuying that found fewer than one in four African Americans in Wisconsin own their own home – the third lowest percentage in the nation. What steps are you taking to address this?

I want to go deeper and figure out in Wisconsin who is an African American or Latino homebuyer. What is their credit score? What is their debt ratio? Where do they live? How old are they? Are they male or female? When we define who that person is, then we try to match up our underwriting guidelines to see if there’s a disconnect between them. We’re responding with tools, not just a loan. Tools are homebuyers’ education. Tools are marketing and advertising in the right place. Whatever we learn about African American ownership, we hope we can figure out how we reconstruct that in rural communities or with the elderly.

According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, even after the recession, homeownership remains the source of most families’ wealth in the United States, particularly for low-income people. That blows my mind. We’ve been through a significant recession. It hurt almost everybody in this world. Why would I not want to be working at the epicenter, where we can be a game changer for people?

We hear a lot about housing issues being severe in places like San Francisco, Seattle and New York. How pressing is the issue of housing in Wisconsin compared to other states?

That question should be answered delicately and respectfully. If I were to say we’re not at the level of San Francisco and Chicago, there’s a truth to that. But at the same time, when we look at our numbers and see how poverty is increasing in Wisconsin, when we see farms that are closing left and right, when we see growing disparities between the African American, Latino and white communities in Wisconsin, and how it ties back to housing, it is a very, very serious issue. When we try to compare issues with other places where they’ve been dealing with these problems for generations, it’s difficult. The upside is that we can look at some case studies and see where there has been success, and we can learn. But we have our own very specific nuances of what it means to be a Milwaukeean or a Wisconsinite.

Is there anything that keeps you up at night?

I sleep well, because I’ve come to an understanding around the disparities that I grew up in, that I’ve worked in for so many years, and I’ve come to a really good acceptance and a healthy accounting of myself, knowing that I give a lot. I work very hard at making sure that I give back to my community. What keeps me up at night is nothing negative, it’s the excitement.

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s May issue. 

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