How Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity Is Building Affordable Housing

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As a veteran owner of a Habitat home, Rita Estremera is happy to tell anyone that Habitat changed her family’s lives forever — for the better. Rita and her husband, Angel, were able to leave a dilapidated, dangerous rental unit and put down roots. They raised their two sons in the home and have forged deep ties in their Midtown neighborhood.

“Having your own home changes you,” says Rita, who has a home-based soap-and-lotion business, Aloekui; Angel is a welder. “You have to think like a homeowner, take responsibility, pay bills, make repairs. It helps you grow as a person.”

Many Milwaukeeans, unfortunately, do not have that opportunity. According to Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity statistics, nearly 60 percent of local renters pay 40, 50 and even 70 percent of their income just for rent. “This means there is little left over for education, saving for the future or even basic needs,” says Brian Sonderman, Habitat’s executive director.

Since 1984, Habitat has been combating this crisis by providing families with a path to safe, stable housing. Volunteer construction crews build or rehab the homes, assisted by the homeowners-to-be, who put in hundreds of hours of “sweat equity.” Since its founding, Milwaukee Habitat has built, rehabbed or repaired 1,120 homes. Habitat also offers low-interest mortgages and post-purchase resources, such as connecting homeowners to neighborhood block groups.

“Many studies show that affordable housing decreases crime and increases community engagement,” Sonderman says. “We have seen that raising homeowner rates on a block has a tremendous ripple effect on the block itself and the whole neighborhood.”

Milwaukee Habitat’s current project is Midtown 100, a $10.3 million, three-year project in the Midtown neighborhood on Milwaukee’s northwest side. When finished in 2021, the project will have created 65 new properties and 15 rehabbed ones (typically foreclosed and/or abandoned homes). An additional 20 homes will have been improved through the Critical Home Repair program, which latter helps existing homeowners remain in place by addressing code violations, fixing dilapidated roofs and porches, and remedying accessibility issues.

Midtown 100 will be the largest concentration of affordable, single-family homes built in Milwaukee since World War II.


Habitat stats at-a-glance

  • One out of three families in Milwaukee cannot afford the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment.
  • Crime decreased 46% on blocks where Habitat built homes in Washington Park.
  • Eighty-seven percent of children in Milwaukee Habitat homes graduate from high school, a rate 30% higher than the Milwaukee Public Schools average.

This Story is part of the December issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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