A Semester Ends in the Climb for a GED

Sister Patricia Opening the Celebration

Milwaukee       It’s always important to “pay attention in class,” so I carefully listened and watched as the GED students and their tutors came together for a potluck lunch at the Dominican Center to mark the passing of another semester of study.  I’ll stand first in line with those that scoff at service delivery as a band-aid over the killing wounds of injustice and inequality or as a path to social change, but never let it be said that we should not respect those who struggle forward and those who join with them to support their fight.

There were fewer than twenty that came together in Milwaukee in mid-morning, but there was excitement in the room.  Some had been there for hours already preparing something for the potluck, so there was food for fifty!  Sister Patricia who oversees the multi-ringed circus at the center was stirring sherbet into a punch bowl with some fizzy concoction for a punch without a name, but that the Fort Smith native assured me was an old southern recipe of hers.  People were dressed for the occasion but it was their smiles that lit up the room as that sat in the tables with balloons flying from each one.

The GED tutoring runs every morning from 9 to almost noon, Monday through Thursday.  Students each take a table with a tutor sitting close by working the lesson plan.  I had often seen them during my monthly visits throughout this year.  After our leadership development sessions in the evening, we always had to reassemble the room before we left.  It was a habit.  No one questioned it, like camping in the wilderness, we would leave no traces behind us.

students and tutors

This was my opportunity to be a fly on the wall at this part of the operation that was so different from community organizing, although one of the leaders turned out to also be on the GED path in these sessions as well.    The program was straight forward but effective.  Sister Patricia saluted the students and noted the ones that were absent, working, or ill, along with the tutors, who were all volunteers.  The only student getting a special shout out was one woman who had most faithfully attended.  This was about the process, not just the result.

The chief instructor asked everyone to offer a reflection to begin the program.  It was moving to hear people stand up and express their gratitude for the tutors and the opportunity, just as the tutors expressed their gratitude for the students.  It was refreshing to hear the tutors apologize for pushing people and continue to commit to improving the program.

One volunteer talked about the field trips the students had been on, and that was a marvel. They had visited a house in Wisconsin that was a stop on the underground railroad.  They had been to a play they loved called the “Five Moe’s” about five guys one of whom was named No Moe.  They had been to museums, libraries, and hither and yon.  They loved the experience and talked excitedly about it all.  Every person received applause.

I’ve been to my share of graduation exercises, but I don’t know if I have ever enjoyed one more that sitting listening to the GED class ending another semester in the Amani neighborhood of Milwaukee.

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The Problem of Scale for Housing Development Projects

Milwaukee       Talking to the housing and economic development people, whether from the government or nonprofits, I kept hitting my head against a ceiling when it came to the thinking about the housing problems.  Looking and thinking about the issues in the Amani neighborhood made this headache unavoidable.

Work with me on this.

In Amani you have a community that within the boundaries drawn by the city and many of the residents has a population of about 8500.  The population is actually increasing there in recent years, which is a question worth contemplating at another time.  There are roughly 1400 properties, and more than 300 are rated by the city as vacant, which is more than one in five properties.  More than 20% of the properties are also tax delinquent.  It goes on and on like this.

Various programs available from the city allow small grants for repairs.  Some other programs fund nonprofits to help finance and rehab houses but often limit them to no more than four per year.  Some are catch-22 situations where to get money to fix a roof, the owner has to have insurance, but insurance companies cancel the owner when they have roof problems.

The math isn’t simple, but it is unforgiving.  If the only problem was rehabbing the vacant homes, and money was available to rehab only fifteen per year, it would take twenty years to bring the existing vacant properties up to snuff.  With more than 70% of the housing stock built before 1939, at a minimum all of those houses would be over 100 years old, so time will not stop, there will be more houses that need rehabilitation, whether occupied or vacant.

Working block by block would be hard as well.  Even doing five houses per block to try to turn a block around, there are 130 blocks in Amani.  One block a year would take twenty-six years, so that would never work.  Even three blocks per year doing fifteen houses would take ten years, and of course time will not stop there either, making housing rehab at this level a Sisyphean project.

Meanwhile the housing valuation is going down, not up, in Amani.  The last evaluation of the assessed value of Amani properties showed a drop of over 4% from $29786 to $28533 or $1253, even going the wrong way compared to inflation.  A low-to-moderate income homeowner looking to borrow $20,000 to rehab their own home from a bank is going to face the problem of putting $20K into a $30K house and finding the valuation for collateral purposes in the Amani market might only move the property to being worth $35,000, not $50,000 making most banks skittish to say the least.

To turn the community around and create a real tipping point, it would seem that organizations and government should be looking at doing 100 houses a year for four or five years.  If the price tag was $20,000 per house that would be $2 million per year or eight to ten million to get it done.  If $30,000, then then $3 million per year, if $40,000 then $4 million per year.  Those are not unmanageable numbers.  That’s a mid-range condo in New York City.  A project that size would raise all boats and the whole neighborhood, because it makes sense.  If such a project only raised the average valuation of the houses from $30,000 to $40,000, that would mean a $14,000,000 bump in the neighborhood and over five years a minimum of $70,000,000 for the housing stock.

If we were downtown or commercial developers, the city and local banks would be standing in line to finance the deal, because the numbers make a difference.  When we’re talking about housing, we are being nickeled-and-dimed, when we need to push to get to scale to stop playing catch up and start getting ahead and making real change.

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