Whenever there are concerns about building affordable housing, our ears prick up mostly because of fights like what happened in South Milwaukee with the Lake Point Apartments.
We’ve been observing the housing issue around Shorewood Hills and the proposal to replace the nearly vacant Pyare Square building. Some residents of the affluent village near Lake Mendota and the University of Wisconsin Madison campus complained about a proposed apartment complex that would house limited-income families. Finally the whole project was scrapped ostensibly due to the height of the building design. However a new apartment complex proposal has recently been suggested by the Stone House Development company under the same affordable housing financing program with fewer neighborhood objections. But questions remain about the fairness of the planning process in the village.
Today, on behalf of a Shorewood Hills resident named Bill Thomas, the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation requested a federal investigation of the Village's rejection of accepting affordable family housing developments. In the complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, Mr. Thomas objects to the discriminatory effect of the Village's February 2010 rejection of affordable housing.
Mr. Thomas is a longtime resident of Shorewood Hills, a former member of its Plan Commission, and an outspoken advocate for housing diversity in the Village. He as long objected to Shorewood Hills’ de facto policy of excluding affordable housing - and the people who qualify for it, who are disproportionately persons of color - from the community.
“A developer wanted to build affordable housing in a perfect spot in Shorewood Hills,” noted Mr. Thomas. “He wanted to tear down Pyare Square - an obsolete, almost vacant office building, for which no one could think of a viable non-residential use, and replace it with affordable apartments and some green space. That proposal gave our Village a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to break with the deplorable exclusionary policies of its past, and to comply with Wisconsin’s Smart Growth mandates to ‘meet the housing needs of persons of all income levels,’ and ‘promote the availability of land for the development and redevelopment low-income and moderate income housing’ without any serious strain or pain. Although the Plan Commission had recommended the needed rezoning, the Board of Trustees denied it.”
Mr. Thomas’ attorney, the ACLU’s Karyn Rotker, noted that the Fair Housing Act prohibits actions that have a discriminatory effect, as well as intentionally discriminatory behavior.
“Refusing to allow a developer to build housing that persons of color are proportionally more likely to need and use, especially in a less-diverse community like Shorewood Hills, can be unlawful," said Rotker. "That’s especially true when the rejection of such housing is accompanied by the kinds of sudden changes in rules and priorities, and the negative statements about people who live in affordable housing, that occurred here.”
“I fear that the Board of Trustees of Shorewood Hills, as a body, does not feel morally or legally obligated to even allow, much less encourage, affordable housing in the Village," said Thomas. "Unless it is persuaded otherwise, it will exercise the discretion it has reserved for itself to keep affordable housing out of Shorewood Hills indefinitely. I am hopeful that the Department of Housing and Urban Development will succeed in persuading it otherwise,” Mr. Thomas added.
The complaint got some media attention in the Wisconsin State Journal.