After months of outcry, city officials move to increase oversight of Milwaukee Housing Authority properties

Common Council President Ald. José Pérez is trying to expand city oversight of the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee.
Common Council President Ald. José Pérez is trying to expand city oversight of the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

As criticism of Milwaukee's housing authority mounts, the mayor and the Common Council are making moves to rein in the agency.

On Wednesday, both Common Council President José Pérez and Mayor Cavalier Johnson pledged to start by tackling tenants' complaints of health and safety hazards inside housing authority buildings.

The Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee (HACM) has been under fire in recent months, as tenants and community organizers have aired frustrations about management, maintenance and record-keeping.

Public pressure has been building since March, when local nonprofit Common Ground began campaigning for reform at the housing authority and a federal audit into the agency.

Both Common Ground and Pérez were surprised to learn that federal regulators had been auditing HACM for years. In two recent reports obtained by the Journal Sentinel last week, federal inspectors warned the mayor and HACM leadership about serious financial mismanagement inside the agency.

In a statement Wednesday, Pérez called for improved federal and local oversight of HACM. The reports presented "a damning account of inefficiency, incompetence, and a fundamental lack of accountability, all involving public funds intended to benefit some of our most vulnerable residents," Pérez said in the statement.

The Common Council's oversight power over HACM is limited.

The agency exists in a regulatory gray area. It is not a city agency, although the city appoints its board of commissioners. It's not federal, either — but it receives tens of millions of dollars in federal funding every year, and those funds come with additional rules and oversight.

At times, even elected officials and bureaucrats aren't sure who's supposed to be watching the housing authority or responding to tenants' maintenance complaints.

Earlier this year, residents of Becher Court, a HACM-owned property on the south side, took their maintenance concerns to Pérez with the backing of Common Ground. Tenants reported a litany of hazards inside the building, Pérez said — including water leaks; rodent and insect infestations; and a broken elevator.

Typically, building inspectors from Milwaukee's Department of Neighborhood Services would respond to reports of potential code violations.

But when Common Ground took tenants' maintenance complaints to DNS and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, "every agency was pointing fingers at the other," said Kevin Solomon, an organizer with Common Ground.

Confusion about oversight has been a "point of frustration" for Common Council members, Pérez said in his statement.

On Monday, he and other council members will consider a proposed ordinance that would order DNS to investigate tenants' code violation complaints — as they would with private landlords.

This proposed measure, Pérez added, would ensure HACM "play[s] by the same rules as everyone else."

But the mayor's office might get there first. According to spokesperson Jeff Fleming, the mayor plans to order DNS to conduct these inspections regardless of what the council decides. The mayor believes he has the authority to do so after consulting with the city attorney's office, Fleming said.

"Mayor Johnson agrees with the approach that the council president has suggested in his proposed legislation," Fleming said.

In a statement Wednesday, HACM spokesperson Amy Hall expressed support for the new DNS oversight.

Common Ground also welcomed the new inspection plans. But Solomon added that HACM appears to be responding to "a public relations issue," rather than tenant concerns.

In an interview, Pérez indicated there's more to be done to keep HACM in check. He said he is looking closely at how HACM's board of commissioners responds to HUD's audit findings.

The mayor remains confident that HACM leaders are working on solving the agency's problems, according to Fleming, who said Johnson is in close communication with HACM Secretary-Executive Director Willie Hines.

"The mayor is by no means minimizing problems. The problems are real," Fleming said. He added: "The mayor has elevated this to a high level [of] attention."

More: Federal inspectors find Milwaukee's Housing Authority in disarray, 'at risk for serious fraud'

More: Lost rent. Botched ledgers. Tenants accuse Milwaukee Housing Authority of pattern of mismanagement

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee Housing Authority gets oversight attention from mayor