MICAH continues fight for minority hiring on Westlawn project

The federal complaint by the Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope against Milwaukee's Housing Authority for its minority hiring on the $82 million Westlawn renovation is just the latest in a growing debate over the city's minority contracting and hiring.

"It was a huge expenditure of federal money and that made it an important symbol," said the Rev. Joseph Ellwanger of MICAH.

"If the spirit and letter of law wasn't met on that project, what do they do on smaller projects?" he asked, explaining why MICAH decided to file the complaint.

In response to the MICAH complaint, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development officials have said they conducted an audit and will announce this month whether the housing authority violated the requirements under Section 3 on hiring low-income workers for the project.

The Westlawn project began in 2010 with the demolition of 332 of its more than 725 units on the east side of the complex. They were replaced with 250 units in contemporary townhouses, single-family homes and multifamily apartments.

The housing authority maintains it did meet the Section 3 guidelines for that project, spokesman Paul Williams said. Information to support that is being prepared, he said.

With the growing concentration of poverty in Milwaukee, the city needs to go the extra mile to ensure fairness and equality in hiring and contracting, Ellwanger said.

"If we fail, down the line it's not just the city that will fail to meet the needs of those in poverty, but it will doom the central city and the county will suffer," he said.

In June, the NAACP and a coalition of organizations lodged a more far-reaching complaint, asking the U.S. Department of Justice to look into disparities that persist in the City of Milwaukee's contracting and procurement policies, despite studies commissioned by the city that have documented disparities and identified recommendations to eliminate them.

"By failing and refusing to implement changes that would result in equal contracting opportunity for African American, Hispanic, Native American and Asian American and non-minority women contractors, the City of Milwaukee discriminates on the basis of race and national origin in contracting and procurement," the complaint states.

The complaint asked the Justice Department to investigate the claims and "grant any other relief it deems just and proper."

In its complaint, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said the city spent about $82 million on construction projects from 2005 through 2008, but less than $2.5 million went to qualified African-American-owned businesses.

The complaint states that over an 18-year period the city spent $1 million on disparity studies but made no significant changes.

"The disparities have been widely documented and steps have been recommended to effectively administer and enforce policies that would ensure equal opportunity, but the city has refused to implement them," Milwaukee NAACP President James Hall said.

A spokesman for the Justice Department would confirm only that the complaint was received.

Hall said it's his understanding that an investigator has been assigned to the case. He said he's also submitted additional information to federal officials.

Earlier this year, the city settled a federal lawsuit brought by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin and the American Indian Chamber of Commerce by agreeing to repeal a new ordinance aimed at dealing with race- and gender-based contract preferences.

In the suit the chambers contended that the new law, Ordinance 370, was an unconstitutional program of preferences in city contracting based on race and gender.

They argued that the study on which the law was based was flawed and statistically invalid.

The ordinance provided work opportunities for African-American, Asian-American, female-owned and small businesses.

Hispanic-owned and other minority-owned businesses were not given any annual participation requirement because city officials said the disparity study showed that Hispanic construction firms had been so successful that they no longer needed such preference.

Rhonda Kelsey, purchasing director for the city, said that in light of the legal settlement, the city has reverted to its prior position of race and gender neutrality in awarding contracts.

She said the city's office of small business development is focused on helping businesses get certified to take advantage of contracts and provide other assistance, including loans to businesses.

Common Council President Willie Hines, who is also chairman of the housing authority board of commissioners, said the council is developing a new ordinance designed to deal with minority contract participation.

"The city is very committed to its minority participation on various projects. However, we have to be in compliance with city and federal regulations, and currently we're trying to figure that out," he said.

He also maintained that the housing authority is in compliance with federal Section 3 laws on Westlawn but he said he's also waiting to hear what HUD has to say.

This story originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal on September 9, 2013 and is available here: http://www.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/dispute-over-citys-minority-hiring-for-westlawn-project-continues-b9986543z1-222901861.html