MICAH complaint upheld by HUD review

HUD takes issue with Milwaukee's low-income hiring in Westlawn project

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The Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee failed to comply with federal regulations on the hiring of low-income workers on its $82 million Westlawn Gardens project completed this year, according to a review by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The HUD review, released this week in response to a complaint from local religious leaders, said the housing authority, while it met certain goals, exempted some contractors from the requirements; failed to make the hiring of Westlawn and other Housing Authority residents a priority; and didn't notify certain contractors and residents of employment opportunities and training.

Despite the findings, the report said, the Housing Authority "was, in fact, attempting in good faith to meet the requirements" of the Section 3 rules governing the hiring of low-income individuals and had made "significant efforts in that regard."

The Rev. Willie Brisco, president of the Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope, which had complained to HUD about hiring practices on the project, applauded the findings, saying it vindicated the organization's concerns.

"It's too early to say what it all means," he said, "But we're going to be talking with federal authorities to ensure this doesn't happen again."

Milwaukee Ald. Willie Hines, who chairs the Housing Authority's Board of Commissioners, did not immediately respond to a telephone call seeking comment.

The Housing Authority, which has 15 days to appeal, issued a statement saying it takes the federal agency's critique seriously. Officials haven't decided whether to appeal.

"The Housing Authority is committed to the goals of Section 3 and will work with HUD to develop more effective strategies and improve Section 3 performance in the future."

Section 3 of federal law requires that training, employment and contracting opportunities generated by HUD-financed housing and community development programs be directed to low-income and very low-income people.

Of particular concern, the HUD review found that "no Westlawn residents and no Housing Authority residents from any other Housing Authority developments were hired to work on the Westlawn project."

The federal review said that "in light of the findings of non-compliance," federal officials would take what it called "informal steps" to resolve the complaint.

HUD audited the project at the request of MICAH, which complained about the lack of minority workers on the project in an area of the city that is predominantly African-American and dogged by double-digit unemployment. HUD regulations address income but not race. But because minorities in the central city are overwhelmingly poor, the Section 3 review addresses the same concerns, MICAH said.

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.

MICAH's HUD complaint was just the latest in a growing debate over the city's minority contracting and hiring practices.

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.

This story originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on September 18, 2013 and is available here: http://www.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/hud18-b99100772z1-224220181.html