Equity, justice & housing stability.
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United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County

Equity, justice & housing stability.

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September 28, 2020

At United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County, we know that families cannot thrive without a safe and stable place to live. We also know that issues like homelessness and housing instability disproportionately affect People of Color in our community. 

With this fact in mind, we spoke with Krystina Kohler, United Way’s financial stability portfolio manager, about how she approaches her work with the Safe & Stable Homes (SASH) initiative and what she has learned about equity and justice. 

United Way: What have you learned about how homelessness and housing instability impact people of color in our community? 

Krystina Kohler: In my experience researching for, and then working with the SASH-funded partners, I was surprised at the severity of the racial inequities in housing security. Numerous studies show that housing insecurity and homelessness disproportionately impacts Black communities in Wisconsin. 

Here are the statistics. 

  • After Minneapolis, Milwaukee has the lowest Black homeownership rate (27.2%) of our nation’s largest metro areas. Renters have less agency over housing conditions and have less intergenerational wealth than homeowners. (Levine 2020)
  • Black households are more likely to live in older housing stock than White households. 66% of Black households in Metro-Milwaukee live in housing that was built before 1960, compared to 42% of White households. Older housing can contribute to health disparities, such as increased asthma rates and lead poisoning. (U.S. Census Bureau)
  • In Milwaukee’s low-income neighborhoods, one in every 33 Black men has experienced an eviction compared to one in every 134 White men. Black women account for less than 10% of Milwaukee’s population, but 30% of evictions. (Desmond 2014)
  • In Wisconsin, Black or African American individuals make up less than 7% of the population, but 31% of all people experiencing homelessness. (U.S. Census Bureau)
  • 78% of all homeless families in Milwaukee County are Black.(2017-19 Point in Time counts)

Historic practices help explain the barriers created to prevent Black households from easily achieving housing stability in greater Milwaukee. Through redlining restricting what homes could be sold to Black families, plus the destruction (without reparation) of Black-owned homes and businesses during the building of I-43, Milwaukee’s Black community was pushed into concentrated neighborhoods that were subsequently disinvested in. The manufacturing sector that Black southerners moved to Milwaukee for during the Great Migration eventually shut down or moved to the suburbs, just out of reach of public transportation.

UW: What are some examples of SASH-funded programs that are leading the way in providing equitable services and addressing racial disparities in homelessness and housing?

KK: The lack of legal representation has cascading effects of injustice for our communities of color. Because right to legal counsel for eviction cases does not exist for tenants in Milwaukee, programs like Legal Action's Eviction Defense Project (EDP) are the only assurance of a fair trial. EDP has been able to seal dismissed cases almost ten times as frequently as unrepresented tenants. 90% of cases with in-court EDP representation had the eviction dismissed or delayed, compared to 43% of eviction cases without legal representation for the tenant. 

UW: Why is equity a critical part of United Way's work in our community? What do you think we do well and where do we have room to grow? 

KK: Historic inequalities have led to significant racial disparities in health, education, and financial stability. There is no issue that United Way addresses in our four-county area that does not have its roots planted in structural racism.  

Barriers to good health, quality education, and financial stability are interrelated. We could invest millions of dollars into childhood education, but it would not make a difference in educational outcomes if that child does not have stable housing, food security, or safety from violence. United Way’s Community Fund covers a holistic array of services that serves the whole person, the whole child, the whole family with all their co-occurring needs, so that better outcomes are achieved.

Something we don’t talk about enough with our community is that issues can be systemic, and not a problem of individual deficits. For example, earning educational and skills-based credentials are important in improving a person’s income, but take this sobering fact: those with a college diploma and live in Milwaukee’s 53206 zip code earn less than high school drop-outs living in Waukesha County. Likewise, a 2001 experiment found that, in Milwaukee, only 5% of black men with a criminal record received interview callbacks for positions they were qualified for, compared to 17% of white men with criminal records, and that white men with criminal records were more likely to receive a callback than Black men without criminal records (17% vs. 14%). All other eligibility factors (education, work experience, etc.) was kept the same between all the participants in the study. 

These differences in opportunities are not a result of individual failures, but of systemic racism baked into the levers of economic mobility.United Way has created a Policy & Advocacy Committee to advocate for certain policy changes in our legislature to address these inequalities. This is an area where I anticipate United Way will continue to grow in the future. 

Learn more about United Way's work in ending family homelessness and how you can get involved. Click here. 

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