The Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee

In 2007 the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee (HACM) saw an opportunity to expand its services to an underserved neighborhood on the city’s south side. By partnering with the United Community Center (UCC), a social services agency with 40 years of experience in Milwaukee, HACM built 37 units of affordable senior housing and expanded a popular community center.

The two new facilities, Olga Village and the UCC Senior Center, accommodate seniors in a communal setting, and allow many of them to age in the same, familiar neighborhood where they raised their children, rather than moving to a more costly long-term care facility. Residents can socialize, and according to Paul Williams, HACM’s communications coordinator, they enjoy an improved quality of life. “If you go in there at lunchtime,” he said, “it’s full of activity. People are playing card games. There’s a pool table and a quilting group. People can see their doctors. And now they’re in a brand new space.”

The new space also earned LEED Silver certification, thanks to a number of energy-efficient building choices. A 26-panel solar array on the roof and condensing gas boilers cut energy use for domestic hot water by 63%. Ground-source heat pumps connected to 300-foot-deep water loops cut energy for heating and cooling by 62%.

Spacious floor plans allow for modification to meet individual needs. Hallways and corridors are wide and equipped with handrails. Doors, which are also wide, have lever handles instead of doorknobs. Every unit has universally accessible switches and outlets, along with a private bathroom compliant with federal accessibility standards. There are even stations for residents to charge their power scooters and wheelchairs.

HACM included these features to meet the needs of current and future residents, regardless of disability. To best answer the needs of the community, UCC staff interfaced daily with residents of the neighborhood. Those discussions led the UCC to equip the new senior center with a state-of-the-art computer lab, craft rooms, and barbershop. The new center is home to the only 7-day senior meal program in Milwaukee. An on-site health clinic offers culturally sensitive disease management and preventative medicine programs, including early identification of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Collectively, these services help to minimize emergency room visits and reduce government health care spending, two priorities that HACM wanted its new construction to accomplish. By bringing social services for seniors in-house, HACM found that it could open up space for more community programs in the original UCC building.

HACM leveraged another strategic partnership to finance the project. As Tony Perez, the organization’s secretary-executive director, recalls, competition among private investors for low-income housing tax credits ramped up between 2007 and 2009. As a result, he said, many investors began to shrink their affordable housing portfolios. In 2009 the U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corporation, an institution HACM had partnered with before, submitted a winning bid for the low-income housing tax credits.

Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) supplied the low-income tax credits, while the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, WE Energies, and the City of Milwaukee provided additional support. In 2011 HACM received federal stimulus funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

HUD’s deputy secretary, Ron Sims, had visited the site 2 years earlier. He had been so impressed by the community-based goals of the project that he pushed for his organization to lift the Section 202 housing designation, which would have required that HACM be a private nonprofit instead of a public housing provider. With Sims’s blessing, construction began on Olga Village.

Named after Olga Valcourt-Schwartz, community advocate, educator, and former UCC board member, Olga Village honors the neighborhood’s colorful history. Muralist Jose Chavez collected stories from older residents and incorporated them into a large tile mural. The mural depicts a beautiful landscape with Monarch butterflies, a testament to the migratory nature of the community’s immigrants.

Elderly residents are not the only ones to benefit from the expansion. The vacated space in the old senior center has become additional classrooms for the UCC’s renowned Early Childhood Education Program. The Milwaukee Community Service Corps was able to lead a skill-development program at the worksite, giving at-risk youth a rare opportunity to learn how environmentally sustainable practices can produce healthy and attractive buildings.

“Look at attendance, occupancy rates, and desirability at the senior center. We’re constantly getting people who come by asking how they get into one of those buildings,” said Ricardo Diaz, executive director of the UCC. The completion of the new UCC Senior Center and Olga Village marks the successful coordination of public housing resources and private-sector social services with implications beyond Milwaukee’s south side.

“At the end of this week,” said Diaz, “the state coordinator of Services for the Elderly, along with [Milwaukee’s] director of the Department on Aging, are taking a tour of the entire complex in the way of ‘this is what desirable living for seniors should be throughout the state.’ “