New Look of Public Housing Debuts in Milwaukee

Milwaukee believes the best public housing shouldn't look like public housing at all. And the city turned that idea into reality this week as it celebrated the opening of Westlawn Gardens -- an eco-friendly neighborhood designed to promote community, sustainability and healthy living on the city's northwest side. Its resemblance to the kind of high-end, forward-leaning, mixed-use community that's the trend these days in commercial real estate development is the whole idea.

First developed in the 1950s, the 75-acre development had 726 units, half of which were torn down in 2010. Today the property features 250 new affordable apartments, townhomes and single-family and homes with additional land reserved for retail and market-rate housing development, according to reports from Milwaukee's Housing Authority. Even though it just recently completed all construction and development, the complex has won six awards so far, including the Charles L. Edson Tax Credit Excellence Award for Public Housing, recognizing Westlawn Gardens (pictured above) as one of the top seven affordable housing developments in the nation.

"The Housing Authority is setting the pace nationally in creating smart, sustainable developments that utilize the best experience and thinking available to build desirable neighborhoods," Milwaukee Common Council President and Housing Authority Board Chairman Willie L. Hines, Jr. told AOL Real Estate in an email interview.

Some of its other awards include the Business Journal of Greater Milwaukee Best Renovation Real Estate Award and a Milwaukee Mayor's Design Award [See slideshow below.]

"The Housing Authority is doing a great job in making Milwaukee stronger economically and helping families achieve economic self-sufficiency," said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in a statement released to AOL Real Estate.

"Westlawn Gardens is a unique neighborhood that brings together mixed-income housing, retail space, sustainability features like ground source heating and cooling, LED street light system, community gardens for residents to grow their own fresh food, and a series of "healthy homes" that are designed specifically for people with respiratory illnesses," said Housing Authority Secretary-Executive Director Tony Perez. "Westlawn Gardens is truly a neighborhood for all." There is also on-site laundry, wi-fi capabilities, and a community smoke-free area.

"I was the first person to live in this brand new apartment and I just thank God for it," resident Angeline Prescott told Fox 6 News in Milwaukee. "I'm hoping I can have my place forever," she said.

All 250 of the units are leased and occupied as of March 2013, with a waiting list when openings occur. Twenty one-bedroom units (760 square feet) are unsubsidized and have market rents of $675. Unsubsidized units require monthly household income between $1,284 and $3,295 per month. The rents for all other units are 30% of the resident's income, and capped to ensure the residents are low-income. Rents for 1-bedroom units range from $181 to $675, and rents for 2- to 5-bedroom family units range from $700 to $910

While the new Westlawn Gardens was under development, the housing authority relocated 320 families from the eastern half of the old Westlawn Housing Authority, reported the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. A total of 332 units were demolished. The relocated residents were set up in other housing authority properties or given vouchers to rent in the private market. Those residents had the first option to move back to Westlawn.

"The original buildings had served their purpose for more than 60 years, but they had become distressed, inefficient and plagued with water infiltration," Perez told AOL Real Estate. [See "before" photo in slideshow.] "In addition to providing modern, energy efficient homes, the revitalization is transforming the neighborhood from an island of concentrated poverty to a mixed-income and environmentally sustainable community that is healthier and better connected to the city."

The remaining redevelopment of Westlawn is expected to take five to 10 years to complete, and will include commercial tenants, as well.