Wisconsin Fair Housing Network: Statewide Fair Housing Awards presented


Dan Stotmeister


Fair Housing Awards were presented on Friday, April 26, 2013 during the statewide Fair Housing Conference of the Wisconsin Fair Housing Network, held at the Best Western Harborside Inn & Kenosha Conference Center in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Four fair housing awards were presented in various categories from among nominations submitted in response to a statewide solicitation to over 400 organizations. In addition, two special recognition awards were presented In Memoriam.

A Fair Housing Individual Professional Award was presented to Ellen Bernards, a Community Relations and Education Specialist with Greenpath Debt Solutions in Madison. Ms. Bernards was recognized for her various housing counseling achievements in Madison and Dane County, serving the needs of a wide range of households. These include assisting persons with disabilities to become homeowners, creating a bi-lingual on-site housing counseling service for Spanish-speaking residents, and securing the funding to continue regular first-time homebuyer classes for modest-income households to ensure they would be free of charge. It was also noted that Ms. Bernards co-chairs the Dane County Foreclosure Prevention Taskforce and educates some 50 households each month for homeowners in distress.

A Fair Housing Partnership Award was presented to Common Wealth Development, Monona State Bank, Operation Fresh Start, the City of Madison HOME program, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, and the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago. Through their combined efforts since 2011, three vacant, abandoned buildings that were creating a debilitating impact on Madison’s east side, have been turned into a 12-unit, quality affordable housing development called Jenifer Place. In addressing a number of locally identified impediments to fair housing choice, it was recognized that lead abatement work at Jenifer Place was properly conducted, eliminating a housing barrier for families with young children. Also, that Jenifer Place includes dwellings designed to be specifically accessible for people with disabilities. Further, as a result of affirmative marketing of these dwellings, Jenifer Place includes minority households, in an area outside of minority and high poverty neighborhoods, that exceeds the community’s population by almost 10%.

An Organization Fair Housing Award was presented to Couleecap, Inc. a Community Action Program serving the needs of low-income people and families in Crawford, La Crosse, Monroe, and Vernon counties. Several identified barriers to fair housing in southwestern Wisconsin identified by Couleecap include lack of available affordable housing as well as a lack of home rehabilitation resources, particularly for elderly persons. Beginning in 2008, Couleecap developmed 62 units of affordable housing totaling $12 million and has, since 2006, invested $1.4 million annually to rehabilitate homes. This past year it helped 150 households with rehabilitation services of which 40% were elderly residents or persons with disabilities. Couleecap also developed two programs that have enabled people with mental illness or with alcohol or drug abuse histories to obtain housing. The organization also provides a staff member to the City of La Crosse Equal Opportunity Committee, the agency responsible for administering the city’s fair housing ordinance. To address a limited knowledge of fair housing in many southwestern Wisconsin communities, Couleecap provides a Fair Housing Toolkit for 17 counties that includes press releases, games, and other educational materials. To promote fair housing education among youth, Couleecap sponsors a fair housing video contest. Its top four videos are available for viewing on a local YouTube channel.

A second Organization Fair Housing Award was presented to Common Ground of Southeastern Wisconsin, a group of nonpartisan, proactive, everyday citizens representing more than forty congregations, neighborhood groups, nonprofits, schools, small businesses and unions dedicated to identifying pressing social problems and bringing about creative solutions. Common Ground was recognized for its efforts in addressing the foreclosure crisis in Milwaukee, a result of subprime and predatory lending practices which have disproportionately impacted the city’s poorest neighborhoods and minority families. Through a program called ‘Milwaukee Rising,’ focused on the Sherman Park neighborhood, Common Ground began working with five of the largest banks involved to “do the right thing” and convinced them to commit over $33 million to the revitalization of foreclosed homes. In the past year and a half, 33 homes in the neighborhood have been renovated and sold to families representing the multi-racial characteristics of the area. The 33 properties valued at $30,000 to $40,000 at time of original sale are now valued from $80,000 to $130,000. Common Ground’s initiative will continue to rehab another 67 homes in the neighborhood during the next several years and further reduce the impact of past lending practices.

The two Fair Housing Awards presented In Memoriam were in honor of the legacies of Corrine Reid Owens of Racine and Felmers O. Chaney of Milwaukee, respectively. Both passed away in late 2012. Ms. Reid Owens was remembered for her tireless efforts as a long-time civil rights activist and open housing advocate, including her service with the Racine Branch of the NAACP, the Governor’s Commission on Open Housing and the Racine/Kenosha Urban League. Mr. Chaney was remembered as the long time leader of the Milwaukee NAACP when that agency partnered with others in a landmark fair housing lawsuit against American Family Insurance. The case established Fair Housing Act jurisdiction of discrimination in homeowners’ insurance and resulted in a significant settlement. He served as president of the Milwaukee Urban League, and was a founder and president of North Milwaukee State Bank, Wisconsin’s first black-owned bank.