Feds Take on Racism in Wisconsin
MILWAUKEE (CN) - A Wisconsin city in the most segregated region in the nation buckled to racist pressure and shut down an affordable housing project, federal prosecutors say. New Berlin has no affordable housing for general occupancy or families - just for seniors - and truckled to fears that affordable housing would draw minorities to the city, which is 95 percent white, according to a Fair Housing complaint.
The city approved a 180-unit project, but "Immediately afterward, and over the next several weeks, city officials received numerous emails, calls, and other communications from residents of New Berlin, the large majority of whom voiced opposition to the ... project. Some of the opposition was based in part on fear that the prospective tenants would be African American or minority. The Mayor, Aldermen, Plan Commissioners, and staff at DCD were aware that community opposition was based in part on race," according to the complaint.
"The communications they received over several weeks contained express and implied racial terms that were derogatory and based on stereotypes of African American residents. These communications referenced 'niggers,' 'white flight,' 'crime,' 'drugs,' 'gangs,' 'families with 10 or 15 kids,' of needing 'to get a gun,' of 'slums,' of not wanting New Berlin to turn into 'Milwaukee,' of moving to New Berlin 'to get away from the poor people,' of not wanting to provide housing to people 'who work but do not live here.'"
New Berlin Mayor Jack Chiovatero initially supported the project, but was worn down by being called a "nigger lover," having his property vandalized and a failed recall effort against him. The pressures upon Chiovatero were revealed in an email he sent to a friend, indicating that he condemned racism, but found himself surrounded by it.
According to the complaint, Chiovatero wrote: "I am a prisoner in my own home. I have spent several hours a day last week listening and replying to concerned citizens. ... I was asked NOT to attend two functions this weekend for fear it would distract and cause havoc by my presence. Our City is filled with prejudice and bigoted people who with very few facts are making this project into something evil and degrading. ... New Berlin is not ready, nor may never be, for a project like this. Unfortunately, I will be doing whatever is in my power to end this project, it will result in lawsuits and making New Berlin a community of bigots."
After changing his vote, Chiovatero wrote an open letter to all residents: "In 2010, when the Section 42 Workforce housing came to public attention, it was clear that the nearby residents did not want this project to go forward. In support of the residents, I have since researched a means to halt the project. I am committed to focusing on what suitable options are available. The City Staff and I have found justification for discontinuing the project and will now be focusing on alternatives."
But the plaintiff United States of America says that New Berlin's "application of its zoning and land use laws have the intent and effect of discriminating against prospective black tenants and residents of New Berlin."
Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. seeks an order requiring the affordable housing project to be approved and built, and damages for discrimination.
New Berlin, with a population of around 39,000, has a median household income of $75,853, more than 50 percent higher than the state median of $49,993, according to CityData.com, which cites the U.S. Census Bureau. It is a defendant in another lawsuit filed in Federal Court this year by the developers of the affordable housing project.