MILWAUKEE (CN) - Housing developers say the mayor of New Berlin buckled to racist pressure and shut down an affordable housing project. To "save his political career," the builders say, the mayor, who is not racist himself, truckled to community fears that affordable housing would draw minorities to the city, which is 93.3 percent white.
MSP Real Estate and Deer Creek Homes sued the City of New Berlin and Mayor Jack Chiovatero in a Fair Housing Act complaint in Federal Court.
Chiovatero initially supported the project, the Minnesota-based developers say, but was worn down after being called a "nigger lover."
"Mayor Chiovatero was fully aware that opposition from members of the public to MSP's development had a very substantial racial component and was, accordingly, unlawful," the complaint states. "He was berated and vilified both publicly and privately for having supported the development. The racial underpinnings of much of the opposition was indicated by, among other things, a sign left facing his home, calling the mayor a 'nigger lover.' Opponents of the development, knowing that Mayor Chiovatero had been adopted as a child, even took the step of sending someone to check public records to see if he had any 'African-American blood.'"
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.
The development at issue was to have "80 new multifamily housing units and 100 senior apartments," according to the complaint. "The new multifamily housing units were intended for occupancy by tenants who have a regular source of income but whose annual household income does not exceed 60% of Waukesha County's median income."
MSP was awarded $24.8 million in tax credits by the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, which required that the units "be rented at affordable rates for at least 30 years."
Before taking on a role of "active interference with the development," Chiovatero voted with the 4-3 majority of New Berlin's Plan Council to approve the necessary zoning waivers, according to the complaint. Shortly thereafter, however, he moved to have the vote reconsidered and it was turned down. The developers say they tried to avoid litigation by offering to build fewer units, but say the mayor and the city attorney would agree only if the units were to be occupied by senior citizens or as market-rate apartments.
Additional revisions were not taken seriously and other votes by the Plan Commission resulted in further denials of the project. At one meeting, a member of the public commented, "If being against low-income housing makes me a racist and a bigot, then I guess I am a racist and a bigot," according to the complaint.
The developers say the bigotry stems from "the perceived lower socio-economic status of many minority group members and because of the demographic disparity between Waukesha County ... and neighboring Milwaukee County."
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, less than 2 percent of Waukesha County is black. The builders say the mayor's backbone folded in his "conscious, pusillanimous decisions ... to knuckle under to opposition to the development that ... is in substantial part racially motivated and unlawful."
The pressures upon Chiovatero were revealed in a May 25, 2010 email the mayor sent a constituent who, like Chiovatero at first, supported the project.
The email indicates that Chiovatero 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 spent all weekend doing the same. I went to Pick N Save to pick up a
prescription and I was stopped by several people and it took an hour and a half to leave the store. 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.
"There are two appeals so far, and reconsideration I have before the Plan Commission to remove the parking waiver. At this time, listening to the residents who have been misinformed and formed an opinion of this project that is [sic]. In Politics, perception is reality and with that I will not continue my support myself. The
develop [sic] sits in Minnesota, looking at this project and how it will effect [sic] his assets, and my family is being verbally abused and harassed. New Berlin is not ready, nor may never be, for a project like this.
"Unfortunately, I will be doing whatever in my power to end this project, it will result in lawsuits and making New Berlin a community of bigots." (Brackets in complaint.)
The complaint continues: "From the time that Mayor Chiovatero announced his switch from supporting to opposing MSP's development, the attitude and actions of New Berlin's staff changed from support for MSP's development plan for the MSP City Center Site and cooperation with MSP in pursuing the plan to acts of passive resistance to and active interference with the development."
The developers say Chiovatero "decided to give in to the opposition in order to avoid further harassment and intimidation of himself and his family and to save his political career," and that the harassment was due to "racial hostility to minority group members who might become tenants."
In response to a failed recall effort to remove him from office, the developers say, Chiovatero sent letters to constituents, taking credit for ending the project.
The developers say a moratorium was approved and remains in effect against the project. New Berlin refuses to issue building permits and is trying to pass an amended zoning ordinance that would change architectural and density requirements so as to prohibit the development.
But the developers say a 2005 agreement allows the project to proceed.
The builders seek an injunction so that construction can commence and they will not lose their tax credits or profits of $12.9 million.
They also seek damages under the Fair Housing Act and the ADA, as some of the apartments are to be disabled-accessible.
Their lead counsel is Thomas Shriner Jr. with Foley & Lardner, of Milwaukee.