Tenants at Milwaukee’s SoHi Lofts were evacuated because of stairs collapsing. (PrincessSafiya Byers / Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service)
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A version of this story was first published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, a nonprofit news organization that covers Milwaukee’s diverse neighborhoods.

After three forced evacuations of Milwaukee County apartment buildings this year, local leaders are seeking answers. On Sept. 5 tenants at the SoHi Lofts in Milwaukee were evacuated after stairs collapsed.

In March residents of Milwaukee’s Community Within the Corridor housing development were forced to evacuate due to dangerously high levels of trichloroethylene, or TCE, which has been linked to fatal fetal cardiac defects, kidney damage, liver damage and death.

Three months later, six units in The Lydell Apartments next to the Bayshore Mall in Glendale were evacuated for the same reason.

During a Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee meeting on Tuesday, Ald. Robert Bauman questioned representatives from the Department of City Development and the Department of Neighborhood Services, or DNS.

“When was this issue first noticed or realized by DNS through an inspection? When did they receive complaints? How do they respond to those complaints?

“What investigations were conducted? Were orders issued where emergency orders were issued? What was the response to the property owner? What was the timeline and actions taken leading up to an eviction, eventual evacuation of a building?” he asked at the meeting.

Representatives of both departments said they reacted in accordance with city code ordinances.

Jumaane Cheatham, the division manager for Commercial Code Enforcement, said the Department of Neighborhood Services was officially made aware of the SoHi Lofts stairway issue in October 2021 and has been in communication with the ownership group to fix the problem.

“We’ve been to the property around 20 to 30 times since that initial call in 2021,” Cheatham said. “And at least once every quarter specifically for the stairs issue until they collapsed two weeks ago.”

He said the property management company had provided temporary fixes and paid fines when issued.

He also noted that tenants of four of the 16 units in the building were withholding rent because of outstanding issues with building conditions.

Also, according to the property owner, the original contractor built an outdoor elevator that only worked for a little over a year and has been a code issue for years.

‘We’re waiting for a catastrophic failure’

“It kind of seems like we’re using the tenants as the canary in the coal mine, you know. We’re waiting for a catastrophic failure,” said Ald. Michael Murphy. “Since 2021, when you issued the initial orders that a certified architect would come in with readdressing the whole thing, was there no point along that time between 2021 and the most recent incident where engineers assumed this would fail?”

The Lofts were initially created by a nonprofit that is no longer in business. Bauman said he believes this evacuation may be the result of a failure to hold nonprofits to the same standards as other developers.

He said the city must provide closer scrutiny of some nonprofits because they don’t have much to lose.

“They have no skin in the game, no stock that goes worthless, no bankruptcy that they’re facing. They just go out of business,” he said. “They do a project. They got a whole bunch of money because they came in and gave us the song and dance about helping and affordable housing. We fall for it, put the resources in, and then they fail.”

He said the results are catastrophic for tenants who lose housing, the owners who acquire the properties later and city residents whose tax dollars are used to fund these projects.

A bigger issue, Bauman said, is that the city can provide no certainty for residents who are displaced as a result of evacuations.

“When we force residents to vacate private property, we, the city, have no mechanism to assist them,” he said. “We have no resources. We have no program we can call. We can call third-party nonprofits. We can call the Red Cross. But we have no formal process for assisting them, providing rent vouchers, finding new housing. They’re essentially on their own.”

Emergency housing resources

The Red Cross helps connect people to resources after unforeseen experiences and catastrophic events.

IMPACT 2-1-1 is able to point displaced tenants toward any available emergency housing if it is available.

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PrincessSafiya Byers is a Report for America corp member working as a staff reporter at Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service where she covers health, minority businesses, faith, jobs, housing and transportation. A proud Milwaukee native, Byers is a 2020 graduate of Marquette University. She has had internships with the Milwaukee Community Journal, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. Byers has also co-produced a community podcast and written for community newsletters.