Last week I had the pleasure of touring Veterans Manor in Milwaukee, a joint venture of Cardinal Capital Management and the Center for Veterans Issues. At the corner of 35th Street and Wisconsin Avenue, Veterans Manor provides 52 affordable housing units for veterans. It opened in 2011, and all units are 650 square foot one-bedrooms, affordable at 60% of AMI, although most residents use some sort of rental assistance to cover costs.
Occupying a small but key infill site that was vacant for decades, the four-story building has ground floor lobby, business center, fitness center, meeting rooms, offices, and pleasant 2,000 square foot community room that hosts various meetings and outreach for Veterans Manor and other community groups. There is also a commercial kitchen which employs disabled workers who cook 22,000 meals per week under contract with local schools, and an adjacent cafe that is being built out and will occupy the corner space of the building. Floors two through four contain the 52 housing units.
You’d think this would be a slam dunk approvals, right? Erich Schwenker, President/Partner of Cardinal, indicated everyone rallies around the veterans idea. Still, “the moment you say ‘supportive housing,’ the ‘veterans’ wears off.” So yes, even for a veterans housing project there was NIMBY opposition. Schwenker, who has developed affordable and supportive housing across Wisconsin and as far away as Arizona, indicates his projects are “always wanted but not wanted. Just put it a few blocks away,” he says. Veterans Manor was not without its concerns among neighbors, but an open and proactive relationship with surrounding property owners won the day ultimately.
The 52 units were filled within 90 days. Residents are almost all men, aged 38 to 78, with an average of two to four years in the military. The developers were expecting more retired veterans who were working and indipendent, but most require some kind of services. Most interesting was Schwenker’s comment that it would be very satisfactory if current residents plateaud there (at Veterans Manor). He explained the expectation in the social service provider world that people eventually “move up” to have a family and live in a nice single-family suburban home. In Schwenker’s opinion, if Veterans Manor is where residents plateau, that is a victory, because it is a nice place to live and it beats conditions and lifestyles these veterans are coming from. In fact, Joe Thomae of Cardinal Capital explains that some tenants were crying tears of joy when they signed their lease.
Veterans Manor provides dignified housing with a variety of support services for veterans who have served in our country’s armed forces. “Don’t scrimp on architecture,” says Schwenker. Units are painted and decorated with warm earth tones and overall the building is attractive and inviting. A cluster of flagpoles and a memorial occupies the public space facing busy Wisconsin Avenue. This model could be replicated in communities across the country.
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