Housing coalition seeks funds from arts

Efforts by a coalition of religious and social groups to create housing for low-income residents in Milwaukee are catching flak from entertainment venues for their unorthodox fundraising methods.

The Housing Trust Fund Planning Coalition says there is a significant lack of housing available to Milwaukee's poorer residents.

"Despite what some politicians may espouse, there is not enough safe, sufficient, sanitary housing in Milwaukee," said Mike Soika, the coalition chair.

Proponents of the Milwaukee Housing Trust Fund proposal are seeking to create a pool of renewable money to be directed toward "development and operating funds for affordable housing" for low-income Milwaukee residents, according to Soika.

The money would create places for people who are currently homeless to live and will fill a void that has been growing steadily over the years with the destruction of affordable housing locations like the Towne and Antler Hotels, two downtown buildings that were torn down in the 1980s to make room for the Reuss Federal Plaza building and The Shops of Grand Avenue mall, respectively.

Although housing trust funds themselves are not a new idea — St. Paul, Chicago and St. Louis all have them — the way Milwaukee's fund would be bankrolled is.

The coalition's plan calls for $15 million in funds to be raised annually from a combination of surcharges on entertainment ticket sales and real estate transactions within the city of Milwaukee.

A majority of that money — $9 million — would be raised by adding a dollar onto the ticket price of every entertainment event in the city, Soika said. Events that would be assessed this surcharge include theaters, museums and sporting events.

Marquette sporting events were included in the coalition's calculations, Soika said, but he also added that the group would be open to perhaps exempting students from the fee. Calls to Marquette's athletics office were not returned.

Although the real estate transaction fee is fairly common, no other housing trust fund in the U.S. raises funds with an entertainment surcharge.

This fundraising mechanism has caused concern within Milwaukee's entertainment hot spots.

"The economy is hitting the arts hard," said Annie Jurczyk, communications director for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, 108 E. Wells St. This plan "would be difficult for us. There would be some reluctance to that."

Like many others in Milwaukee's downtown theater district, the Repertory Theater already charges a historic preservation fee built into ticket prices for the upkeep of the building, Jurczyk said. Another surcharge would cut a gash in the theater's finances, she said. If such a fundraising mechanism were enacted, Jurczyk said she feared it would have negative consequences on the affordability of the theater's tickets, including the discounted student "rush tickets."

"We want to keep (being affordable) and the more surcharges that are added, the less we can do that."

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Jan. 27 2005.