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LISC Links and Celebrates Milwaukee's Champions

Despite the most turbulent economy since the Great Depression, it’s not hard to find new affordable housing, mixed-use projects, and other signs of promise in some of Milwaukee’s historically underinvested neighborhoods.

Even in more economically robust times, making those projects a reality is no small task. Rarely does one organization work alone. The Milwaukee office of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) helps fund many of these projects and supports the partnerships that drive them. The nonprofit has been key to furthering the Helen Bader Foundation’s mission to spur the economic vitality of the city’s low-income neighborhoods. Since 1997, LISC has received more than $1.5 million in Foundation grants.

LISC has spent 15 years on those efforts, often behind the scenes. But, recently it has sought to raise the visibility of its work and that of its partners. Along the way, it has broadened its approach to reinvigorating the city’s most vulnerable communities by acting not just as a financier of ideas, but also as a hub around which those ideas take shape.

“Neighborhoods are complex, constantly changing organisms, and you can see that in how challenging it is for top-down or ‘silver bullet’ revitalization approaches to have staying power,” said Leo Ries, director of LISC Milwaukee. “We’ve adopted a sustainable communities approach to addressing neighborhood need, where we take a bottom-up approach that’s driven by residents, giving them a stake in the outcome.”

The impact of that approach can be seen in a handful of neighborhoods, such as the area east of Washington Park on Milwaukee’s west side. For several years, LISC worked with area nonprofits to help residents, businesses, and other stakeholders envision what the neighborhood could become. Starting with community gardens and neighborhood beautification programs, the Washington Park Partners effort has grown to include a neighborhood news service to keep residents informed and involved with issues, ideas, and developments.

One major issue identified by residents was a lack of quality affordable housing. To address the need, a $6.8 million, 32-unit affordable housing development was completed in 2010, just across the street from Washington Park. The complex was developed by United Methodist Children’s Services of Wisconsin to serve working families. The organization and the project were recognized by LISC at the Milwaukee Awards for Neighborhood Development Innovation (MANDI). Supported by the Foundation since its inception in 1999, MANDI was created to recognize some of the most successful development efforts in the city.

Washington Park Partners involved a coalition of nonprofits to shape ideas for the neighborhood and put them into action, including the Lisbon Avenue Neighborhood Development Corp. and the Hmong American Friendship Association.

The Washington Park Partners effort, as well as one in Milwaukee’s Harambee area, helped LISC improve the neighborhood revitalization strategy. LISC has also brought their expertise to the Zilber Neighborhood Initiative to develop plans for a range of quality-of-life needs, from housing to jobs to education.

“As part of the national LISC network, we can tap into a broad group of resources working on community development: banks, corporations, and private donors,” said Reis. “The ability to give our projects attention allows them to meet the needs here in our communities.”