40 Years of Building Homeownership

40 Years of Building Homeownership

In November of 1983, a group of 12 individuals deeply concerned about the lack of affordable housing in Milwaukee gathered at Bay Shore Lutheran Church. They came together to meet with Habitat for Humanity’s founder, Millard Fuller. In spite of having no money, no house, and no prospective homebuyer, Millard encouraged the group to create a Habitat for Humanity chapter in Milwaukee. 

And thus, the vision for Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity was born. 

Their mission was ambitious, their resources limited, but their determination was unwavering. Just a year later, in 1984, our organization officially became an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International. This year, we proudly celebrate our 40th anniversary.

Our journey began with rehabilitation projects, led mostly by churches and their volunteers. The first Milwaukee Habitat rehabilitation project took place on North 36th Street.

Before and after of a rehabilitation home

By 1986, the first two families had moved into their Milwaukee Habitat homes.

Our beginnings were humble, and our journey was long. We started small, led by volunteers, fueled by passion and generosity. For years, we operated this way. Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity exists because of the dedication of the volunteers and churches who supported us from the start.

One of the many volunteers that kept us running was Bill Allen. In 1987, St Pius X in Wauwatosa became the first congregation in Milwaukee to sponsor a home, encouraged by the pastor and Bill and Vicki Allen. The Allens quickly became integral members of the Milwaukee Habitat family. Bill continued to volunteer with us and only retired from his volunteer position as of last year. He spent 36 years dedicating his time to us and affordable homeownership. 

In recognition of his remarkable dedication, we named our most recent home design “The Allen.” It stands as a testament to Bill’s unwavering commitment to our cause.

Bill Allen during one of the early years of Milwaukee Habitat. Bill Allen last year at our groundbreaking event where we announced the new “Allen” house design.

There were many more volunteers like Bill that dedicated their energy and time to bringing affordable homeownership to our city. Our team worked hard. Our board of directors met at 7am on Saturdays at one of our rehab projects. It has been said that if they came on time, they got a drywall bucket to sit on! After the meeting, they would spend the rest of the day building.

We continued to focus solely on rehabilitation projects until the Jimmy Carter Work Project changed the trajectory of our organization.

In June of 1989, President Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter teamed up with Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity to host one of the most ambitious builds in our organization’s history: the Carter Work Project. This included building six brand-new homes in five days.

Photos from the 1989 Carter Work Project

With the help of 1,000 volunteers and partners from Associated General Contractors of General Milwaukee, the build was meticulously planned…but at the last moment, the project was almost upended. 

Persistent, chilly rain threatened to derail the Milwaukee build, putting it at risk of falling behind schedule. During a live TV interview, President Carter made an urgent appeal for help from local roofers. The response was overwhelming: the following morning, roofers arrived in droves, working tirelessly to roof all the houses in just one day. This incredible effort not only saved the project but also garnered significant attention and donations for the Milwaukee affiliate, propelling it forward.

Thanks to the dedication of more than 1,000 volunteers, six homes were completed in just five days.

Witness the remarkable effort of the Milwaukee community coming together to achieve the seemingly impossible in this footage unearthed a few years ago:  

On top of this incredible accomplishment, 1989 marked a significant year for our organization. We reached several milestones: hiring our first paid staff member, Jean Leslie, as Executive Director, acquiring our first computer, and establishing new relationships with government officials, businesses, and individuals. By the end of the year, we had completed nineteen homes – twelve rehabilitations and six new constructions.

In 1992, Sargento Foods became the first corporate sponsor of Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity and has become the non-profit’s most prolific supporter of affordable housing in Milwaukee’s Washington Park and Midtown neighborhoods. In 2022, Sargento CEO, Louie Gentine, announced a big surprise for Sargento-Habitat homeowners.

Sargento made a special donation to Milwaukee Habitat, allowing the organization to pay one year’s mortgage of the Sargento-Habitat homeowners who still had a mortgage or the 2022 tax bill for the Sargento-Habitat homeowners who have paid off their mortgages.

Learn more about the historic partnership:

In 1994, we reached another milestone by purchasing our first warehouse. As our organization continued to grow, we expanded our efforts, building and rehabilitating more homes, and helping more families achieve the dream of affordable homeownership.

As we expanded our efforts to help more families move into homes, the issue of affordable housing continued to escalate.

The 1990 census revealed a decline in the homeownership rate. A large concern was the downturn in homeownership in the 1980’s within the large baby boom population. Housing affordability had become a pressing issue, affecting both renters and aspiring homeowners, particularly young individuals striving to establish new households, rent apartments, or purchase their first homes (Source).

Despite these challenges, we remained steadfast in our mission and continued our work. By 1998, we had completed a total of 124 homes.

We kept growing by bringing in corporate and individual sponsors, while also exploring other ways to fund our mission.

In 2007, we opened our first Habitat ReStore. Habitat ReStores are nonprofit home improvement stores and donation centers that sell new and gently used furniture, building materials, appliances, and home accessories to the public at 50%-75% below retail. Through the sale of these items, we raise money to bring affordable homeownership to local families. 

Our first location was on Hawley Road in West Allis. Although a small store at the time, it became a popular spot for Milwaukee area residents to find affordable items. Because of its success, years later, this store was moved to Wauwatosa to a building three times as large. By 2017, Milwaukee Habitat had three Milwaukee area ReStores. Now, Milwaukee Habitat’s three ReStores are selling nearly $4 million of primarily donated items per year.

The opening of our first ReStore

There was no doubt now that Milwaukee Habitat had become a pillar of the city of Milwaukee. 

On Friday, June 17th, 2016, we celebrated a significant milestone as Milwaukee Habitat welcomed its 1,000th family served into their new home in the Washington Park neighborhood. Deanna, who helped build her own home alongside volunteers and staff, shared the profound impact this home would have on her family:

“This new construction home will change our lives physically, mentally, and financially,” Deanna said.

Since our founding in 1984, we have helped nearly 1500 local families build or repair a place to call home. 

We have also tithed over $5 million to our global partners since our founding. This substantial sum has been hard at work all across the globe. From long-term partnerships with Habitat El Salvador and Zambia to short-term relief efforts like 2006’s tsunami relief in Indonesia, we’ve developed partnerships to bring safe, affordable living conditions to families in need all over the world.

Our most recent trip to El Salvador in 2023

We have made tremendous strides since becoming an official affiliate in 1984. Gone are the days when our board members sat on paint buckets during meetings. Today, we not only build new homes but also repair existing ones, undertake lead abatement, and carry out weatherization projects. We have expanded our infrastructure to include a warehouse and office space, and our staff has grown to more than 65 dedicated individuals.

However, amidst all these changes, one thing remains constant: the unwavering generosity and support of our donors and volunteers. Without them – without you – we simply couldn’t have achieved all that we have. And now, more than ever, we rely on this support to continue making a difference in the lives of Milwaukee families.

Last year, we set an ambitious goal for ourselves: to double the number of families we serve. By 2028, our aim is to build 40 new homes per year. In 2022, we built 20 homes. In 2023, we increased that number to 30. And now, in our 40th year, we are proud to announce that we are on track to build 32 new homes.

The affordable homeownership crisis in Milwaukee is not slowing down, and we are committed to making a bigger, positive impact on the city of Milwaukee. 

Home prices in Wisconsin have more than doubled in the past decade (Source) (Source) (Source). Our affordable homeownership program provides an alternative to the skyrocketing cost of housing in our city. While the average cost to rent in Milwaukee is more than $1,800 per month, the average cost to own is more than $2,300 per month. In contrast, Milwaukee Habitat’s typical monthly payment to own a brand new home is less than $950. This significant difference in cost can result in thousands of dollars saved on housing every single year (Source). Affordable homeownership provides stability for local families. Milwaukee Habitat homeowners stay in their homes for an average of 13 years, compared to renters who average just 2.3 years in a location. 

An example of this stability can be seen in Kweku’s story. Kweku’s parents purchased his family’s Milwaukee Habitat home when he was in middle school. Now 17 years later, he’s reflecting on the impact Habitat homeownership had on his life.

“I’m privileged to have lived in a Habitat home,” Kweku shared. “That experience created a foundation for my family and me that I can never repay.”

As we reflect on the last 40 years, we are humbled by the incredible journey we’ve embarked on. We are reminded that our success is a testament to the dedication of the volunteers who built our organization from the ground up. Their countless hours of service and unwavering commitment to our mission have been the driving force behind our accomplishments.

In the past year alone, 2,508 individuals volunteered with us, with 212 of them being habitual volunteers who came out regularly, sometimes multiple times a week. Together, they dedicated a remarkable 62,337 hours to our cause.

We are also reminded of and grateful for the generosity of our donors: the churches, individuals, and businesses who have made homeownership possible for local families.

While we celebrate our achievements and the impact we’ve made, we recognize that the affordable housing crisis continues to pose significant challenges. Despite our growth and progress, there is still much work to be done.

As we look ahead to the next 40 years, we are committed to making an even greater impact and ensuring that every family has access to safe, affordable housing.

We extend our heartfelt thanks to all who have been a part of our journey. Your support has been instrumental in our success, and we are deeply grateful for your continued partnership as we continue building homeownership for generations to come.

Thank you for being part of our 40 years of building homeownership.

Make a lasting difference by helping a local family invest in the stability and equity of homeownership.
Get a jump on your spring cleaning! ReStore now offers free and expedited pick up for everything from furniture to appliances and more! Let us do the hauling for you.
Find out what items we can resell. *NEW Expedited Pickup service accepts any item in any condition.