In Milwaukee public housing, a padlocked patio becomes a battleground

Reported in Milwaukee

- - -

Subscribe to The Post Most newsletter for the most important and interesting stories from The Washington Post.

Their emails to government officials had gone unanswered, their requests to testify at City Hall had been ignored, and now 14 residents of Milwaukee public housing were gathered in a pink linoleum common room to brainstorm how to get attention from the people with power.

“A woman got robbed in the hallway,” one woman said. “I don’t feel safe here.”

“I need to get the mold out of my apartment. I can’t breathe,” said another.

“There are mice everywhere,” said a man.

Kevin Solomon, a 25-year-old community organizer, listened quietly as the tenants began yelling over one another, grasping for the opportunity to tell someone what daily life had turned into inside the 251-unit College Court Apartments. Its two Brutalist towers were managed by the city’s public housing authority.

“Y’all got to calm down. We can’t all talk at once,” said Charlene Bell, 55, from the back of the room.

Peaches, as Charlene was called, was one of the tenants rallying others to demand changes. Although she moved haltingly without her walker, Peaches spoke with a firmness and clarity that forced others to react. Scrappy by nature, she burned with the belief that things could get better if people worked together, and Kevin saw in her the makings of a great organizing partner.

The group quieted down for a moment before the din of shouting erupted once again.

“Another woman got attacked coming back from dialysis!”

“My ceiling has been leaking for two months!”

“There is no evening security anymore!”

For the past year, Kevin had gone door to door in public housing developments across the city as an organizer for a small advocacy group called Common Ground of Southeastern Wisconsin. Tenants complained to him about units without any heating, about fire alarms that rang for hours, about bedbug infestations. Most startling were the violent threats posed by drug dealers and trespassers who moved freely through the buildings, and - especially since the pandemic - volatile newcomers with mental health issues who were younger and stronger than the physically disabled seniors historically given preference for public housing.

One week before this latest meeting, on March 6, Kevin had drafted an email signed by 21 College Court tenants that summarized their frustrations and suggested solutions, which included hiring two security guards to patrol the building at night. The message was addressed to Willie Hines, the housing authority’s executive director, and forwarded to city leaders, federal bureaucrats and national politicians.

Instead of a response, the residents had awoken a few days later to find a padlock on the gate to the building’s patio, limiting access to the only outdoor space where tenants could gather in the evenings to grill or visit with friends. Building management later said the lock was needed to keep out trespassers.

To the tenants, it felt like an act of retribution for speaking up. Instead of hiring an additional guard, it seemed there were no longer any security officers in the building at all.

In the run-up to the 2024 presidential election, low-income Black voters like the ones at College Court are often discussed by political pundits as key to President Biden’s reelection against former president Donald Trump - especially those who live in swing states such as Wisconsin.

But recent polling suggests many of those voters nationally are disappointed in Biden’s presidency even as a majority dislike Trump, and now a smaller share than in 2020 are sure that they will vote in November. If enough Black people sit out the election in Milwaukee - one of the country’s most consequential urban battlegrounds where they are 39 percent of residents, a plurality - Biden could lose an election the president often calls “a battle for the soul of America.” Among many Democrats, the idea that anyone would sit out such a consequential election seems beyond explanation.

Here were some of the voters everyone was talking about, Kevin realized, and still they couldn’t get anyone to listen to them. He often found himself wondering why he was the only one here.

Kevin sat calmly in a plastic chair now, legs tightly crossed as he wrote down the tenants’ words on a white legal pad. He looked up occasionally to scan the room, his blond hair pushed back at the crown and tidy on the sides. The tenants had grown to trust and even like Kevin because of simple overtures. He listened to them. He came back regularly. He remembered things about their lives, and shared things about his own. It was enough to override the suspicions many public housing residents, 86 percent of whom were Black, carried about an unknown White man showing up at their doors asking questions.

“The only thing different from prison is we don’t have the shackles yet,” said another tenant, Nicole Binns, eliciting nods.

“These people don’t care,” said Lucy McBeath.

“Dogs shouldn’t even have to live like this,” said Rickey Wright.

In the winter of 2024, life at the College Court apartments might have been a story of diminishing ambitions for tenants. The bedbugs, the violence, the public spillover of mental illness, the backlogged maintenance issues, all seemingly intractable to an overwhelmed housing authority. The promise of public housing, where rent was typically capped at 30 percent of tenants’ incomes, appeared to no longer include safety. The reasons lay in a tangle of acronyms and funding streams, regulations and deputy directors, good intentions followed by fine print and excuses.

“What do we do next?” Kevin asked, his voice getting higher as he spoke. “What do you want to do?”

“A sit-in!” someone said.

“A picket!” said another.

There were murmurs of a rent strike.

Kevin knew they needed a victory.

What about, for now, simply asking for management to reopen the outdoor patio?

“How about we get them to open up those doors?” Kevin said.

- - -

What Kevin really wanted to do next was a public spectacle, something to draw the attention of the whole city and to shame public leaders into action. And so Common Ground had planned to rally residents at another public housing development, Hillside Terrace, as part of a broader campaign to have the housing authority’s executive director fired.

But huddled now in a conference room downtown with his boss Jennifer O’Hear in mid-March, Kevin looked deflated reading confirmation of a rumor they had heard the night before: Biden was in town.

Common Ground’s co-founder Bob Connolly was sitting next to them looking irritated.

The president was in Milwaukee to announce $36 million to renovate a stretch of Sixth Street, a major traffic artery. The White House emphasized the money would benefit Black and Latino residents as part of a $3.3 billion national infrastructure plan to help low-income and minority communities that were historically displaced by mid-20th-century highway construction and misguided urban renewal policies.

“Why is this the thing they’re doing in Milwaukee?” Kevin said.

“This is just one of those things that’s an easy, quick lift,” Jennifer said. “They come here to get votes and to be on the news to get votes. It’s so transactional.”

Exasperated, they read that the president was hosting a news conference - at Hillside Terrace. There would be a security perimeter around the event, and they could not compete with a presidential visit on such short notice. They would have to cancel.

“Biden really f---ed us,” Bob said.

If they were sour on the news, it was not because they opposed funding better streets, but because the visit would usurp their plan to get public housing tenants some attention - their best recourse for effecting change over the past year. Thanks in part to local news coverage, Common Ground had managed to get heat fixed in some units, get a disliked manager transferred from one public housing property to another, and prevent a few tenants from being evicted over accounting mistakes made by the housing authority.

On any other day, the administration’s action might be welcome, even celebrated.

Today, it was another reminder of the gap between elected officials and the people they represented.

Kevin had been drawn to Common Ground in part by his belief that government and corporations needed to become more responsive to everyday people, and in that way he was part of a tradition of progressive populism forged here in Wisconsin that had profoundly shaped the New Deal policies that expanded the American social safety net. But Wisconsin in the 21st century remained a state of vast inequalities. On Kevin’s bookshelf at home were titles that explored the profound class and racial inequities in Milwaukee, which in 2024 was still often described by social scientists as the most racially segregated city in America. And Wisconsin had shifted from reliably Democratic to a deeply divided state with a conservative-run state legislature.

After Kevin’s home life in St. Petersburg, Fla., was convulsed by alcoholism, a friend’s family took him in during his final year of high school. It was an act of empathy that transformed his life and relationships, and he wondered what would have become of him if he hadn’t received a hand up during the most vulnerable years of his life. He had hated feeling like the world was acting upon him. After finishing college at Duke University, where he’d helped organize within a local Hispanic community, he had moved to Milwaukee to be with his then-girlfriend, who got a teaching job at a public school in the city. He worried that America’s myriad civic institutions - little leagues, recreation centers, churches - were in decline, and he felt that the way to counteract their decay was by building relationships. This was the overlooked work, he thought, of nourishing a democracy.

For two months in a row, Kevin had requested five minutes for tenants to make the case at the monthly housing board meeting that Hines, the authority’s executive director, should be fired. This plan was thwarted in February when the meeting was abruptly made virtual, deflating the energy of dozens of tenants who had carpooled from across town to City Hall.

Now, the March meeting had been canceled altogether, and Biden was in town and would be holding a public event. Kevin wondered if the housing authority’s leaders would be there.

The agency’s struggles were well documented and were made public through records obtained over the past year by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development had recently found the agency’s financial records riddled with errors that left it at risk for “serious fraud, waste and abuse” - including leaving sensitive tenant information, like Social Security numbers, lying unattended in hallways and other publicly accessible areas.

Kevin and Common Ground had also found countless maintenance issues that went unaddressed by managers for months and sometimes even years. Based on what they had seen, they believed that HUD should take over the city’s housing authority, or at least that there should be a nationwide search for a new executive director.

Their advocacy had pitted Common Ground - whose funding came from a coalition of multiracial faith organizations - against a Democratic establishment that publicly supported Hines, a former city council president. There was an unspoken racial dynamic, too. While public housing tenants were predominantly Black, several of Common Ground’s organizers were White. Some tenants felt betrayed by their representatives, but some Milwaukeeans were hesitant to call for the firing of Black leaders or to embarrass Cavalier Johnson, Milwaukee’s first elected Black mayor, who won the office in 2022.

In the face of such disillusionment in the city’s elected leadership, Biden’s visit felt like a blow, not a blessing.

But now Jennifer and Bob began to sense an opportunity.

Wisconsin was an essential swing state decided in the past two presidential elections by about 20,000 votes, less than one percentage point. Without Wisconsin’s 10 electoral college votes, winning the White House would be nearly impossible for either candidate.

“With his campaign being here, we can try to get them to pay attention, and if they don’t, we need to ask why,” Jennifer said. “He is here trying to get voters. He needs to respond to this issue. We can’t just give him a free pass coming in and pretend things are great.”

“We need to tell them, ‘We think HUD should take over the housing authority,’” Bob said. “Just do the math. They’re very worried about this state and now they’re vulnerable and we should take advantage of it.”

“Poor people of color is the constituency they take for granted, and it is the constituency that really has the power to shape this election,” Jennifer said. But “are people going to be ready and willing to call out Joe Biden during an election year?”

“He needs the African American vote in this town and that’s what carries the state, and they know that,” Bob said. “We just want human beings to get what they deserve for paying rent. We’re not crazy people.”

Kevin turned the conversation back to the locked patio at College Court and other issues that had sprung up, including the closure of the downstairs community room.

“It doesn’t cost people any money to keep those rooms open,” Jennifer said. “It’s just the housing authority being mean.”

“Some tenants compare it to being in a prison,” Kevin said.

What if they sent an email to the mayor to ask him to visit one of the properties, Jennifer asked. Maybe they could still find a way to work with the local Democratic establishment.

Later, as they followed the news coverage of the president’s visit, they spotted all the people Common Ground and the tenants had been trying to reach to no avail: Hines, the executive director; the chairwoman of the housing authority’s board of commissioners; and Johnson, the mayor.

- - -

Now, the day after the president’s visit, several tenants gathered around Kevin at College Court to tell him that the housing authority’s property manager, Greg Anderson, had walked through the building - with a security person who some tenants thought might be a HUD representative. Peaches tried to talk to the man, she said, but was told by Anderson that it wasn’t any of her business, which the housing authority later denied.

Peaches shoved her pointer finger into the air as she recounted the exchange. She hated when people talked down to her. She resented building management for infantilizing her and other tenants.

“I told them they only start fixing things when HUD comes into town,” Peaches said. “I live here, too!”

Part of Kevin’s end goal was to identify leaders within public housing properties who could build a tenant-led movement, and Peaches was a natural. She and Kevin shared a disdain for bullies.

Peaches, who adopted the nickname as a child, had grown up middle class in a suburb of Chicago to parents who moved from the South. Her mother, from Mississippi, had little formal education but obtained her GED in adulthood, and Peaches recalled with pride helping her study for the exam. She said her mother, who was a union steward, had shown her the power of collective action, and she credited her fighter’s disposition to her father, an Army veteran from Kentucky with brothers also in the service.

Though she did not wear vulnerability easily, Peaches had known a lot of anguish. She was derailed from finishing her college degree after her youngest son, Gregory, died in his crib in 1992 when he was about 6 weeks old. She found work in office jobs, including selling life insurance, and led a comfortable life even after a painful divorce - until a spinal illness in 2010 limited her ability to work.

She had moved into the building in 2018 because it was what she could afford on disability benefits. At first, there were community programs and the building felt safe. But the pandemic had brought a crush of new tenants with mental illness.

Sometimes aggressive men called Peaches a “b----” for no reason, and other times people who didn’t even live in the building camped out in the stairwells, doing drugs or having sex. And because of her mobility issues, Peaches already worried that if a fire broke out, she would be trapped in her 11th-floor apartment.

Through a spokesperson, the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee told The Washington Post that the agency had a $200 million backlog in “non-emergency capital needs,” which it noted was part of an estimated $70 billion backlog gripping public housing authorities across the United States due to “decades of disinvestment by the federal government.” It noted that the housing authority’s security services are severely limited by a lack of available funding, which was also true for social services for its at-risk tenants.

“This is not a local issue but a national one,” said the housing authority’s chief operating officer for program services, Ken Barbeau.

But Peaches had not given up on the idea that life could be better for her and her neighbors and across Milwaukee’s public housing developments. She admired that there was a method to how Kevin and Common Ground went about organizing for change, escalating their protest tactics over time. It was an approach that resonated with her instinctively.

Not everybody across public housing properties was interested in working with Common Ground, and not everyone believed change was possible. There was uncertainty around Common Ground’s decision to target Hines that sometimes came up among tenants. Still others saw the political math in exceedingly blunt terms.

“[Hines] knows people and the people he knows have money,” Genea Williams, a tenant at another property, had told Kevin. “I’m not saying you’re going to lose but you are dealing with a person with a lot of power. And they are powerful with African Americans, and they are not going to turn on each other because of the racism in this city and the racism they have all endured.”

Kevin saw the situation in a more straightforward way: It was not about Black and White, it was about Haves and Have-nots.

Peaches saw it with additional clarity: “I don’t trust them. They aren’t for us,” Peaches said of the housing authority leadership.

At College Court, much anger was reserved for their building manager, especially among Black tenants whose umbrage was tinged with betrayal.

“She looks at you like you’re dirt,” said Marion Moore, a woman in her 70s who had lived in the building for decades and had never felt such disdain from building management. “And I’ll tell you, I’ve never met a Black woman like her. For her to turn on her own people, that’s ugly.”

Other tenants nodded. Who wielded power mattered less to them than what they did with it.

“They said, ‘Don’t talk to Kevin because he doesn’t do anything for you,’” Rickey told the room now with mirth, which the housing authority later denied in a statement to The Post.

“They said that? They said don’t talk to Common Ground?” Kevin asked.

Kevin took a breath and let out a sigh.

Peaches fumed that there had been local news coverage of the conditions in housing authority properties for more than a year and still politicians weren’t motivated to make a more significant change. Instead, what she heard were promises in news conferences that things were improving, a story of success that simply did not match what she saw every day.

Even so, Peaches believed in democracy, in rallying people behind a common cause, in sticking together for justice.

Peaches would vote against Trump in November, she said, because she thought he was racist and dangerous, even amid growing distrust for local Democratic leaders. But although there did not appear to be much support for Trump among public housing tenants, it was also true that there was very little excitement for Biden. The election itself seemed to take a back seat for voters who had more pressing personal emergencies to navigate. Peaches was interested in helping more of her neighbors register to vote, so they could mobilize enough electoral power within public housing to make local politicians mindful of their needs. Which was to say that, in another circumstance, Peaches could be immensely helpful to a political campaign.

Instead, she and her fellow tenants were fighting to regain access to their small outdoor patio.

The outdoor space itself was mostly paved over with cement, but had seating and a grill for residents to use. It was a place to escape the problems within the building. Peaches felt nervous, she said, congregating in other people’s apartments because of the bedbug infestations. But even something so simple had become so complicated, and in this way their fraught interactions with building management over the patio had come to represent their interactions with government itself. Padlocking the patio gate and closing community rooms early did not prevent trespassers from walking into the building through the unattended front door lobby.

“The battle for the soul of America.”

It was stirring rhetoric.

But what about the battle for College Court?

Taking the padlock off the gate was about more than just the patio itself for Peaches and the other tenants. It was about dignity and respect.

“What if we called Greg Anderson? Do you guys want to call Greg Anderson?” Kevin asked the room.

Anderson was the vice president in charge of property management. Nicole, another resident Kevin was cultivating as an organizer, volunteered to make the call. Peaches and Kevin watched as Nicole dialed the number and put the phone on speaker.

To everyone’s surprise, Anderson picked up.

“I would like if we could get the front patio gate unlocked,” Nicole began, speaking quickly as she listed other issues at College Court.

“Slow down, slow down,” Anderson said. “We’re not opening it up. I locked it down, we’re having folks from outside the building get inside. That’s not going to happen.”

“How are you going to tell us what we can and can’t do in our own residence?” Nicole asked.

“Because it’s our building, ma’am, that’s why,” Anderson said.

Nicole began to shout as others in the room let out gasps. She hung up.

“Watch them send security on us, that’s how they do,” Rickey said.

“Okay, let’s strategize,” Kevin said. “Take a breath, take a breath, move around, get it off your chest.”

Peaches suggested a rent strike. But Kevin wanted to go slower, and to consult a lawyer first.

She nodded in agreement.

For now, they would send a follow-up email to the city’s leaders, from Peaches’s email account. She would become their spokesperson. Kevin began drafting it, reading the words out loud as tenants chimed in with suggestions.

Their requests were straightforward: two security guards in the evenings, one to monitor the door, one to walk the halls; a new building manager who treated tenants with respect; and a written apology from Anderson. They also demanded for the patio to be reopened.

“Director Hines and public officials — We are extremely disappointed that not only have you NOT responded, but also things have gotten worse,” the email said. “This is our building, too!”

“Who wants to sign this?” Kevin asked.

Everyone raised their hands, and several people followed up with him on their way out of the room to make sure Kevin had spelled their names correctly.

“And tomorrow if we don’t get a response, let’s do a sit-in,” Kevin said.

“What if they bring the police?” someone asked from the back of the room.

“Then let’s go to the media! Let’s embarrass the s— out of them! I hope they have the audacity, they’ll lose that argument with the public any day of the week!” Kevin said.

The room was excited now.

“You go, Kevin,” Marion said.

- - -

There was still no response the next afternoon from housing officials, and so now Kevin and a group of 10 tenants gathered in a community room to plan a protest, a tactful act of civil disturbance to register their ongoing frustration.

Peaches walked into the room waving a piece of paper.

“Hey, hey, we got something here,” she said.

It was a letter, dated March 15 and signed by Marlon Davis, the housing authority’s chief of public safety. It offered a few concessions - the ineffective security guard would be replaced, though it appeared there would still be only one guard and only in the evenings.

But as for the patio: The padlock would not be taken off. “This measure is intended to prevent outsiders from accessing the patio area or entering the building unauthorized,” said the letter.

Kevin asked if that was good enough or if they wanted to ask for more.

Not everyone was satisfied with taking incremental steps. A few people wanted to continue escalating.

“I don’t like a lot of talk. I want to see some action,” said a man who was new to the tenants group.

“I’m with you. Here’s what the city says: They don’t have enough staffing, they don’t have enough money,” Kevin said. “There’s a narrative of excuses. And we’ve got to pop that narrative. This is about the manager not treating you with dignity. Opening the patio - ”

“Kevin, hold on,” Peaches interjected.

The room turned to her now.

“They are reacting to our actions,” Peaches explained. “This is what they did during the civil rights era. This is about claiming our space, holding our ground. But we have to go step by step. There is a chain of command. You have to do things the right way.”

As the group debated, the building manager walked in. Three security officers employed by the housing authority were behind her.

The manager motioned to Peaches and told her to join them in the front office. Peaches took halting steps, face scrunched with irritation. Kevin looked calm at first but now he sprinted after her.

“Peaches, you do not have to go in there if you don’t want to,” he said, out of breath.

“We just want to talk to Charlene in private, that’s all,” the manager said.

“Is this about my rent?” Peaches said. “Because if this is not about my rent then I don’t know what’s the point of private for.”

“She ain’t going in there by herself,” said Nicole, who had followed Peaches out as well.

Peaches turned away now and walked back to the table, refusing to meet alone with the building manager and the safety officers. Kevin and Nicole followed behind. The group looked shaken, and several people scanned the ceilings for cameras. The security guards. The decision to single out Peaches. It felt like an act of intimidation. They had just been sitting together, calmly talking.

“Here’s a good learning moment. One thing power does is they try to make it so instead of a group it’s one person. They were going to have three guards against one person. It’s a power thing. This is all about power,” Kevin said. “My colleagues said the only thing that could go wrong here is if they piss us off and one of us reacts out of rage. You are in the right here.”

Outside the window now were two Milwaukee police officers. Peaches watched them while picking at her nails. They were there to follow up on a report of slashed tires in the area, but for a moment people in the room wondered if they would be called in next.

Kevin pulled out his cellphone to record video testimonies about what had just happened.

“You’re told things are getting better. Do you believe that?” Kevin asked.

“No!” several tenants shouted.

“It’s getting worse!”

“They refuse to treat us with dignity and respect, like adults,” Peaches said.

Kevin rallied them around the idea of inviting the mayor to come see College Court for himself, without housing authority managers acting as middlemen. Kevin pulled out his MacBook Air.

“Dear Mayor Johnson, Will you come listen to us and see our terrible living conditions? … You can see our broken appliances, busted tiles, and mold,” the email read. “We look forward to hearing from you and showing you the truth about College Court.”

Peaches rearranged the chairs and cleared the tables, leaving the space tidier than she found it.

“He want my vote, he need to come see me. I vote every time,” Peaches said to the other tenants as they walked out. “And Biden came and canceled our downtown event. I want to talk to him, too. How about he come down here to see me?”

- - -

For the third month in a row, Common Ground and dozens of tenants had requested five minutes to present at the housing authority’s monthly gathering at City Hall.

And as before, the April meeting was moved from in-person to virtual, upending the potential for a show of solidarity at the city’s seat of power.

Now, Kevin, his mentors at Common Ground and a dozen tenants were gathered outside the home of the chairwoman of the board, who lived in Hillside Terrace. They were less than a block from where Biden recently held his news conference.

Three weeks prior, Peaches and the other tenants had awoken to find the padlock unexpectedly removed from the front patio gate without any additional explanation.

It was a victory, if only a quiet one, a morsel of proof that things could change.

But that same day, a response to the tenants from the executive director was less than reassuring. He took their other concerns seriously, he wrote, but offered no tangible fixes.

“Hines responded,” Kevin texted Peaches.

“Laughable,” she wrote back.

And then, a letter came for Peaches from the housing authority.

She’d “violated security,” it warned.

Her transgression: “an unauthorize [sic] meeting with Common Grounds [sic] in the community room.”

At the end, it threatened that additional actions could result in the termination of her lease.

On April 2, Johnson won reelection as Milwaukee’s mayor against a Republican challenger, with about 80 percent of the vote. Three days later, a member of the mayor’s staff responded to the College Court tenants’ invitation to tour the property: Johnson would not be visiting. “The Mayor and our office are closely following the work at these properties and take the responsibility of ensuring quality housing for Milwaukeeans seriously,” said the email.

Now, outside the chairwoman’s house, Common Ground set up a mobile lectern. Peaches hadn’t come. She said she was sick. She needed to prioritize her well-being, to save some of her energy for herself. Several tenants held posters with photos of maintenance issues and pests, printed with messages:




A television crew from a local news station was there, as was a reporter from the Journal Sentinel. A woman named Stacy Reem addressed local leaders when she described how moving into public housing had left her more housing insecure than before because of disability access issues and bedbugs.

“Since you don’t want us to come to your meetings, we invite you to ours,” she said. “Come talk to residents, come listen to the neighbors, come see the mold, the rat problems, the broken appliances.”

Now a tenant named Chris Logan was speaking, making an appeal to Biden himself.

“They rushed you into a little Boys and Girls Club and you didn’t see anything, you didn’t want to,” she said. “We voted you into office but you don’t want to talk to us. You don’t want to hear from us.”

Cameras in tow, the group walked to the chairwoman’s front door and knocked.

“Sometimes when people are hiding, you need to try these more guerrilla tactics. We need to get them to react,” Kevin said.

No answer.

Another knock.

Still no answer.

They taped a note to the chairwoman’s front door that invited her to meet with the tenants, and then they left to wait for a response.

Related Content

Fentanyl is fueling a record number of youth drug deaths

In a place with a history of hate, an unlikely fight against GOP extremism

Life in Taiwan is rowdy and proud, never mind China’s threats