Snitch Houses Displace Residents to Benefit Landlords

Mount Pleasant cops, just out there flipping houses.

This article is part three in our series on legislation to create snitch houses, also known as “COP houses” across Wisconsin. 

In the last article we showed how putting a snitch house in a targeted area reduces crime in that specific area, but increases economic and emotional strain for targeted residents. People experiencing stress are more likely to resort to crime, they just go somewhere further from police presence to do it. 

At the May 18 hearing, committee member Sue S Conley, a democrat whose district borders zigzag tightly around Janesville, making the neighboring districts more solidly republican, recognized this dynamic. “You come into a neighborhood,” she said, “you establish the house […] did the problem just shift to another neighborhood?” Van Wanggaard’s response was a gleeful “sometimes,” but Taylor cut him off with a more diplomatic response that acknowledged the real problem. She went onto a tangent about drug dealers operating out of their cars rather than drug houses to be more mobile. Her statement reinforced, rather than allaying, Conley’s concern. Then Wanggaard burst back in with a great real-life example. 

“On the south side of Racine,” he said, “we have a COP house […] Some of these bad actors moved into the village of Mount Pleasant that never had these problems. All of a sudden they’ve got a neighborhood that is turning into one of ‘those kinds’ of neighborhoods.” He is describing displacement, people of color uprooted from where they were living by the police, forced to move to another, whiter area, where they weren’t welcome. Some may have resorted to burglary or theft to deal with the economic strain of that forced movement, or maybe the existing (white) residents just started calling the police on their new (Black and Brown) neighbors a lot. 

The snitch house caused the problem in Mount Pleasant, but Wanggaard saw only one solution: more policing. He continued, excitedly: “they built a new COP house in Mount Pleasant […] that took that neighborhood back and now they don’t have anyone in Mount Pleasant that’s causing a problem. You’ve just gotta be persistent.”

The obvious question senator Wanggaard isn’t anticipating is, where did the “bad actors” go next? Mount Pleasant is south of Racine, so maybe they were pushed further south, out of Racine county, where they’re no longer the concern of the Racine police department. Again, the snitch house looks great on paper, but the lived experience for people in targeted communities is forced movement. It is a more modest and disguised continuation of old-fashioned amerikan ethnic cleansing. If we keep allowing the police to cause problems, and then present more police as the only solution, many of us are going to end up living in open air prisons and suburban poverty clusters that can verge into refugee camps. 

A member of the public picked up the house flipping thread after rep Conley laid it down. “These snitch houses do not improve the lives of the people in the neighborhood,” Tai Renfrow pointed out, “they simply improve the neighborhood itself. They drive up property taxes, and they force struggling families with roots there to move to neighborhoods they can afford […] this is a mob scheme to continue gentrifying targeted areas of metropolitan cities, and continue alienating those most marginalized in those cities.”

By then, Wanggaard and Taylor had fled to avoid public scrutiny. They couldn’t refute Renfrow’s accusation, but what they’d already said actually reinforced the conclusion that snitch houses are a boon to real estate developers. 

Van Wanggaard: “Where we’re doing this […] these neighborhoods don’t always have home ownership […] it’s a transitional neighborhood […] Now, one of the neighborhoods that we had, the houses that were rentals were sold […] the whole neighborhood was lifted, the value of those homes went up […] because the bad actors are gone. It allows you to potentially move to another area where you’re having a spike in that crime.”

Lena Taylor: “It’s transforming a house that is an eyesore and an issue, into something that has greater value to the community […] It’s not just a property that’s going to be used for community oriented policing. It really is an opportunity to build community, and to rebuild community.” 

Senator Taylor is talking about her district, as though people living there are currently devoid of community and need the help of the police to “build and rebuild” it. What exactly does “build community” mean in this context?  As usual, Wanggaard was eager to say the quiet part out loud for Taylor and provide a detailed example. 

“Decades ago,” he said, “we had an area […] that was subsidized apartments and housing. They were pretty nice, but after years they weren’t kept up by the landlords and owners […] they just didn’t have a good clientele of people coming through, a lot of drug use […] shootings, it went off the charts. Finally the owner […] came to the police …] and that became the COP house. They took back the neighborhood in less than a year.”

It seems “build community” means: displace unwanted people and take over. It sounds like the Racine police even may have spent the last few decades using snitch houses to chase the same population of criminalized people from place to place. The Racine snitch house drove property values up, but displaced people to Mount Pleasant, where population density and property values likely went down, until the Mount Pleasant snitch house came and drove them back up again. Developers could buy properties cheap before the snitch house arrived, then flip them for huge profits after. 

That is, when the police aren’t flipping the houses themselves, as Wanggaard described: “we sell that home to a family that becomes a part of that functioning neighborhood now, and we buy another one. So the whole process starts over again.” “The part that I love the most,” Taylor added, “is that each locality can choose how to get that house back into circulation. I personally think we should use Habitat for Humanity.” 

Non-profit partnership

It seems Habitat for Humanity is a major partner, so let’s give them a closer look. Habitat’s mission statement reads, “seeking to put God’s love into action, Habitat for Humanity brings people together to build homes, communities and hope.” There’s that wonderfully vague phrase again. Habitat “builds communities” by displacing people and putting “God’s love into action” in the place where they used to live. Housing justice advocates are beginning to recognize the organization’s complicity in developer schemes. In 2019, some activists from Charlotte, South Carolina took to the stage at an event where “woke” academic and media personality Marc Lamont Hill was speaking. They entreated him to denounce Habitat’s practices. In response, he made fun of them, self-identified as a gentrifier, and spoke patronizingly about how their voices are valuable after they’d been pushed off the stage. 

Habitat is also already active in various Milwaukee neighborhoods. In April, they launched an initiative with Bader Philanthropies to construct 80 houses in Harambee. Amidst all the fanfare, nobody detailed Habitat’s qualifications for home ownership, which are not included on Milwaukee Habitat’s website. You’ve got to register and watch a 25 minute orientation video to see the list of qualifications. 

High unemployment rates and low credit scores on Milwaukee’s northside probably disqualify many Harambee residents from getting a Habitat home. Other Habitat offices are more forthcoming, and many of them admit to also categorically excluding people with felony records. Milwaukee’s Habitat office might as well. If they do, they won’t be providing housing for many people who live in amerika’s most incarcerated zip code. It’s more likely they’ll provide housing for people who want to live in Harambee after the police force the current residents out.

Lena Taylor, landlord

We’re not sure exactly how many properties Lena Taylor owns. We know that as of Feb 2020 she had taken 35 tenants to court since 2020, evicting 19 of them. At the May 18 hearing she talked a few times about specific houses that would make great snitch houses in her district. She didn’t say whether she owned property near these houses, though. If she does, then the snitch house program will likely create a significant financial benefit to her personally. She has stood up to developers in the past (mostly for the benefit of individual landlords like herself). Maybe she’s not intentionally complicit in this scheme. Maybe she just doesn’t know.

Unfortunately, cooperation between private developers, government urban planners, and police to remake neighborhoods and get rich while residents get displaced is a well-known phenomenon. Matthew Desmond, another real-life sociologist, who actually studies how policy impacts people lives, wrote Evicted in 2016. This Pulitzer-winning, New York Times Bestseller described real estate developer exploitation in Milwaukee specifically. Senator Taylor does know the book, she cited it while running for mayor, but if she read it, she doesn’t seem to have taken it much to heart. 

Developer scheming is also not a new problem. Way back in 1982, in an essay called “From the Bulldozer to Homelessness” Herbet Ganz (another actual sociologist) demonstrated how “government policies and practices coupled with private development purposely displace poor people and reduce the supply of low-cost housing.” If senator Taylor is well intentioned, she’s clueless. There are four decades worth of heads-up to look out for developer exploitation. It took Tai, her constituent just a few minutes of listening to recognize it. 

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter whether senator Taylor is looking to cash in on the violent displacement of her neighbors, or if she’s missing this incredibly obvious and dangerous pitfall. What matters is that people are going to be hurt by her partnership with white supremacists like Van Wanggaard and her aggressive advocacy of this bill. 

The next article in this series will investigate how far she’s been willing to take that partnership, the shady financing, dubious backroom deals, and redirection of resources away from communities and into police.

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