Residents are questioning whether the body, which has consistently eroded accountability measures since its inception in 2017, truly has their best interests at heart.
Saturday, during its annual meeting, the Harambee Neighborhood Improvement District (NID) flouted requirements outlined in its own bylaws to avoid dissolution and re-elect five incumbent board members without opposition. Only 12 voting residents, including the seven individuals elected to the board, were present.
This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. “Expectations [of neighborhood residents] aren’t really aligned to how we’ve been governed,” said Board President Cordella Jones, who has led the board since the NID began in 2017.
According to residents, the NID has consistently changed the requirements and regulations governing its operation, a point that’s hard to argue considering the evidence. Early on, in perhaps its first action, the NID board struck an entire section from its newly created bylaws that called for a 3-person Accountability & Rules Committee to serve alongside and oversee the board. Last year, it lowered quorum (the amount of residents required present for a valid vote) from 40 to 15. And, Saturday’s Annual Meeting blatantly ignored requirements in the NID’s election procedures that call for “a qualified and independent” election commissioner to oversee voting as well as Section XII of the NID’s bylaws, which clearly calls for “a binding yes-or-no vote … to determine whether or not the NID will dissolve.”
Instead, attendees were given a survey that provided three options: (1) allow the NID to continue as-is, (2) allow the NID to continue with reduced borders or (3) dissolve the NID.
The bylaws also call for the dissolution vote to be announced at the annual meeting the year before and for residents to be noticed again “no less than six months before the meeting” where the vote would take place. Jones claimed, both at the meeting and during private conversation, that those requirements had been met but provided no proof, despite promising to furnish the notice.
Residents, including Dollie Smith, dispute her claim.
“I’ve kept every notice I’ve gotten … and I have not gotten anything that said we were going to discuss dissolution or renewal,” Smith said. “Not to do that is saying that you don’t care about the people who are paying their money every year.”
The NID functions on an annual special assessment of $50 per unit that is tacked on to the property tax bill. For example, a single-family home would be assessed $50 and a duplex would be assessed $100. The maximum assessment is $500 (or, 10 units) for multi-unit properties. Last year, the NID gleaned $175,450 from 2,716 properties. This year, more than $250,000 is set to go toward neighborhood home repairs.
“There’s a lot of investment coming into this neighborhood and we want that captured,” said Darryl Johnson, Executive Director of Riverworks Development Corporation, which essentially created the NID and also serves as its administering agent. The administering agent is responsible for spreading awareness about the NID and its offierings and stewarding residents through the process of securing funds.
According to the NID’s 2020 annual report, 36 projects — exclusively roof repairs — were completed in the three years prior. In 2021 only three projects were completed, despite the NID receiving 20 applications. Jones attributed the low number to an attempt to change the requirements so that those receiving funds would need to secure matching funds from another program. That way, she said, the NID would be able to help more people. But, Jones said, they discovered residents weren’t in a position to comply.
That didn’t stop Riverworks from collecting $47,762 in 2021.
Over the NID’s first four years of operation, Riverworks has collected $205,793 and is set to be paid $52,655 in 2022.
“When you do stuff like this … we are losing out on democracy,” Smith said.
Harambee promises to be a key battleground in the fight to stave off gentrification as Habitat for Humanity — and, surely, other developers — have set their sights on the Riverwest-adjacent neighborhood. What happens here will also be one of the first indicators of whether the City of Milwaukee is serious about implementing its anti-displacement plan.
If Harambee has any chance, more residents will need to get involved in the process, a move Jones encouraged, saying the neighborhood needs more “leaders” to step up.
“Self-determination starts with individuals,” she added. “We’re trying to make this a community of inclusiveness.”
Update (March 14, 5:04 p.m.): After publication, we were made aware that Anthony Kazee, one of the individuals elected to the NID board on Saturday, was not even present at the meeting. According to the resident who brought this to our attention, Darryl Johnson made Kazee’s candidate pitch for him.