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‘Paying off’: Millenial homeownership in Milwaukee is third-highest in US in recent years

RentCafe study found national increase in millennial homeownership

man stands in front of his home in West Allis, WI
Ben Barker is a 30-year-old who purchased a home in West Allis with his wife in 2021. Evan Casey/WPR

Jeremy Ault and his wife Jamie moved to Milwaukee in 2011, renting an apartment in the Riverwest neighborhood of the city.

But shortly after the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020, their landlord informed them he’d be significantly raising their rent.

“That led us to quickly either searching for a new apartment or really getting involved with the home buying market,” Ault said.

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After looking at other rentals, they decided to buy a home as it became clear a mortgage would be comparable to what they’d pay in rent. Ault also wanted to live near the school he teaches at so he could continue biking to work.

It took the couple several failed offers before they found a home in the Burnham Park neighborhood, close to Ault’s work. While it was stressful, the 37-year-old said the move was worth it.

“For us, purchasing a home became not only something we needed to do and cost-effective, but it was also a good move for us as a family as well,” he said.

A “for rent” sign is seen outside of a home on Griffin Street in Milwaukee on June 29, 2021.  Isaac Wasserman/Wisconsin Watch

Ault is one of many millennials in the Milwaukee area who have gone from renting to buying a home in the past few years.

A new report from RentCafe found the Greater Milwaukee area had the third-highest growth in millennial homeownership from 2017 to 2022. The study found a 157 percent increase in the millennial homeownership rate in the region in that time. Milwaukee only trailed Richmond, Virginia, and Las Vegas in that metric.

About 53 percent of millennials in the Milwaukee area now own a home, compared to about 47 percent who rent, according to the report, which used data from the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series.

Ben Barker is a 30-year-old who purchased a home in West Allis with his wife after they experienced issues with their landlord. Barker, who is a first-time homeowner, also said the rent at his Bay View apartment was comparable to what he pays for his mortgage now.

“Even though it was such a big one-time purchase and such a journey to find a home and secure it, it’s already paying off,” Barker said.

Both Barker and Ault said they have many millennial friends who have also bought a home recently or are looking at the market.

Mike Ruzicka, president of the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors, said the broader increase in home buying during the COVID-19 pandemic likely played a role.

“That push really got a lot of millennial buyers into the market and obviously into ownership, which is fantastic,” Ruzicka said.

Ruzicka also said there are several programs and incentives aimed to help first time home buyers, especially in Milwaukee.

“I think (for) anybody who is interested in saving money and building a nest egg for the future, property ownership is a good path,” he said.

Teig Whaley-Smith is the chief alliance executive at Community Development Alliance, which aims to address housing inequity in the city. He said it was encouraging to see so many families moving into homes in recent years.

“I think you see a lot of millennials that have historically been excluded from the housing market, but now that more baby boomers are aging out of their single family homes, there’s some limited inventory that is being freed up,” he said.

After paying off his student loans, Ault said he was looking for more ways to build his equity.

“For me, in some ways, a house has become a really stable way in which I can build some equity in a really topsy-turvy economy,” Ault said. “I think millennials are searching for some economic stability and ironically, purchasing a house seems to be more stable than renting and pursuing different jobs and careers in different cities.”

Nationally, a majority of millennials now own homes, according to the report, which looked at 260 U.S. metropolitan areas.

“Between 2017 and 2022, the number of Millennial homeowners increased by a whopping 64% to 18.2 million. The staggering addition of 7.1 million households exceeded the number added by all the other generations combined,” the report said.

Sunshine illuminates green leaves. A home's upstairs windows and blue exterior can be seen.
Windows of a home can be seen through leaves Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021, in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

A report from the National Association of Realtors found that neighborhood quality, convenience to jobs and affordability were the top three qualities that millennial homebuyers look for when searching for a home.

A 2021 report from the city of Milwaukee Millennial Task Force found that millennials may move to Milwaukee because of its urban nature, reasonable size, relatively low cost of living and entrepreneurship opportunities. But that report also calls on the city to incentivize first-time home buying in Black and Brown neighborhoods in the city.

That’s something that’s important to Whaley-Smith, as the Milwaukee area still has one of the most inequitable housing markets in the nation, according to a 2021 study from the real estate data company Clever.

That study found that homes in predominantly white neighborhoods in the Milwaukee area are worth 382 percent more than homes in predominantly Black neighborhoods, making the Milwaukee metropolitan area the sixth-most inequitable region for real estate in the U.S.

Whaley-Smith said the Community Development Alliance, along with city, county and state foundations, raised $24 million last year to support Black and Latino homeownership in the city. That includes the building of a new 120-single family home development in the King Park neighborhood.

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