Brookfield Common Council room. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
An attempt to censure a Brookfield alderman for comments made during a public meeting failed to pass the common council Tuesday night. Brookfield residents packed the common council chamber, mostly to voice support for Ald. Kris Seals. Last month, Seals spoke out against an affordable housing project and made comments which some felt were discriminatory against people with low incomes. State and federal housing laws guard protected classes, including income classes, against discrimination.
Of the 19 Brookfield residents who signed up for public comment, all but three spoke in support of Seals. During a meeting in January, Seals railed against the Flats at Bishop Woods housing development. The four-story, 203-unit project would offer housing at $400 less than what the average Brookfield resident currently pays. A proposal for the housing development passed the council in November in an 8-6 vote. In January, some alders stated they didn’t agree with the project but felt they had no choice but to vote for it under the legal guidelines provided by city staff.
“What we are trying to do is step down to a West Allis or a Wauwatosa,” said Seals during the meeting last month. “No, we’re Brookfield. We don’t step down and allow the people who can’t afford to live in Brookfield to come in, because then we become West Allis, then we become Wauwatosa.”
Both West Allis and Wauwatosa are suburban cities within Milwaukee County. The median value of owner-occupied homes in Brookfield is $346,000, compared to $260,700 in Wauwatosa, and $155,700 in West Allis. Seals wasn’t alone in his stand, as 12 of the 15 other alders also spoke out against the project. After Seals’ comments, the city of Brookfield trended on Twitter in the state of Wisconsin for an entire day.
SOPHIA, an interfaith coalition of Waukesha County communities, said in a Feb. 3 press release that the group was “deeply troubled” by Seals’ comments. “Not only is it illegal to discriminate against housing developments for working class families, it is morally wrong,” a press release by SOPHIA states. “It does not represent the basic goodness and welcomed spirit that makes our community great.” The statement further declares, “it is simply wrong to assume that more workforce housing opportunities would only bring in new working families, and not also serve those who already live here.” Following Seals’ comments, Ald. Michael Hallquist moved to censure Seals, saying he feared the comments could expose the city to litigation.
Seals remained silent during most of the Tuesday meeting, which began at 7:45 p.m. But many supportive Brookfield residents spoke out, some from outside of Seals’ district. “Mr. Seals may have been less than discrete in his messaging,” said resident Mary Stephani during the meeting. “In your view, he may have violated aldermanic ethics clauses, and may have spoke out contrary to the Affordable Housing Act language. But I applaud his speaking on our behalf.” Kent Mealins, another resident, asked, “What happened to free speech?” Mealins went on to say, “what he said was not derogatory or whatever. And he’s representing some of our opinions, regardless of whether I agree with it or not. He should not have to be bullied into submission to however many people on this council.”
Many other residents referenced free speech in their testimony. Others pointed to cancel culture, “Marxist Leninist” media outlets, and liberal/progressive agendas encroaching on their way of life. Some accused Hallquist of organizing a media uproar over Seals’ comments. Others stated that they had to “pay their dues” to get to live in Brookfield, and feared it would become everything they left behind. Residents have also pointed to structural concerns they had about the Flats, including parking, traffic congestion and a lack of green space. Some feared the housing development might also attract crime.
“We clearly live in an age of cancel culture, bullying and censoring the voice of anyone who gets in one’s way,” said Peggy Hamill. “The proposed censuring of our loyal alderman Kris Seals is clearly an act of such canceling, censoring and bullying of not just Kris, but all of us, his constituents.” Hamill added that Seals’ “loyal representation of our almost unanimous opposition to the Flats government-subsidized, high-density building project, his opposition is exemplary.” Residents who spoke during the meeting were met with applause and cheers.
The few people who spoke in opposition to Seals’ comments did not receive the same warm response. Some pointed to Brookfield’s lack of diversity, with the city’s Black population resting at 0.9%, while 3.4% are Latino and 82.4% are white. Robin Palm, an AICP certified planner and a representative of the American Planning Association’s Wisconsin chapter who also lives in Milwaukee, highlighted that many Brookfield residents technically live in affordable housing, too. “Typically, when one says the term [affordable housing] in suburban communities, neck hairs raise and people rush for their pitchforks,” said Palm, who was registered as speaking about Brookfield housing developments and not the censure itself.
“Affordable housing, according to the American Planning Association, is spending less than 30% of the household income on housing expenses. So any of us here could live in housing that’s considered ‘affordable.’ I myself do.” Palm also noted that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) define affordable housing based on area median income. “For a project to be approved, 40% of housing units need to be affordable within 60% of the area’s median income. … For Brookfield and Waukesha County, the AMI for a 4 person family is $96,100.”
That definition also includes Seals’ home, based on a review of public records by Palm. The home “was purchased in 2000 for $118k and recently refinanced in 2020 to $212k. Since the prevailing interest rate at the time was about 3.5% (which was a wise move on his part), an estimated $1487 monthly payment would be considered affordable housing by the WHEDA LITEC standard.”
Amy Zimmerman said she felt that the censure wasn’t as personal as people seemed to think. “We really like to be defined by our best moments,” said Zimmerman. “And unfortunately, it’s really the worst behavior that is tolerated by an organization that comes to define its culture. And you all have been elected and are a peer governing, a self-governing organization, in that regard.” Referencing the 80-page agenda packet, Zimmerman said, “We see a pattern of either ignorance to or an unwillingness to heed city’s legal counsel regarding pertinent comments and discriminatory comments while considering legislative actions and approvals.”
Seals and other council members had been warned of the consequences of violating the Fair Housing Act, and state discrimination laws. In a November email to council members, city attorney Jenna Merten highlighted that the Fair Housing Act covers discrimination based on race, color, sex, national origin, religion, disability or family status. “Wisconsin is more broad in that it also prohibits discrimination based on ancestry, marital status, age, sexual orientation, or lawful source of income.”Fair Housing
Even zoning laws are covered by the Fair Housing Act. “Even if no personal bias exists on the part of municipal officials, municipal zoning practices or decisions that reflect acquiescence to community bias or fears about members of the protected classes may be intentionally discriminatory.” Meten cited neighboring New Berlin, which was sued a decade ago by the federal government. A 180-unit housing project near the city center was rejected after stiff local opposition.
“To avoid a potential lawsuit, City staff and council members should avoid questions or comments that may demonstrate discriminatory effect on protected classes,” Merten wrote in a Nov. 15 email. “Some topics to avoid include those regarding stereotypes, fears about crime or diminution in property values, the prospective tenants’ source of income, and how many children will be living in a dwelling unit. Topics to focus on are the comprehensive plan, the neighborhood plan, and compliance with the City’s Site Development standards.”
Hallquist’s attempt to censure Seals failed 13-1, with no other council member supporting the action. The alder was disturbed by the outcome.
“I’m proud to stand in unwavering dissent of my colleagues, and in lockstep with the members of our community who know wrong from right when they see it.,” Hallquist said. “We will never accept housing discrimination in our community, and will always challenge those who do. To Ald. Seals and the residents that seek to create an income wall of classism to live in our community, know that it’s made of sand, and the eventual tides of progress will slowly wash away whatever you manage to build.”
This article has been edited to correct a misspelled last name, the location of where the individual lived.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.