The Milwaukee Residency Requirement Should Go


I recall a conversation I had with a teacher five years ago.  At the time, she was teaching in a suburban Milwaukee school and she clearly missed what had been her passion, teaching in the Milwaukee central city.  Her husband had changed jobs which meant a move to one of Milwaukee’s distant suburbs.  She had reached out to me to see if I could somehow help get rid of the residency requirement that was keeping her from doing what she loved.

Governor Walker took up the cause of that teacher as well as Milwaukee’s other public workers and included the elimination of the residency requirement in his budget.  As with every idea associated with Walker, this one fueled the well-oiled hyperbole machinery on both conservative and liberal sides.  

Perhaps the most dramatic declaration came from Mayor Barrett who maintained that, without the residency requirement, Milwaukee would see a devastating drop in its property valuation.  On top of the foreclosure crisis, this is “piling on,” he contended.  

Implicitly, Mayor Barrett would tell the teacher who moved to the suburbs that she shouldn’t  let the door hit her on the way to her new home.   Conversely, Governor Walker would put the welcome mat out for her return to an inner-city classroom. 

As you contemplate the issue, here are two facts to consider.  First, in Madison, where there is no residency requirement, 45% of the city employees (not teachers) live outside the boundaries of the city.  Public employees, just like the rest of society, live in a location that suits them, not one that necessarily suits their employer.  Yet, in spite of the freedom given to Madison’s public employees, the Madison economy and the Madison property valuations have been relatively healthy – especially when compared to Milwaukee.  In the past five years (including the recession years), Madison’s property valuation has declined by 3% compared to a 19% drop in Milwaukee.

Second, in a 2006 WPRI study, it was found that Milwaukee teachers tend to cluster their housing choices around Marquette and UW-Milwaukee as well as a few pockets at the edge of the city.  They do not tend to live in the central city.  Within the confines of the residency requirement, they have made a choice as to where they live and it is often not in the neighborhoods where they teach.  You can draw your own conclusion as to what this means.

So, what we do know will happen if the residency requirement is rescinded is that, over time, many teachers and city workers will live somewhere other than Milwaukee.  We also know that, like Madison, this will not cause the city to crumble.  No, the economic vitality of Milwaukee will rise and fall on its overall vibrancy, largely the result of a healthy private sector.  For a city to tie its economic prospects to recycled public sector dollars represents an insecurity that is not healthy.