By Princess Safiya Byers Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Published Aug 20, 2022 at 12:01 PM

Community First MKE hopes to use projects like the 37th Street School Historical Senior Apartments, which earned it a coveted Mayor’s Design Award earlier this year, to preserve and advance neighborhoods.  

The nonprofit organization, which serves senior citizens, welcomes the recognition, which came in May. Its leaders say their clients are among the city’s most vulnerable residents, and that much work needs to be done to connect them to housing.

Community First is primarily responsible for administering the City of Milwaukee’s Neighborhood Improvement Program, or NIP, a housing rehabilitation loan program for low-income homeowners that uses federal funds.

The organization emerged as a winner of one of the Mayor’s Design Awards for converting MPS’ former 37th Street School into 37th Street School Historical Senior Apartments, which are affordable apartments for older residents.

The $13 million project, funded by low-income housing tax credits administered by the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, houses 49 units of senior housing – 10 of which are reserved for veterans. The project was completed in July 2021. 

“I’m proud of how Community First MKE was able to turn an eyesore into a neighborhood gem,” said Brandon Methu, Community First MKE’s board president and owner of Northernstar Companies LLC. “It’s great to see people responding to it in a synergistic way."

Community First MKE works to improve the quality of life for Milwaukee residents and their neighborhoods by offering affordable housing opportunities for individuals and families.

“Typically our families have been in their homes, between 20 and 50 years and are up to date on their mortgages and utilities. But because they’re on a fixed income, everything else is out their hands,” said Rafael Garcia, the executive director and founder of Community First MKE. 

The agency helps them with repairs and upkeep.  

It was founded in 2011 to serve families and neighborhoods on the North Side of Milwaukee and has since expanded throughout the city and into Wauwatosa.  

The organization also prides itself on working with small minority contractors. 

“We take the neighborhood handyman from the same ZIP codes that we’re serving and develop them into licensed and insured contractors,” Garcia said. “Showing them how to bid, submit invoices, helping them along the way with accounting and things like that.”  

The agency hopes to use projects like the 37th Street School Historical Senior Apartments to empower residents.

“Our vision is really to take a big impactful investment like that school and then try to concentrate as many resources as possible to homeowners around there to really have a meaningful impact on the neighborhood,” Garcia said.  

“We pride ourselves in being a clearinghouse agency,” he said. This means “if we can’t help someone, we at least try to send them away with some referrals to where they can get some help.” 

For more information 

You can learn more about Community First here.  

You can donate here