Royal Capital Group has brought new life to the Phillis Wheatley Elementary School in one of Milwaukee’s most impoverished ZIP codes. The development, which includes the adaptive reuse of the historic school as well as new construction, is a personal one for president and CEO Kevin Newell, who grew up in the neighborhood and attended school there.
According to Newell, the neighborhood has seen very little investment over the decades and is known as having one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation.
“We saw it as a great story and a great economic opportunity for the neighborhood as well,” says Newell. “It’s a double bottom-line opportunity. Not only is there a need for affordable housing, but there’s a need for quality housing in general, and being able contribute to the solution truly allows us to achieve our goal of doing good while doing well.”
The Wheatley, which honors the African-American poet who is touted as one of the first females to publish a collection of poetry in pre-19th century America, includes 82 one-, two-, and three-bedroom units serving a mix of incomes and households. Sixty-seven units are set aside for residents earning up to 30%, 50%, and 60% of the area median income, while 15 are market rate. In addition, 17 of the units are reserved for low-income veterans.
“We always try to do comprehensive mixed-income projects because we value the continuity that comes from folks of different backgrounds living and thriving together,” he adds.
According to Newell, the developer doesn’t eliminate potential residents from the qualifying process because of a credit score. If they don’t meet the minimum threshold, they have the opportunity to participate in a four- to six-week program with a local credit union to learn about budgeting and financial planning. “If you can complete the program, it shows initiative and allows us to approve the application so you can move and have new tools that you just picked up.”
Royal Capital Group also prioritizes access to healthy living and community engagement resources, such as after-school tutoring, a demonstration kitchen, and financial literacy. Milwaukee County Veterans Services provides outreach and referral services for the veteran residents, and Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan provide services for the broader resident population.
A point of pride of The Wheatley is the preservation of the school’s existing gym. It can be utilized for community activities, such as indoor basketball, banquets, and other programming. Additional amenities include a business center, a fitness center, a theater room, and a clubhouse.
Completed in 2022, the $21.9 million development utilized federal low-income housing and historic tax credits as well as state historic tax credits. Hunt Capital Partners facilitated the tax credits through a proprietary fund with JPMorgan Chase. In addition, the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago provided an Affordable Housing Program loan through One Mortgage Partners Co., an affiliate of JPMorgan Chase, and the city of Milwaukee provided a HOME loan.
Additional partners include architect Engberg Anderson and general contractor Greenfire Management Services.
“This is one of the most rewarding projects I have been part of. Former classrooms where I attended really brought back a lot of memories and motivates me to continue doing what we do because I understand the impact that we’re having,” Newell shares. “This also is a great way to demonstrate leadership. We don’t have to stand on the sidelines to advance our communities.”