This Couple’s Milwaukee Home Lets Them Live Separately. They Couldn’t Be Happier.
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This Couple’s Milwaukee Home Lets Them Live Separately. They Couldn’t Be Happier.

Jason Kuwayama and Leah Busse share a bedroom but enjoy their own space inside the modern property on the city’s Lower East Side

By NANCY KEATES
Sat, Dec 23, 2023 7:00amGrey Clock 5 min

Jason Kuwayama hardly ever goes to the front section of the new house he built in downtown Milwaukee’s Lower East Side. That is where his girlfriend, Leah Busse, plays “Call of Duty” in her designated game room—a space filled with her collectibles and art.

Instead, Kuwayama, an attorney, enters through the back of the house and spends most of his time in the main living area, an open, light-filled space with no clutter.

The two sections of the house are separated by a long hallway and an outdoor courtyard.

It is a similar scenario upstairs, in the primary suite: The two share a bedroom, but Kuwayama’s pristine bathroom is down a long hallway, and separated by the laundry room, from Busse’s, which is usually filled with clothes.

This arrangement suits them both well.

“My style is reductionist. I am a bit fastidious,” says Kuwayama, 43, who spent around $1.9 million building the house over 3½ years, finishing in 2021.

“I am a mess monster,” says Busse, 38, who works for a home-building company. “Jason wanted me to have my own space that he didn’t have to see.”

The separation between the front of the house and the back was part of a larger scheme for the house, designed by Brian Johnsen and Sebastian Schmaling of Milwaukee-based Johnsen Schmaling Architects to help create privacy in a demographically dense location.

Kuwayama bought the long, narrow—24-foot-wide—infill lot for $35,000 from Milwaukee’s Department of City Development. It sits tightly between two other houses and the setback is right up to the edge of the sidewalk, a requirement of the city aimed at preserving the neighbourhood’s character. Most of the other homes on the street are traditional, two-level structures with pitched roofs built as affordable housing a century ago—and most have the drapes drawn on their front windows to block prying eyes.

Jason Kuwayama and Leah Busse outside their home.

To allow the same privacy as those drapes but still let in light, Johnsen Schmaling came up with an exterior facade that acts as an abstract curtain, with slanted fins made from a hybrid of wood and aluminium. The tightly spaced vertical louvers are installed at gradually rotating angles with various degrees of openness, in part to imitate the movement of curtains and to respond to whether there’s glass or solid wall behind it.

“It creates a sense of mystery,” says Brian Johnsen, whose firm dubbed it Curtain House. The fins also act as a sun-shading device to protect the home from overheating in the summer.

A courtyard, bracketed between the front two-story section and the back two-story section, acts both as a buffer and a source of light, since it is open to the sky. Light comes into the house through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows that line the hallway along one side and the rooms (the kitchen one side, Busse’s game room on the other) on each end.

The main living area is open from the courtyard to the big windows and balcony that look over the river in back, also allowing in flood of light. The kitchen has a white island with an induction range and cabinets without hardware that open with a push, adding to the streamlined effect. The pantry is in back of the kitchen, also behind hardware-less doors.

The staircase, which leads both downstairs to the garage entry and a mud room and a cigar room and upstairs to the primary bedroom, has transparent glass panels supporting the tread on the ascending part, making the main floor feel wider and allowing a view of the river. The furniture is modern and sparse: a sea green Room & Board sofa, a glass Noguchi coffee table and a Barcelona chair.

Outside, the terrace is covered in fine grained rock and has a stairway with three platforms that leads down to the river. It has a pastoral feel, with trees and bushes fringing the property.

Kuwayama’s urban, modern, minimalist, open-plan, colour-free aesthetic is partly a revolt against his childhood home, a French chateau-style house in the Brookfield suburb of Milwaukee. His mother liked wallpaper and carpeting. His father leaned toward teak and Midcentury Modern art. The result was a compromise, with lots of small, separate rooms and bathrooms with their own colour (one avocado green, one brown and one pink).

Busse’s taste veers more toward traditional: an old manor with big wood banisters filled with knickknacks, she says. But she says she wasn’t interested in the design of the house because it was Kuwayama’s project from the start. Working for a home builder, she didn’t want to think about house plans when she was at home—and she wanted to move to a house with a big yard in the suburbs, she says.

Living in inner Milwaukee was also a form of rebellion for Kuwayama. He says when he was a teenager, growing up in the suburbs, it was implicit that he wasn’t to go downtown. After studying undergrad at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., he attended Marquette University Law School, right in downtown Milwaukee, and stayed there after he graduated, eventually buying a condo along the north side of the river, about a half mile from his new house.

The couple met in 2014 on $2 taco night at a local restaurant called BelAir Cantina, when Kuwayama and his friend bought drinks and food for Busse and her friend. Busse promised to meet him at the same place the following week, but never showed. A few weeks later, she saw him at a Starbucks. (Locals call the city “Smallwaukee” because running into people you know is so common). Kuwayama retaliatorily ignored her, but she tracked him down and asked him out.

Busse, along with her dog and cat, moved into Kuwayama’s 1,150-square-foot condo in 2016. They liked living together but the space was too small, says Kuwayama. “You could never get away from anybody. You couldn’t separate at all,” he says. He saw the lot for sale and negotiated the price down from $140,000 to $35,000, in part because the land was so difficult to build on, he says. Kuwayama says the city was supportive of his project, allowing variances, because it wants the neighbourhood to remain single family homes.

Milwaukee has been going through a process of urban revitalisation for decades. Once a centre of manufacturing, attracting immigrants from across the world, Milwaukee’s population hit a peak of 741,324 in 1960, making it the 11th-largest city in the country and a centre of brewing beer. The city was immortalised in the TV show “Laverne & Shirley,” about roommates who worked at a brewery there.

Like many Midwestern cities, Milwaukee was hit hard by the recession in the 1970s and 1980s, while at the same time many of the more affluent residents moved to the suburbs. Over a 30 year period, from 1970 to 2000, due to the relocation of industry and competition from emerging markets overseas, manufacturing employment plummeted by more than 77,000 jobs, and accounting for nearly 95% of all job loss in Milwaukee since 2000, according to the City of Milwaukee. The latest census puts the city’s population at 577,000.

In the 1990s, the city implemented its Riverwalk initiative, a 3-mile pedestrian path that goes along the Milwaukee River, connecting downtown to the Third Ward. The city estimates property values around the path have grown by $1.5 billion since 1993 and moves are under way to expand it.

Architecturally, the city hasn’t evolved as quickly. Polish Flat and German Duplex structures—two-family homes with one unit stacked on top of the other—still dominate the street where Kuwayama built his house. Homes in the area have been increasing in value, up around 25% over the past year as of October 2023, according to Redfin. A few blocks away, a two-bedroom, one-bathroom, 1,160-square-foot, 19th century house that was remodelled sold for $254,000 in September 2023, while a two-bedroom, two-bathroom, 2,662-square-foot unit in a newly renovated condo building with a courtyard sold for $612,000 in July 2023.

Kuwayama says the reaction from people walking by his house (captured on security cameras) is mixed: Some love it, others are put off by the fins on the facade. One guy routinely takes dates through their back deck to their platforms overlooking the river. But he doesn’t mind. “I’m committed to the city of Milwaukee,” says Kuwayama. “Being accessible to the community is part of that.”



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Hong Kong has taken a bold step to ease a real-estate slump, scrapping a series of property taxes in an effort to turn around a market that is often seen as a proxy for the city’s beleaguered economy.

The government has removed longstanding property taxes that were imposed on nonpermanent residents, those buying a second home, or people reselling a property within two years after buying, Financial Secretary Paul Chan said in his annual budget speech on Wednesday.

The move is an attempt to revive a property market that is still one of the most expensive in the world, but that has been badly shaken by social unrest, the fallout of the government’s strict approach to containing Covid-19 and the slowdown of China’s economy . Hong Kong’s high interest rates, which track U.S. rates due to its currency peg,  have increased the pressure .

The decision to ease the tax burden could encourage more buying from people in mainland China, who have been a driving force in Hong Kong’s property market for years. Chinese tycoons, squeezed by problems at home, have  in some cases become forced sellers  of Hong Kong real estate—dealing major damage to the luxury segment.

Hong Kong’s super luxury homes  have lost more than a quarter of their value  since the middle of 2022.

The additional taxes were introduced in a series of announcements starting in 2010, when the government was focused on cooling down soaring home prices that had made Hong Kong one of the world’s least affordable property markets. They are all in the form of stamp duty, a tax imposed on property sales.

“The relevant measures are no longer necessary amidst the current economic and market conditions,” Chan said.

The tax cuts will lead to more buying and support prices in the coming months, said Eddie Kwok, senior director of valuation and advisory services at CBRE Hong Kong, a property consultant. But in the longer term, the market will remain sensitive to the level of interest rates and developers may still need to lower their prices to attract demand thanks to a stockpile of new homes, he said.

Hong Kong’s authorities had already relaxed rules last year to help revive the market, allowing home buyers to pay less upfront when buying certain properties, and cutting by half the taxes for those buying a second property and for home purchases by foreigners. By the end of 2023, the price index for private homes reached a seven-year low, according to Hong Kong’s Rating and Valuation Department.

The city’s monetary authority relaxed mortgage rules further on Wednesday, allowing potential buyers to borrow more for homes valued at around $4 million.

The shares of Hong Kong’s property developers jumped after the announcement, defying a selloff in the wider market. New World Development , Sun Hung Kai Properties and Henderson Land Development were higher in afternoon trading, clawing back some of their losses from a slide in their stock prices this year.

The city’s budget deficit will widen to about $13 billion in the coming fiscal year, which starts on April 1. That is larger than expected, Chan said. Revenues from land sales and leases, an important source of government income, will fall to about $2.5 billion, about $8.4 billion lower than the original estimate and far lower than the previous year, according to Chan.

The sweeping property measures are part of broader plans by Hong Kong’s government to prop up the city amid competition from Singapore and elsewhere. Stringent pandemic controls and anxieties about Beijing’s political crackdown led to  an exodus of local residents and foreigners  from the Asian financial centre.

But tens of thousands of Chinese nationals have arrived in the past year, the result of Hong Kong  rolling out new visa rules aimed at luring talent in 2022.

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