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Sunday, March 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 16.0° F  Overcast with Haze
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East side neighbors mixed on Heartland Alliance's affordable housing proposal for Madison
Each development has different screening criteria for tenants.
Credit:Heartland Alliance

Concerns about an affordable housing project on Madison's east side were alleviated, but not completely erased, at a neighborhood meeting on the project Wednesday night.

The city of Madison is proposing buying a half-acre parcel of land at 709 Rethke Ave., next to the Aloha Hotel on East Washington Avenue, to construct a three-story building with 50 to 60 units. The apartments would be single occupancy units that would offer support for tenants who have suffered from chronic homelessness.

The city has an option, which expires in May, to buy the property for $250,000, said Natalie Erdman, executive director of the city's Community Development Authority.

It has selected Heartland Alliance, a consortium of service agencies, to build and manage the development, as well as provide services for the people living there.

Michael Goldberg, vice president and executive director of Heartland, said, "We've only recently been selected. The details of what the building will be, how big it will be, how it will be financed is yet to be developed."

But the rough concept, Goldberg said, is similar to some of Heartland's other developments. Each unit in the building would be for one adult person, not couples or families. "This is independent living with the idea that we'll attach services to the housing,” he said. "We're dealing with people who are coming from housing instability. These folks can live independently with some level of support."

Staff are on-site round the clock and build up relationships with tenants, helping to identify and work on their challenges. "The staff are trained so they can observe if someone is acting in a way that requires intervention, just checking to see that everything is okay," Goldberg said.

Several members of Heartland were on hand to answer questions about the organization's work and plans at a meeting at Hawthorne Elementary School Wednesday night. Hume An, Heartland's director of real estate development, said the organization strives to design its buildings in an architecturally pleasing manner. "Our goal is to have our buildings not read 'affordable housing.'"

Heartland has developed 850 units of housing in Chicago and Milwaukee. Some are mixed-use buildings that integrate market-rate apartments with managed, affordable housing. The developments vary in management structure, depending on the needs of the people living there. Some are operated like condos, offering less structure, while others are more closely managed, with 24-hour secure front desk areas.

Some people in the crowd of about 50 had questions regarding who would be living there. Would there be people with a history of being sexual predators? Will their children be safe?

Kandyse McCoy Cunningham, director of asset management, told the group that each development has different screening criteria for tenants that are developed with the community. In some developments, a conviction for murder or sexual offenses is a "deal breaker."

Tenants who are accepted are required to abide by set rules. A management plan is developed when a tenant isn’t living up to expectations.

Ed Stellon, chief program officer for Heartland Alliance Health, told the crowd that its projects have a very good record in stable housing, with 90% to 94% of residents staying there for a year or longer. "But that means that for every 100 people, there are six to 10 who are not making it," he said. "There are times when we move toward evictions."

Ald. David Ahrens, who represents the area, is concerned that the site for the project is bad, both for the potential clients and the neighborhood. He notes that the site is near the Aloha Inn, which has had issues with prostitution, transients and drugs. It's also wedged between two highways and is near numerous liquor stores and the Geisha House, a massage parlor.

"For Madison, it's a high crime area," says Ahrens. "The neighborhood it's in has four times the property crime rate as the city average. Crimes against persons are multiples of the city average."

Kristopher Steege-Reimann, who lives nearby, says he wholeheartedly supports the concept and the need for more affordable housing. But he fears that the east side is becoming the de facto spot for developments such as this.

"There needs to be these resources," he said. "It just feels like it's all put on the east side, and the east side has carried its share of the burden."

Erdman said that city staff started with about 20 potential locations around the city that met the criteria of being on a major bus line, near amenities like grocery stores and libraries. This site emerged as the only one the city could afford. "We say the site met our criteria," she added. "I wouldn't say it's an ideal site. But I think it's a good site."

Other neighbors said they supported the idea and thought it would improve the neighborhood. One woman said she thought having a development with 24-hour, on-site staff would help deter crime.

"Vacant lots don't have eyes, but managed apartments do," echoed Stellon. "We will call the police [if we see trouble].”

Capt. Mary Schauf, commander of the Madison Police Department's East District, said that "the people who will be served by this already live among us, but they don't have the support they need."

"Do I have concerns about the safety of this building? No, I do not," she added.

Sarah Peterson, president of Carpenter-Ridgeway Neighborhood Association, suggested developers include neighborhood gardens, chickens and a café in the development. "Our neighborhood could really get behind that."

An said that some of Heartland's other developments include similar amenities. "We want to create opportunities to break down the mentality of us vs. them," he said. "We often invite the neighborhood into our buildings to have meetings. We'd love to explore the possibility of a café."

The city is working on the project in concert with Dane County, which has also pledged support. The 50 to 60 proposed units are only about half of the city's goal to build 110 units. Erdman said city staff haven't begun looking for a site for the second property.

"Really, until this building has some success, we're not moving on to the other one."

Ahrens says he still has concerns about the development and its proposed manager. "We need to do more study on their operations and how that has worked in other cities."

"I didn't really get a sense of what they do for these people. If someone is an alcoholic or a drug addict, can they continue to be an alcoholic or drug addict in that facility? I didn't get an answer to that.”

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