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Occupy Madison about to buy Fordem Avenue building to house homeless
The group also hopes to secure city funds to offer permanent housing
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Konkel says Occupy Madison plans to hold an open house on Jan. 5 for neighbors.
Konkel says Occupy Madison plans to hold an open house on Jan. 5 for neighbors.

A volunteer-run group that has been providing services to Occupy Madison is on the verge of quietly buying and turning a Fordem Avenue office building into housing for homeless individuals.

"We're estimating that there are between 300 and 400 people out camping in various parts of the city and not going to shelters at night," says group member Brenda Konkel, of the need for such housing.

Occupy Madison Inc., which just incorporated, plans to purchase the office building at 2132 Fordem Ave. on a land contract, says Konkel, a former member of the Common Council and a longtime housing advocate. The group needs to raise $75,000 for a down payment and construction costs. It has raised $32,000 so far without fundraising publicly but plans to reach out for donations soon, she says.

The group is also seeking $275,000 in city funding through the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. But Konkel says if the group does not receive a loan from the city, it has "five years to figure out other financing."

Occupy Madison, which began as a protest encampment downtown, morphed into a homeless community on East Washington Avenue that has been relocated several times by the city and county and now resides in Token Creek Park.

Konkel says the group's short-term plan is to operate as a mission house, but the long-term goal is to offer single-residency occupancy (SRO) units to some 20 to 25 homeless individuals. Operating as a "mission house," where occupants are not charged rent, is a permitted zoning use, so city approval is not needed. But the group would need to get a zoning change to operate as an SRO, says Konkel.

Neighbors who got wind of Occupy Madison Inc.'s plan, even before knowing a purchase of the building was imminent, were upset they were not apprised of the project.

"Our concern is with the process and the quiet way they have gone about this," Mike Kenitz, executive director of Center for Families, wrote in a Dec. 18 email to Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway, who is the alderwoman for the area. "They must be assuming opposition and therefore trying to fly under the radar."

Rhodes-Conway herself was not contacted, as is traditional for these kinds of projects. She says the first she heard about it was when the group presented its site plans to the city's Development Assistance Team, which reviewed the project for code issues since the office building would now be used for housing.

"In some ways I feel like my support is assumed even though I haven't offered it," Rhodes-Conway says in an interview.

Kenitz was not just concerned about transparency, however. Center for Families is an umbrella organization for four groups including the Respite Center, which provides care to children and families under stress.

He told Rhodes-Conway his organization is not against services to homeless individuals, who are also served by his agency. But, he added, "We serve hundreds of vulnerable small children and many parents and need to know more about what is being proposed to move next to us."

Shannon Barry, executive director of Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, which is converting the old Sears warehouse at 2102 Fordem Ave. into a new shelter for abused women and their children, also expressed concerns to Rhodes-Conway.

"I am really surprised and disheartened that no effort was made to engage and dialogue with the neighborhood - especially two other nonprofits who serve vulnerable populations."

In response to these concerns Konkel says it's "real frustrating when vulnerable populations are pitted against each other." She notes there has been no trouble at the day shelter on East Washington Avenue, even though the Rainbow Project, which serves traumatized families, raised concerns about being right next door.

As for transparency, Konkel says the purchase of the building moved quickly, and the holidays and snowstorm that hit the Midwest interrupted plans for contacting neighbors.

"We're not trying to keep them in the dark," she says. "We're doing the best we can."

Occupy Madison Inc.'s application for Affordable Housing Trust Fund money is one of four applications currently under review by the city.

Creation of the fund was approved in 2002 by the Common Council, though it was left to a committee staffed by the Community Development Block Grant to hash out the details.

Hickory Hurie, interim community development grants supervisor, says the idea was to build up a $10 million cushion before tapping into the fund, but loans have been made in recent years.

The deadline for the city's most recent request for proposals was Dec. 7. Just shy of $1.4 million is available for distribution, says Hurie. Projects were sought from for-profit and nonprofit developers "that create, repair or preserve affordable rental or owner-occupied housing for low-income households in the city."

The funds will be provided in the form of an installment loan, with 2.75% interest.

Also seeking funds in this round are Care Net Pregnancy Center of Dane County Inc. Care Net is an evangelical anti-abortion group that operates a network of 1,100 crisis pregnancy centers across the country. Its aim is, according to its website, to "share the love and truth of Jesus Christ in both word and deed."

The organization is planning to build a three-level building at 1360 MacArthur Rd. that would include 36 apartment units and a daycare center. Located right next to the group's pregnancy center, Eagle Apartments would include affordable units for people with incomes as low as 30% of the Dane County median income, as well as some market rate units.

Care Net is applying for $250,000 in Affordable Housing Trust Fund monies and $550,000 in neighborhood and community development funds. The group also runs Elizabeth House, which houses pregnant single mothers ages 18 to 26.

Ald. Joe Clausius has met with the applicant, approves of the project and says in an email to city planning staff that postcards were sent to all neighbors within 500 yards of the project.

Also applying for Affordable Housing Trust Fund money is Movin' Out, a statewide nonprofit organization that helps people with disabilities find permanent housing. The group is seeking $375,000 to develop a new affordable multi-family project at 101-113 Mills St. and 1020-1022 Mound St., a site currently owned by Meriter Hospital. In a joint venture with Gorman & Co., the project would include 50 newly constructed multifamily housing units, with 46 reserved for households whose incomes are below 60% of Dane County median income and four at market rate. Movin' Out, like Care Net, is also seeking $550,000 in neighborhood and community development funds.

The fourth project seeking Affordable Housing Trust Fund money is the Dane County Development Group, which is asking for $375,000 to acquire and rehab four two-unit multifamily apartment buildings.

The Community Development Block Grant Committee is scheduled to review these applications at its meeting Jan. 17. One of the four objectives the city lists in awarding Affordable Housing Trust Fund money is to "reduce the number of individuals who are homeless due to a lack of affordable permanent housing options, particularly single-room-occupancy units for single individuals."

Community impact, however, is one of the criteria to be taken into account in evaluating any project.

And that might prove an issue for Occupy Madison Inc., since neighbors are already peeved that they were not consulted on the project.

Rhodes-Conway says she won't support funding for the project unless the neighborhood is engaged and has asked Konkel to hold a neighborhood meeting.

Konkel says her group plans to hold an open house January 5, circulate fliers to neighbors and talk to elected officials.

Rhodes-Conway says most city residents, if asked, would say they don't want homeless housing in their neighborhood. And yet, she adds, "it is a service that is desperately needed in our community. So what do you do?"

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