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Tuesday, March 3, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 28.0° F  Light Freezing Drizzle Fog/Mist
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The candidates size up Allied Drive's problems
Cieslewicz and Allen discuss poverty policy, clash on housing
The city paid $4.3 million for the Hauk apartments.
The city paid $4.3 million for the Hauk apartments.
Credit:Pete Olsen

The word 'trolley' has been banned from the rest of this article. That's because trolleys are not the most important issue facing Madison, despite what the mayoral campaign has suggested. Housing, education, even, arguably, the increase in parking tickets are more important issues than a still hazily conceived streetcar proposal.

Worse, by bickering so much over trolleys, the mayoral candidates have ignored the one issue that the city truly needs to address: poverty.

And especially the poverty that exists on Allied Drive on the city's southwest side. It's the kind of poverty where a family earns, on average, about $18,000 a year, in a city where the median income is $42,000. The kind of poverty where hopelessness and hunger can breed mob fights during the muggy summer. The kind of poverty where the occupants of an entire building get evicted in the icy weeks before Christmas.

Whoever sits in the mayor's office on April 3 will have to puzzle out some solution to the city's most complex policy problem: How to fix Allied Drive.

Under Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, the city has tried building new housing, hosting job fairs, pouring money into social programs and even threatening landlords with nuisance abatement if their properties receive a high number of police calls. And, by most accounts, things have improved. During the past year, police calls to Allied dropped nearly 27%.

'I see a big difference,' says Robert Artis, a member of the Allied Drive neighborhood association. 'There are still things that go on, but it's nowhere near what it was.'

Some of that improvement, however, has come at the expense of low-income residents, who are moving out as the city redevelops ' and gentrifies ' their neighborhood. Ray Allen, who is challenging Cieslewicz, criticizes the mayor for focusing too much on building new, expensive housing.

'The plan is displacing people,' he says, noting the city has sunk at least $5 million into the Allied Drive neighborhood, mostly to purchase property for redevelopment. 'Look at how much money we've dropped into it, and we still have not gotten to the root of the problem.'

Cieslewicz's plan for Allied Drive has mostly centered on building new housing and redesigning the neighborhood. In 2005, he pushed for a major redevelopment of the old SuperSaver grocery store site on Verona Road into apartments.

The centerpiece of the mayor's vision for Allied is nine apartment buildings, formerly owned by Troy Hauk. The city purchased the properties last year for $4.3 million. Plans aren't final yet, but Cieslewicz expects the buildings to be torn down and likely replaced with owner-occupied townhouses and smaller apartment buildings.

'Allied Drive has every bad planning idea from 1960,' he says, noting the neighborhood is composed mainly of large apartment complexes, with little landscaping and no inner street system. 'It has to be reconfigured.'

But new construction is pricey, and it's unlikely the new units will be affordable for residents currently living on Allied.

Cieslewicz, who wants at least 50% of the new units to be owner-occupied, expects a mix of people from outside and inside the neighborhood to buy the townhouses. And he questions whether the city should even worry about displacing some residents from Allied.

'There's a lot of natural turnover that happens,' he says. 'It's unrealistic to think people aren't going to move out. They already do.'

Allen blasts Cieslewicz for buying the Hauk properties in the first place, saying the units could remain affordable if they were simply rehabbed, instead of torn down and replaced.

'I would have had a private developer come in and take the risk of purchasing these properties,' he says. 'I have more faith in private developers managing the property than the city.'

Allen also complains that when the city bought the buildings, it took them off the property tax rolls. The loss of tax revenue, plus the $4.3 million cost of buying the buildings, means less money for social programs, he says.

Cieslewicz scoffs at this, saying the funds would never have been available for other programs, because the city borrowed the money to buy the buildings. 'That portrays Ray's misunderstanding of the budget,' he says.

The mayor also asserts that the city bought the buildings to keep them out of the hands of slumlords. 'There were not reputable buyers lining up to buy the Hauk properties,' he says. 'We stepped in to fill a void.'

Artis, who serves on the Allied task force reviewing plans for the Hauk properties, is not concerned that redevelopment will force some residents out. The people leaving have criminal backgrounds or drug problems, he says.

'They're seeing big changes in the area,' Artis says. The city's message to them is: 'The things you're participating in have to change if you want to stay.'

Allen's contention that Cieslewicz has focused too much on housing has merit, however. The city has only recently begun dealing with the other thing that makes housing affordable ' a living-wage job.

Cieslewicz recently brokered a $75,000 contract with the Building Trades Council to offer apprenticeships in the construction trades for Allied Drive residents. And the city has sponsored three job fairs in the neighborhood, with another one planned for later this year.

But Allen says it's not enough. He wants the city to look into apprenticeship programs for other professions ' like banking or health care. 'I think residents could get into programs at MATC,' he says. 'With training, they could look at an entry-level job in a number of industries.'

Unfortunately, the reality is that many people living in the Allied Drive neighborhood don't yet have the skills to get into MATC or to hold down an entry-level job. Many are not even prepared for job training, says Diana Shinall, founder of the Madison Apprenticeship Program.

'MATC can't come in here and put all these requirements on folks and expect people to succeed,' she says. 'If you say to people, 'Go get your GED,' and they've never done anything like that before ' how can they begin?'

Shinall's program teaches residents basic life skills, such as how to save money or how to apply for college. And she uses a 'case management' approach that addresses all of her students' needs, including low self-esteem or a history of substance abuse, instead of just focusing on their lack of job skills.

Cieslewicz supports Shinall's program, but the city gave her only $31,000 of the $65,000 she requested. Shinall is diplomatic about the lack of funding, saying it would have been difficult for the city to give her more. 'To be fair, everyone wants a piece of the pie,' she says.

Cieslewicz says the city can't be the only funder supporting Shinall's program. Neither the United Way nor Dane County, he says, has contributed money.

'The city is doing its part,' he says. 'The other partners need to step up now.'

Allen raises another key concern about the mayor's plan for Allied Drive: 'We keep going in, doing what the city has always done,' he says, noting that if residents leave, 'they just move somewhere else.'

Neighborhoods like Hammersley and Darbo-Worthington have already begun to experience problems as former Allied residents move in.

To prevent problems from cropping up elsewhere, the city created an Emerging Neighborhoods Fund, which supports neighborhood associations, after-school programs and other initiatives, says Cieslewicz. He doesn't think there's much more he can do.

'You're asking, how do we solve the problem of poverty?' he says. 'That's too big an issue for one city to solve.'

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