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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 61.0° F  Fair
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Madison's public housing crisis
Declining revenues are forcing new approaches
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Andy Heidt: 'It's not a scenario for sustainability.'
Andy Heidt: 'It's not a scenario for sustainability.'

Madison's Community Development Authority is headed for trouble. The agency's public housing, all of which is at least 30 years old, needs extensive maintenance ' new roofs, boilers and other repairs. But the agency's income from rents has been declining, and the federal government, which supplies half the agency's $4 million housing budget, has held funding increases to just 2% in recent years.

'It's not a doomsday scenario,' says Andy Heidt, chair of a new long-range planning committee for the agency. 'But it's not a scenario for sustainability either.'

The CDA operated its public housing at a deficit from 2003 to 2005, and barely broke even last year. The agency has repeatedly tapped its reserve fund to maintain operations, depleting the fund from half a million dollars in 2003 to just $150,000 today. And aging CDA buildings will need about $5 million worth of repairs in the next five years.

'Housing authorities across the county have been in similar situations,' says Agustin Olvera, the CDA's unit director. 'They dipped into their reserves too.'

The low-income residents who live in public housing pay 30% of their income as rent, but incomes of the poorest residents have been shrinking, says Olvera. The CDA's average rent for a unit used to be $250; now it's down to $200. 'We're housing a poorer and poorer population,' says Olvera. 'When people's incomes decline, our rent declines.'

The federal government has been pressuring housing authorities nationwide to dump unprofitable buildings and focus on sites that bring in revenue. 'If you find a housing development that is losing money, you may have to sell it off,' says Olvera. He adds that the feds want housing authorities to help 'working families,' not the poor, who often can't pay much rent.

'That's their answer to declining rents and less subsidy,' he says. But the CDA has traditionally housed the city's poorest residents. The average income of local tenants is $11,800; 64% of them are seniors or are disabled, and 34% are children.

The city of Madison created a new, long-range planning committee to address the CDA's fiscal dilemma. 'We've got land and we've got the financial tools,' says CDA chair Stuart Levitan. He notes that the agency could afford to redesign its public housing sites despite the budget crunch by issuing cheap bonds. But he says the city of Madison may be asked to help. 'I wouldn't rule that out at this time.'

The agency eventually wants to revamp all its housing, but is focusing first on its Truax apartment complexes (see map), where some units are nearly 60 years old. The site has lots of land for potential development, and the agency wants a mix of market-rate units with public housing, as well as commercial and retail space ' all of which could help boost revenues.

Redesigning Truax should also help lure new tenants, says Levitan. The CDA had an overall vacancy rate of about 4% in 2006. 'If we develop an attractive, affordable place, we won't have any trouble finding tenants,' says Levitan. 'It will be a way to grow us out of our problems.'

No job for you!

Ald. Zach Brandon is drafting legislation to prohibit political operatives from working in the city clerk's office or at polling stations during elections. Brandon decided a law was necessary after learning that Mike Quieto, a member of the Teaching Assistants' Association's political action committee, worked at the clerk's office during the spring election. Last week, Brandon filed an ethics complaint against Quieto, accusing him of forging signatures on the PAC's campaign finance reports.

'It's really a question of how much faith we have in the outcome of our elections,' says Brandon.

The State Elections Board, which oversees state and federal elections in Wisconsin, prohibits staff from having political affiliations.

'They're not allowed to be a member of a political party, give contributions to anyone we regulate and can't get involved in campaigns or give endorsements,' says Kevin Kennedy, the board's executive director. 'You have to regulate so that people have confidence they're being treated fairly.' He says the board has never been sued over these constraints.

While the language has yet to be drafted, Brandon doesn't expect city election staff to be as apolitical as the state requires: 'I'm not looking to go that far.' But he does want a ban on 'political professionals ' the Wayne Bigelows, Lisa Subecks and Brenda Konkels.' Not to mention the Zach Brandons.

Lights out

Does Dane County really need a special committee to study ways to recycle energy-efficient light bulbs? Supv. Brett Hulsey ' an environmental consultant ' says no.

'I think the whole idea is a dim bulb,' he says. 'We already have fluorescent-bulb recycling. It's a solution in search of a problem.'

Hulsey accuses Eileen Bruskewitz, who proposed the idea, of trying to head off any attempt to make county landlords use compact fluorescent bulbs in their buildings. A similar measure failed at the city level.

'He's right,' says Bruskewitz, calling a law mandating that landlords use the bulbs 'such a stupid idea.'

Bruskewitz thinks the committee is necessary because many people don't know they should recycle the long-lasting fluorescent bulbs, which contain small amounts of mercury. If the bulbs break, the mercury can evaporate into the air. The bulbs can be recycled wherever they're purchased, including hardware stores or discount retailers like Wal-Mart.

The county's recycling manager, John Reindl, says 4,000 compact fluorescent bulbs were recycled in 2005. The county has just begun its survey for how many bulbs were recycled in 2006; and after contacting just seven stores, the number was already above 3,000.

'The number's going to grow,' he says. Still, Reindl believes a committee to educate consumers and retailers about recycling the bulbs is 'a great idea. I think a lot of people still don't know there's mercury in them.'

Hulsey, however, wants the county to focus on a subcommittee he's created to study its overall energy use, 'not just pick on light bulbs.'

Housing for the disabled

After a year of waiting, Jeff Erlanger is finally getting his wish: The city of Madison will hold a summit on accessible housing on April 23 at Monona Terrace.

Erlanger, who pushed Mayor Dave Cieslewicz to hold the summit, says there's a big market for accessible housing, which features things like wider doorways for wheelchairs and bathrooms on the first floor. 'There are lots of people who need it,' he says. 'Not just persons born with disabilities, but people coming back injured from Iraq or people who are getting older.'

Because the state prohibits municipalities from setting their own building codes, the city can't simply require developers to build accessible homes. So Erlanger is hoping developers at the conference will agree to voluntary standards.

'Developers are starting to get the hint,' he says. 'But it's been a long time coming.'

The daylong conference costs $25 and begins at 8:30 a.m.

Building a consensus?

Brenda Konkel is losing her high-profile seat on the Madison Plan Commission. Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, in picks announced Tuesday, replaced her with Ald. Tim Gruber, who has only been on the council for one term. Why would the mayor kick Konkel off, when the Plan Commission obviously needs experienced members?

'It's clear I'm being punished,' says Konkel. 'But I don't know what for, because they haven't talked to me for eight months.'

Konkel was outspoken in her criticism of the mayor leading up to the election. Mayoral aide George Twigg says, 'We don't take those things personally' but adds that the mayor 'felt it was time for a change. He wanted more of a consensus-builder. He didn't feel Brenda was filling that role.'

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