The apartment on Allied Drive didn't have a working stove. It was infested with cockroaches. But Kristen Benjamin, 41, and her four children needed a roof over their heads. She moved in, without signing a lease, and agreed to pay the owner rent when she could.
"I gave him a few dollars here and there," says Benjamin. "I had to pay $20 for him to put a lock on the door."
Benjamin's apartment building was among four properties that fell into receivership and were taken over by Anchor Property Management in November. She says she was relieved, and immediately asked Anchor for a lease.
"It took a month to get a meeting with them," she recalls. But Benjamin says Anchor's project supervisor, Barb Beaton, told her not to bother applying because neighbors had accused her of selling drugs.
"If I'm running drugs out of my house, how come I'm poor?" demands Benjamin. "How come I'm living on Allied?"
For now, Benjamin remains in the apartment but says Anchor has done nothing to fix it up. "It's infested with roaches, it's disgusting," she says. "This is like living in hell."
Dane County Supv. Carousel Bayrd, a member of the Allied Area Task Force, says she's heard many complaints about Anchor.
The company purportedly told one tenant, after she'd already moved in, that she had to re-sign a lease, doubling her security deposit to $500. When another tenant didn't come to pick up her keys, says Bayrd, Anchor gave her apartment to someone else.
"I did not expect them [Anchor] to be unethical," says Bayrd, who wants Anchor to pay restitution to the homeless tenant. "I want them to stop manipulating people who don't know their rights."
Anchor's Beaton says she repeatedly tried to contact the tenant about taking occupancy. "I tried for over a week to reach her. I never got a call back or anything." The tenant recently contacted them again, says Beaton. "We're trying to negotiate something with her. Again."
Brenda Konkel, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center, says landlords can't re-rent an apartment if someone else holds the lease for it. "It's essentially an illegal eviction," she says. "Just because she didn't pick up her keys is not a reason a lease can be invalidated."
And Konkel says a Madison ordinance bars landlords from increasing a security deposit after a lease has been signed.
Beaton denies asking tenants to re-sign leases, but says there was one instance in which a mistake was made on a security deposit. She also denies telling Benjamin not to apply for an apartment, saying she merely advised that Anchor would do a criminal background check on all prospective tenants.
"Any felonies, any drug issues - that's a problem," says Beaton, adding that Benjamin never turned in an application and hasn't paid any rent. (Online records show that Benjamin has a misdemeanor conviction for theft from 2006, but no felonies or drug charges.)
Beaton notes that Anchor has spent thousands of dollars so far renovating the properties. "We've had a very positive response from the tenants. They're happy to see us."
Dane County Supv. Richard Brown, who's seeking re-election this spring, still owes more than $86,000 in back property taxes on his house and several rental properties in the city of Madison.
"I'm working on it," says Brown, who has paid down his tax debt from $130,000 a year ago. "It's just been a rough year."
Brown once owned 28 buildings, but now has only eight, after selling some and losing others to foreclosure. He says he's lost tenants in Allied Drive to the new Avalon Village apartments, a project subsidized by the city: "I can't compete with them. A lot of small landlords have been having trouble."
And building inspectors have cited Brown's properties for peeling paint, rusted bathtubs, holes in the walls, leaking toilets, mold and other problems. "We absolutely must get this owner's attention," wrote one inspector, who recommended that Brown be prosecuted. "His buildings are a blighting influence on the neighborhood(s)."
Brown says since his buildings are 45 years old, "stuff is going to go wrong." And as he's lost tenants, he's been forced to lay off most of his maintenance crew.
One of Brown's two primary challengers, Lisa Subeck, calls his tax debt "concerning." As a supervisor, she says, "he is making decisions about how our money is spent, how much we're taxed. Yet he's not fulfilling his fundamental duties as a resident."
But Brown expects most county residents to sympathize with his predicament. "A lot of voters can relate to hard times," he says. "They're probably having the same problems I'm having."
Who wants to be on the Madison school board?
No one is challenging Marj Passman or Ed Hughes this spring for the two open seats on the Madison school board. Don Severson, head of Active Citizens for Education, says he asked at least 20 people to run.
"We just turned over as many rocks as we could," he says. When so many people refused, "I was devastated."
Last weekend, Severson met with potential candidates to ask why they wouldn't run. Many said they were worried about the school board's poor reputation.
"That board should be leading the district, and they don't see it doing that," he says. "The board doesn't deal with policy issues, they just react."
So how come Severson, a close follower of school issues, didn't run himself?
He laughs. "I can have more impact this way," he claims.
Besides, he says, some board members have reported being harassed: "Your family gets crucified. People are cruel. I'm not going to put my wife through that."
He should probably leave that out of his pitch to prospective candidates.
Dane County's new Capital Area Regional Planning Commission is up and running - and deciding on new development guidelines. The body, which replaced the old planning commission dissolved in 2004, will hold a public hearing on its proposed changes on Jan. 24, at 7 p.m., in the City-County Building.
Environmentalists are generally happy with the new guidelines, which protect farmland by promoting infill and redevelopment. The commission is also eliminating the so-called flexibility factor, which allowed builders to push the boundaries of where new development could happen.
"They make it possible to say to a developer: 'You've got infill opportunities where taxpayers have already paid for roads, schools, the police,'" says Caryl Terrell, former statewide director of the Sierra Club. She notes that developers buy land in the country, where it's cheaper, then ask nearby cities to pay for infrastructure. "They get a free ride. But the taxpayers don't."
But Phyllis Hasbrouck, chair of the West Waubesa Preservation Coalition, complains that the guidelines don't prioritize water quality. "If we don't have a really strong planning council, then developers can develop every last bit of the county," she says. "It won't be the place we treasure so much."
The public can affect the county's development at next week's hearing, says Hasbrouck. "Everyone I know complains about sprawl. This is their chance to do something about it."