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Truax apartments aerial view
Among many other facets, a plan to improve public housing on Madison's east side calls for the remodeling of the four buildings in the Truax Park Apartments on Straubel Street in the foreground of this photo. The East Madison Community Center is in the center of the photo and Madison Area Technical College is in the background.

The city's plans to transform aging public housing on Madison's east side are nothing if not ambitious. A proposed $60 million project unveiled two years ago would update apartments and replace townhouses near Madison Area Technical College and add market-rate housing to the site. And now Madison's Community Development Authority is preparing to broaden its scope further through a federal grant program that would leverage local spending and has the potential to be "transformational."

That's how Mark Olinger, the city's director of planning and community and economic development, describes the emerging plans to apply for up to $22 million in HOPE VI funding in a competitive national program to rehabilitate or replace distressed public housing. "It's not urban renewal where you just take everything down, but it could change the way we approach the development of affordable housing,"

The area now proposed for a HOPE VI funding application radiates a mile from the Truax Park Apartments and adjacent townhouses at Wright and Anderson streets to include the Webb-Rethke Townhomes, located to the south at the intersection of those streets at the edge of Worthington Park. Any property in the area might be included in a redevelopment plan, but not necessarily, Olinger says.

The CDA, a quasi-independent agency that is the city's housing operations and community redevelopment arm, is now seeking a consultant to help it prepare for the federal grant in 2010. In addition to his city department duties, Olinger since 1999 has headed the agency, for which the city plans soon to hire a dedicated director.

As CDA officials look toward ever bigger redevelopment plans, they are grappling to secure funding for public housing improvements already in the works and coping with both enthusiasm and suspicion from public housing residents and neighborhood advocates.

Plans to remodel six apartment buildings along Wright and Straubel Street built after World War II got an initial approval from the city's Urban Design Commission on Wednesday. CDA officials are seeking funding to fill the gap - estimated at $2.5 million last fall -- between the $13 million in low-income housing tax credits they were awarded by the state and the actual cost of the project. The renovation project will make the six Truax Park Apartments buildings accessible to the handicapped, add elevators to the three-story buildings, install central air conditioners, modernize bathrooms and kitchens, and add about 200 square feet to each of the 71 two-bedroom apartments, now just more than 700 square feet in size. Residents are fearful -- despite official assurances to the contrary -- that the renovation project will price them out of their homes. Pat Hadden, a longtime resident and president of the Truax Neighborhood Association, sums up the skepticism many tenants express: "It's ludicrous to think you'll going to give me all these amenities and not raise my rent," she says.

Agustin Olvera, director of housing for the CDA, says rents may increase with the renovation, but also says only a very few current tenants actually would pay more. That's because tenants of public housing pay 30 percent of their income towards the rent on their apartment. Only tenants with enough income to pay the rent on their unit -- the current maximum rate is $409 -- without exhausting 30 percent of their income could potentially pay more for the renovated apartments, Olvera says. He estimates two or three tenants on the current roster could be affected.

Hadden says people like the idea of more modern apartments, but adds that she doesn't hear many complaints about the units as they are. What is unsettling is the uncertainty of when work will be done and what the impact on tenants will be. "Everything is so up in the air," she says.

A Truax site master plan approved last year also called for the replacement of the 35-unit Wright-Anderson Townhomes, just to the north, and the addition of market rate housing on the 19-acre Truax area site. The 36-unit Webb-Rethke Townhomes a mile south, which a consultant identified as being in a more distressed area, were added to the drawing board to build a more competitive HOPE VI application. The program is a potential additional source of money for the major maintenance of CDA properties that cannot be covered with the $1.5 million the federal government provides each year. But including two public housing sites, Olinger says, "lets us think more holistically about the neighborhood between."

That neighborhood includes the fallow Union Corners site at East Washington Avenue and Milwaukee Street, the focus of much speculation since a private mixed-use development plan fell through because of the ailing economy. The CDA hasn't purchased the site, Olinger stresses, but a city project using HOPE VI funds could be part of a larger initiative with other partners.

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How much funding might be provided by HOPE VI depends in part on what kind of match in local investment the city can bring to the table. Award of the maximum grant of $22 million over five years would require an investment of three times that much in local spending, says Olinger. The Truax Apartments renovation project, once underway, could be counted toward the match, as could a planned expansion project at nearby Madison Area Technical College, if that comes to pass. Smaller local investments would help support a smaller grant.

HOPE VI rules also require recipients to invest more money in community services in the redevelopment area, although some grant funds can be used to support that expansion, Olinger says. The program focuses on housing, and business development is not eligible. Investment in economic development in the form of job training in low-income neighborhoods is encouraged under the program, however, and the CDA is already organizing programs for possible employment of area residents on the Truax renovation project.

News about the possibility of HOPE VI funding in the Worthington Park neighborhood is stirring enthusiasm and skepticism, just as redevelopment plans have at Truax. Dace Zeps, president of the Worthington Park Neighborhood Association, is pleased at the prospect of money for neighborhood improvements, but distressed that she and other residents have heard little about what the city is contemplating for the Webb-Rethke townhouses. "I have no idea what they are planning, I don't know if they are planning on tearing them down or cleaning them up. And what are the individuals living there supposed to do? The neighbors are supposed to be able to weigh in on what happens," Zeps says. Olinger admits that that needs to be part of the process. "In order to have a strong application, we need to have that discussion with residents," he says.

And he's hopeful the city will succeed.

HOPE VI funds traditionally have gone to larger cities with much larger public housing projects, many in dire need of replacement, but with funding of the program this year at $200 million, about twice the usual amount, and many big city projects completed, Olinger says smaller cities may be competitive with proposals for more targeted areas. Most of any eventual HOPE funds will be spent on public housing, but the program puts a lot of emphasis on the likely impact on surrounding neighborhoods. "Here's a way to improve the quality of life for our residents and the quality of the neighborhood where a project is located," he says.

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