Tree Lane Renderings (copy)

A rendering of the Madison Family Supporting Housing at 7933 Tree Lane.

Tree Lane Family Apartments, an affordable housing development on Madison’s west side for formerly homeless families, opened its doors just a few months ago. Now, after several police calls, complaints from neighbors and two large fights, the city and manager of the facility are working to get the complex on track.

A neighborhood meeting discussing issues at and around Tree Lane apartments is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 23, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at High Point Church, 7702 Old Sauk Road.

“The purpose of the neighborhood meeting is to have a conversation to try to get at the bottom of what’s happening and why, and how some of the problematic behaviors can be prevented,” said Jim O’Keefe, director of the city’s Community Development Division.

Tree Lane Family Apartments at 7933 Tree Lane is a project of Heartland Housing of Chicago. The city committed $1.6 million to the $11.6 million project, and it provides 45 units of housing for formerly homeless families with YWCA-provided support services.

Complaints and police calls about behavior in Tree Lane’s parking lot and nearby parking lots began coming in soon after the apartments opened this summer, said Ald. Paul Skidmore, who represents the neighborhood on the City Council. The issues started around July 17, said Madison police officer Nicholas Cleary, and there have been “fairly consistent” calls for service, multiple times a week.

According to Skidmore, that behavior has included partying, drinking alcohol and playing loud music until the early hours of the morning. O’Keefe added that there have also been concerns about littering and loitering.

Cleary said there have been two fights on the property involving at least 30 people, one of which took place on Saturday night. One fight involved pepper spray, the other crowbars, he said. He wasn’t able to comment on the cause of the fights, as police haven’t received any cooperation from those involved.

Skidmore said some of the behavior has spilled over to other areas like the parking lot of a nearby strip mall and a city-owned property at 7941 Tree Lane that’s slated to become an affordable housing development for seniors. The city is working to post “no trespassing” signs on that property, he said.

O’Keefe noted that “we all need to be careful that we don’t assign every disturbance or every issue that arises in that part of the city to that apartment building and its residents.”

Rethke Terrace Apartments, also built by Heartland Housing at 715 Rethke Ave., offers affordable housing and has also experienced troubling behavior, with a rise in police calls and two stabbings on the property. O’Keefe thinks in both cases “there’s a fairly significant amount of problems caused by a relatively small number of people,” and believes some problems have been caused by visitors, not residents.

Skidmore and O’Keefe both noted that Heartland staff has had similar experiences with new facilities before. When individuals are transitioning from a shelter to permanent housing, it can take a few months before “things get to state of normalcy,” Skidmore said.

“I certainly don’t want to make excuses, but they moved 45 vulnerable families into an apartment building over a very short period of time ... just the logistics of doing that and developing relationships with all those tenants and getting folks settled in, that’s a tall order,” O’Keefe said.

Heartland Housing spokesman Joe Dutra said that while the "strong majority" of Heartland residents have "adjusted to their new homes quite well,” other tenants “may be at different points of assimilation.”

“Being vulnerably housed is traumatic. People who have experienced this extreme difficulty may face challenges as they heal from chronic homelessness and adjust to living in a safe space with others,” Dutra said in an email.

City officials are taking the concerns “very, very seriously,” O’Keefe said.

“We’ve made it clear that this is not what we expect, it’s not acceptable to the city or to Heartland or the Y. We’re going to do whatever it takes to get things settled down,” he said.

Skidmore noted that two playgrounds have not yet been installed on the property, which could increase positive behavior in the area. The Police Department thinks the property could benefit from increased staffing at the front desk and increased security, Cleary said.

Dutra said Heartland was adjusting evening staff and security, and plans to hire an additional property manager. Heartland is also working with the MPD and the residents themselves as “it’s important for residents to take an active role in order to achieve our collective success,” Dutra said. Heartland is also building community partnerships and coordinating resident gatherings and volunteer opportunities.

Skidmore supported the Tree Lane apartments when they were proposed, and he made it clear that although he’s concerned about the present behavior, his position has not changed. The location is perfect for affordable housing, he said, with two nearby bus lines and food, a pharmacy, entertainment and jobs close by.

“Do I regret supporting this project? Absolutely not, and I would do it again,” Skidmore said. “This is something that we as a neighborhood are going to have to get through … We’re in new territory here, we’re doing something kind of new and different.” 

“It takes courage to try to pursue a path that is unfamiliar, and we are grateful for the partnership and support as we create access to housing – ultimately, helping families pursue a path towards opportunity, stability and better outcomes,” Dutra said.

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