There’s long been a plan to build permanent supportive housing to serve Madison's homeless population on South Park Street. The project would be developed and managed by Heartland Housing, a Chicago nonprofit organization.
That’s a problem for some neighborhood residents, who say Heartland needs to fix problems at its two other Madison properties — Rethke Terrace and Tree Lane — before starting a third.
The city and Heartland acknowledge the difficulties; Heartland is making changes and the city says it’s learning from past missteps and unforeseen issues.
“This was a new initiative on the city’s part and the execution of it has proven every bit as difficult as advertised,” said Jim O’Keefe, director of the city's Community Development Division. “There have been some instances where I think we’ve learned already some things that will be useful for future projects.”
The project at 1202 S. Park Street would include 58 units for homeless adults and 1,200 square feet of commercial space. The city has committed $1.9 million from its Affordable Housing Fund to the project, and it was awarded $8.1 million in federal tax credits earlier this year.
Heartland’s Rethke Terrace Apartments at 715 Rethke Ave. opened in 2016, and Tree Lane Family Apartments, 7933 Tree Lane, opened this June. Both facilities employ a "housing first" approach to homelessness, that attempts to provide stable housing first and then deliver other services like mental health, addiction counseling and job placement.
Rethke created 60 units for formerly homeless individuals, with 25 units slated for veterans, and Tree Lane hosts 45 units for formerly homeless families.
Both developments garnered negative attention this summer. Rethke saw a rise in police calls, and there were two stabbings at the property. Tree Lane was the site of two large fights and issues with partying, drinking alcohol and playing loud music until the early hours of the morning.
The Tree Lane Apartments had the most calls for service of any property in the West District for the months of July, August and September, said Madison Police officer Nicholas Cleary.
In response, Heartland said it was adjusting evening staff and security, working with the MPD and tenants, and planning to hire an additional property manager.
Ald. Paul Skidmore noted that when individuals are transitioning from a shelter to permanent housing, it can take a few months before “things get to a state of normalcy.”
Heartland has fulfilled its promises: it’s added full-time property managers, extended security staff hours and completed two playgrounds at Tree Lane Apartments, according to a statement.
These measures seems to be quelling minor issues at Tree Lane, but is “not stopping any of the big things from happening,” said Cleary, citing recent incidents like a substantial battery and a juvenile fight involving pepper spray.
Cleary also said the police regularly receive complaints from local businesses about loitering and alleged drug sales.
The continuing problems are a “big concern” to Skidmore, who recently met with Heartland to discuss the issue. He was told that Heartland is addressing resident concerns, issuing five-day notices and considering sanctions for tenants who do not comply with the rules.
“I think they know how serious this is and they need to kind of right the ship, so to speak,” Skidmore said.
Ald. David Ahrens said police calls to Rethke slowed significantly in September, and the full-time property manager and increased security were crucial. But he noted that 40 calls for the month is still “a lot of activity.”
Heartland knows the work is not done at Rethke and Tree Lane, Dutra said in a statement, and will continue to “ensure a safer environment.”
Despite Heartland’s promises, some neighbors of the proposed Park Street project remain worried.
The newsletter for the Bay Creek Neighborhood Association recently printed a letter penned by its Planning and Economic Development Committee. It accused Heartland Housing of inadequate services and staffing at Rethke.
“For Heartland’s extremely vulnerable tenants, the failure to get the support that a successful Housing First program provides has had disastrous consequences, leading to violent behaviors and repeated police calls in an attempt to keep order at Rethke,” the letter says.
It instructs those with concerns to ask the city for a “proven successful plan for support services” before development at 1202 S. Park St. takes place.
This is not the Bay Creek Neighborhood Association’s first objection to the project. The group previously asked that it be moved to 1402 S. Park St., formerly the Truman Olson United States Army Reserve Center, citing concerns like a lack of adequate parking and green space at 1202 Park St.
“You’ve got essentially a 60-unit apartment building on a third of an acre, it’s very dense,” said Ald. Allen Arntsen, who represents the neighborhood, noting many neighbors would prefer “something not quite so central and not quite so crammed into the site.”
Arntsen said he thinks the neighborhood is generally in favor of permanent supportive housing, but police calls at other Heartland Housing properties “raised questions as to whether you are putting a top generator of police calls in your neighborhood.”
“This is something I’d love to see happen, but I would like to see proof that Heartland has figured out how to do it at their other sites before they try a new one,” Arntsen said.
David Vogel, a longtime neighborhood resident who owns commercial properties at 1023 S. Park St. and 961 S. Park St., agreed the city should pause the project.
Bay Creek is a very diverse and inclusive neighborhood, he said, but the Rethke and Tree Lane developments are not working for the tenants or neighborhoods.
Citing complaints from business owners around the other Heartland developments, Vogel is even more concerned about the Park Street project, as the development would be closer to commercial space, including “mom and pop” businesses. Simon Lee, owner of one such business, Oriental Food Mart at 1206 S. Park St., said he was opposed to the project, bringing up issues like lack of parking.
Skidmore has no regrets about supporting the Tree Lane development, but he understands the concerns coming from Park Street neighbors.
“I think what we’re hoping is that there will be some progress (at Tree Lane) to give some hope, otherwise (the Park Street project) is going to face some opposition at the Plan Commission level,” he said. “I still give my unqualified support for housing first and this type of project. If these don’t work, that’s going to put the whole program in jeopardy as you can see, so I really want this to work.”
O’Keefe acknowledges the problems at Heartland’s current properties, but points to lessons learned and future adjustments.
“I don’t think it’s reasonable to think about these projects as evolving in a straight line. I think they’re going to be periods of difficulty and turmoil and then there will be periods of calm,” O’Keefe said, with the goal to keep working until periods of calm are the norm.
Parts of the original plans may have been “overly ambitious,” O’Keefe said, adding the city is rethinking its strategy to house “populations with the most serious challenges all in one place.”
The city, as part of the larger Homeless Services Consortium, evaluates homeless individuals and ranks them according to need. The city decided to start with the very top of that list at Rethke, providing housing to individuals with the most challenges, O’Keefe said.
The density of individuals with high needs could be amended at both Rethke and Park Street, possibly by moving some highest-need individuals at Rethke to Park Street to create a mix of individuals with higher and lower needs at both properties, O’Keefe said.
Another challenge for Heartland: it was harder than anticipated to enroll tenants in Medical Assistance. That’s necessary to get reimbursed for services and generate revenue to pay staff, meaning it took longer to fully staff Rethke.
To prevent this in the future, the city has included over $100,000 for support services on day one of the Park Street facility’s opening, O’Keefe said, so it will have proper staffing “right out of the gate.”
County Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner is the author of a proposed amendment to the county budget that would increase county funds for supportive services at Rethke from a proposed $40,000 to $60,000.
She’s heard about the South Park Street neighborhood concerns, and believes this “demonstrates that we’ve heard what you’re saying.”
“We are committed to making these permanent supportive housing projects succeed, and when we need to, we will put in the local dollars that are required to make sure the residents have adequate support,” she said.
As to the problems at Tree Lane, O’Keefe thinks that’s a less relevant comparison for Park Street neighbors -- it’s still too early to “draw real firm conclusions,” and it’s serving families, which is a “very different dynamic” than Rethke and the Park Street apartments, which would serve single adults, he said.
O’Keefe said he “can’t emphasize enough” how helpful and constructive the neighborhood input from the Park Street area has been. And there’s still time to learn: it would likely be at least 18 months until the Park Street development would open, assuming it gains city land use approvals, he said.
“We are not at a place where we’re just putting our heads down and looking to replicate at Park Street what we did at Rethke, but we’re not prepared to jump ship either,” O’Keefe said. “We’re going to roll our sleeves up and solve these problems and make not just Park Street, but Rethke and Tree Lane, successful projects.”
The Park Street development needs Urban Design Commission and Plan Commission approval, and will likely appear before the Plan Commission in November.