Ongoing problems and police calls at Tree Lane Family Apartments have left the city and Heartland Housing, developer and manager of the project, searching for solutions.
Now, the city is seeking a chronic nuisance action against Heartland while also proposing a major increase of $275,250 in support services funding for the development. These are the city’s latest efforts to stabilize the development and rebuild support for the city’s dedication to house the homeless.
"I understand your concerns," Mayor Paul Soglin said in a letter Monday to worried constituents who had contacted him directly. "Neither city staff nor I are satisfied with the current situation."
Tree Lane Family Apartments, 7933 Tree Lane, opened in June 2018 and has 45 units designated for formerly homeless families. It’s a permanent supportive development with on-site services and case management.
Complaints and police calls about behavior in Tree Lane’s parking lot and nearby parking lots began coming in soon after the apartments opened. The development has since been scrutinized for behavior including fighting, partying, drinking and a non-fatal shooting. The apartments had the most calls for service of any property in the West District for the months of July, August and September.
There have also been problems at a Heartland development for homeless individuals, Rethke Terrace at 715 Rethke Ave. That led to concerns about the amount of funding for supportive services and prompted an increase in the county’s contribution.
A proposal for a third permanent supportive housing site at 1202 S. Park St. 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. Soglin has previously said the issues at Tree Lane would likely provide obstacles for the Park Street proposal.
"Many of those who write to me support the goals of Housing First but are concerned about its implementation at the (Tree Lane Family Apartments)," Soglin said in the letter. "We are working hard, and as quickly as possible, to make the necessary changes to fix the issues that have arisen and we are making the systemic changes necessary to improve results now, and to ensure this does not happen in the future."
The alder for the district, Paul Skidmore, said in December he wanted the city to pursue a chronic nuisance action against the apartment complex and Heartland Housing. Soglin said at the time he was hopeful corrective measures implemented by Heartland and the city would improve the situation.
Yet on Friday, the city issued a chronic nuisance premises declaration to Heartland. This is a tool the city can use to compel owners to resolve problems at their properties.
"Mistakes were made," Soglin said in the letter. "I have and I will continue to direct staff to fix those mistakes as quickly as possible and to make it clear to Heartland that they have an obligation to the tenants, the neighborhood, and the city to take responsibility for their end of our agreement."
The city is requiring Heartland to create a plan to resolve problems at the property and notify the city of it. Heartland must respond to a meeting or appeal the declaration within 10 days of receiving the letter, Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Zilavy said.
After meeting with the city, Heartland has 15 days to "get it together," Zilavy said. The city would be able to bill Heartland for police time at the property if nuisance actions occur after the 15 days or prosecute in municipal court. If Heartland does not meet with the city, the company could face fines of $1,000 and up to $5,000 for future violations of the ordinance.
"The goal is for Heartland to get proper control of the property, so that the issues abate," Zilavy said.
If Heartland's plan is successfully implemented, Zilavy said Heartland would remain under the "umbrella" of a chronic nuisance declaration and would have to be free of any nuisance actions for a period of six months.
Three or more significant incidents involving enforcement occurring within 90 days is the standard for filing a nuisance action against a property owner. Nuisance activities can include a number of behaviors including disorderly conduct, violence, and damage to property.
"This action is necessary to send the message to Heartland," Skidmore said.
As of mid-December, Madison Police Department officers had responded to a total of 90 calls for service in the previous 90 days.
West District MPD Capt. Tim Patton said he hopes the end result will be a reduction in calls for service to the property and that additional security and support services will "go a long way."
"Overall, the calls for service, safety and security are not at an acceptable level," Patton said. "I am optimistic in terms of the collaboration and the partnerships that are in place to work on this."
Community Development Director Jim O'Keefe said the nuisance abatement action is another approach meant to stabilize the environment at Tree Lane.
"The nuisance abatement is a continuation of the effort that has been ongoing since November," O'Keefe said. "It’s an attempt to bring more focus to elicit a better response, a strong response."
Friday afternoon, Heartland spokesman Joe Dutra said, "we have yet to receive any letter from the city and therefore cannot respond to any actions."
The YWCA provides support services for Tree Lane, which are currently funded by $90,000 from Heartland, $50,000 from the city and $25,000 from the United Way. The YWCA provides two case managers and a supervisor to Tree Lane. But the YWCA informed Heartland at the end of 2018 that it would withdraw from its role as support service provider.
YWCA CEO Vanessa McDowell did not comment on why the YWCA chose to end its relationship with Heartland.
At a City-County Homeless Issues Committee meeting Monday, Michael Goldberg, executive director of Heartland Housing, said that Heartland would generally use more funding for support services “anytime it’s offered,” and has long been actively fundraising for more support services funding on its own.
The city wants the $275,250 in additional funds to provide more comprehensive services. Linette Rhodes, the city’s interim community development grants supervisor, said at Monday’s meeting that the city is working to create a team approach, with youth and mental health services, in addition to case management.
The proposed resolution would transfer $275,250 from the city's contingent reserve. If approved, the remaining balance of the reserves would be $1.5 million.
Under the resolution, the Road Home, Lussier Community Education Center and Wisconsin Youth Company - Elver Park Neighborhood Center would provide interim case management services and youth programming at Tree Lane. The Road Home has said they can offer interim case management services for up to six months, after the YWCA pulls out March 15.
The city will then issue a request for proposals for a new permanent service provider, O'Keefe said.
“That RFP is just beginning to be prepared but that’s what I envision: that we would have a request for proposals that would invite partnerships or collaborative responses as opposed to a single agency trying to do everything,” O’Keefe said.
The RFP process would identify an on-site team, which would include two full-time case managers, a youth services coordinator, a lead worker or supervisor and provide the means to offer supportive mental health services, youth programming and other assistance necessary to help residents achieve long-term housing stability.
The city is also considering $165,000 in additional security at Tree Lane. The city’s Finance Committee has approved the measure, which would fund one security officer on site after work hours and on weekends for 2019.
The Finance Committee will consider the proposed funding for support services at its meeting Monday. The City Council will take up both resolutions for support services and security funding Feb. 26.
Soglin has said that security is meant to be a short-term fix. At Monday’s meeting, Kandyse McCoy Cunningham, director of property development for Heartland, said that while it’s “not ideal,” to dedicate many resources to security, it’s sometimes necessary in a “stabilization period,” especially to “keep people out that are constantly trying to prey on residents.”
Additionally, in November, Soglin assigned Deputy Mayor Gloria Reyes to Tree Lane. Rhodes explained on Monday that Reyes is an “open resource for residents to come down and talk to,” and has helped bridge the neighborhood and Tree Lane residents, Rhodes said.
Reyes also takes part in weekly meetings with the YWCA, Heartland, private security, MPD and the city’s Community Development Division to talk about calls for service and the safety of the building, and “problem solve as we go forward,” Rhodes said.
UPS AND DOWNS
On Monday, Heartland's Goldberg pointed out that in the “housing first” model, housing individuals is a success, and everyone, except for some “recent transitions out of the building” has remained housed. That’s good news for kids who get to stay in their same school, he said, and some residents have gotten jobs within walking distance.
McCoy Cunningham said seven Tree Lane families had gone through the eviction process, and “only one resulted in an actual eviction on their court record.” She called evictions “absolutely the very last resort,” and said an eviction means they’ve exhausted all other options, including an attempt to “mutually terminate” the lease so that the tenant won’t have an eviction on their record.
The online Wisconsin Circuit Court Access database shows eight eviction actions from Tree Lane.
Kimberly Gaddis was the only tenant with a judgement for eviction. She had been living in a hotel and spending time in shelters in the year before moving into Tree Lane, and was excited to find a home for her four children and four-year-old granddaughter. She says she witnessed violence on the property, once when her kids were attacked by another tenant in the parking lot.
Now, she’s staying at hotels when she can afford it, but is “basically sleeping out of our car.”
Tree Lane Apartments provides housing to 104 children, according to Soglin.
"For many, this is the first time they have had a roof over their heads and a stable home," Soglin said in the letter. "Madison is a compassionate, caring city. Our commitment to Housing First — a proven method to eliminate homelessness and build secure, well-functioning families — will strengthen Madison."
On Monday, Heartland officials reflected on where they could improve on their management of Tree Lane. McCoy Cunningham said Heartland should have reached out to clients with support services before they moved in, to “market the services” as a benefit so residents wouldn’t view support services either as something mandatory or extra.
Because the building “was delivered late to us,” all families had to move in in a span of about two weeks, but ideally, McCoy Cunningham would have liked to move in five or 10 families at a time to build relationships and trust, she said. Goldberg said that Heartland should have spent more time early on with the YWCA to “make sure we were on the same page on all those details.”