After months of trying to address bad behavior and crime at the Tree Lane apartments for homeless families, Madison is initiating a chronic nuisance action against Heartland Housing, which owns and manages the Far West Side building.
Heartland’s $11.7 million, four-story, 45-unit project at 7933 Tree Lane — the city’s second big experiment with a Housing First approach to homelessness — opened in June 2018 to provide permanent housing for 45 of the city’s neediest homeless families, including more than 100 children. But it has also required much police attention for incidents including gunfire, the arrest of a person for an attempted homicide at another location, fights and more.
Amid rising complaints from residents and businesses in the neighborhood, Mayor Paul Soglin asked the city attorney’s office to pursue actions against Heartland, which is based in Chicago.
“This is the first step,” Soglin said Thursday.
Soglin this week sent a letter to those who have raised concerns outlining city steps to attempt to fix the problem. “I understand your concerns,” he wrote. “Neither city staff nor I are satisfied with the current situation.”
In a letter to Heartland, the city is requiring the company to develop an abatement plan and share it at a meeting with the police and city attorney’s office, assistant city attorney Jennifer Zilavy said. If the plan is implemented and successful, the city won’t pursue enforcement actions including fines, which can range up to $5,000 for subsequent violations of the ordinance, and billing for police responses, she said.
The letter is expected to be sent on Friday, Zilavy said.
“From a police perspective, the central issue is just a high volume of reactive calls for service,” West District Capt. Tim Patton said. “(But) there is a lot of collaboration going on with this property. This is just part of the overall process to achieve stability and security there.”
If Heartland is uncooperative or the abatement plan is unsuccessful, the city could also seek remedies under the state’s public nuisance statute, where the city can ask the court to appoint a receiver to manage the property or pursue a sale, Zilavy said.
“This is the shot across the bow. I’m fully supportive of this,” said Ald. Paul Skidmore, 9th District, who represents the area. “I’m very grateful to the mayor for recognizing the seriousness of this and taking steps necessary to protect the neighborhood and the residents of the Tree Lane apartments.”
Heartland officials could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon. In an earlier statement, Heartland spokesman Joseph Dutra said, “The strong majority of our residents have adjusted to their new homes quite well and appreciate the goals of the community. We welcome all support from our partners in the efforts to end homelessness in Madison.”
Third project eyed
The city’s first try at Housing First, the $8.9 million, four-story, 60-unit Rethke Terrace, which opened for single chronic and veteran homeless at 715 Rethke Ave. on the East Side in June 2016, also generated a troubling number of police calls but has improved.
The city’s action at Tree Lane will not affect the city’s relationship with Heartland at Rethke Terrace, community development director Jim O’Keefe said.
Heartland has also secured financing for a third Housing First project for singles and some couples at 1202 S. Park St., but its pursuit of a required Conditional Use Permit has stalled before city committees as the nonprofit and city attempt to expand vital support services at the existing properties.
Heartland’s project at Tree Lane has generated police calls since it opened.
Call for support
Late last year, Soglin assigned Deputy Mayor Gloria Reyes to lead a team that includes representatives of Madison police, Heartland, YWCA Madison — which provides support services at the building but is leaving in mid-March — the city’s Community Development Division and Skidmore to address safety and quality-of-life problems.
The group determined that the apartments need a higher level of support services and security improvements.
Heartland has made changes affecting building access, rules enforcement, parking restrictions, lighting, installment of security cameras, coordination with law enforcement and staffing schedules and ensured there is one private security person on site at all times.
In mid-January, Soglin proposed providing $165,000 for extra private security at the apartments, which would enable Heartland to have a second private security person on site between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. on weekdays and 24-7 on weekends.
The mayor and City Council, however, have delayed a vote on the spending in order to complete a plan to expand support services. The city’s Finance Committee is expected to take up details on Monday, with the council making decisions on funding for security and support services on Feb. 26.
Soglin has said he expects a more comprehensive approach to support services will ease problems at the building and that the extra security spending won’t be needed beyond 2019.
O’Keefe said staff is likely to recommend an anchor presence to deliver case-management services and coordination, but to also bring in agencies that specialize in substance abuse, mental health, employment and child care.
The Road Home of Dane County, which offers a range of programs designed to provide long-term solutions to homelessness, is expected to provide support services on an interim basis between the time the YWCA leaves and the more comprehensive approach is implemented, O’Keefe said.
“We’re looking for a way to make this work,” Skidmore said.