Madison’s ‘Cabrini–Green’ Costs Rise At Tree Lane, Neighbor’s Home Values In Question

Once again Madison is trying too hard to place a square peg into a round hole.  Not only will the fit never be found in this particular case, but the effort and expense in trying makes for frustrations at all levels.

The headlines have been constant concerning the 45-unit, $11.7 million apartment building at 7933 Tree Lane where Madison’s most challenging cases of homeless families have been placed into a large building.  How this idea, at the outset, did not alert city official to the problems that now exist is hard to understand.  What possibly could go wrong with poverty, mental health issues, drugs, and a bevy of other social issues all placed together and left to simmer?  Could there have been any other examples that might have been considered prior to our elected officials casting a vote?

Instead of making for a better situation for the homeless the city instead has created our version of Chicago’s Cabrini–Green Homes.   Now when it comes to placing some needed security fixes to the mess the city council blinks and increases their naval gazing.

This week the council totally sidestepped around the issue of extra security—the very first and most obvious need that exists at this site.  The council was all giddy to provide more social services for the complex but then voted 12 to 7 against spending $165,000 to make sure safety was dealt with in a manner which the situation requires.  It would have taken 15 votes to amend the budget.

It was astounding to read in the newspaper that no discussion was held on either vote.  I have watched the council over the years on city cable.  Lack of talking is not an issue.  As an example, Alderman Larry Palm even when suffering from a head cold, found time to talk and ramble about.  Never microphone shy Alderman Mo Cheeks would talk late into the night when most other alders just wanted a motion to cast their vote.  But when it came time this week to make sure there were more funds for the security of the building, and hence the surrounding area, one heard only crickets.  Yes, your city council at work! 

While Mayor Soglin wishes for a re-vote on the security funds that may prove difficult.  Soglin is not held in high regard by many on the council.  He also has to share the burden of not doing more to fashion something other than our local version of ‘Cabrini–Green’.  Finally, from those casting a no vote it may be hard to reason with them about a re-vote, given their politics.

Voting for the $165,000: Alds. Ledell Zellers, Mike Verveer, Marsha Rummel, Steve King, Zach Wood, Paul Skidmore, Allen Arntsen, David Ahrens, Michael Tierney, Samba Baldeh, Keith Furman and Matt Phair

Voting against: Alds. Barbara Harrington-McKinney, Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, Maurice Cheeks, Arvina Martin, Larry Palm, Sheri Carter and Rebecca Kemble

At the outset, some who lived in the area expressed themselves as being very wary of this development.  At meetings held prior to city approval homeowners questioned what type of issues might arise with so many homeless people gathered in the units.  Due to news stories during 2018 we now know the answer.  Gunfire, fights, and other dangerous situations are not uncommon.  What these taxpayers who live in the area have every rightful reason to ask is what their home values will look like due to the wrong-headed move by the city to build this 45-unit problem.  (As a side note James and I were seriously looking about a decade ago to buying a condo near to this controversial development. We instead moved to the isthmus which we love. But I lived in that neighborhood for five years, know many residents, and can find within myself the anguish they must feel.  As a walker there for years I can also relate to the security concerns.)

If it were just for the crime and social service needs this story would be bad enough.  But the social service provider is leaving in mid-March, and tax-payers are picking up the tab.  The city had to ante up $275,250 for support programming while it seeks proposals from organizations to provide services beyond 2019.

Homelessness is a real problem in urban environments.  No is seeking to throw them under the bus.  There must be programs and plans to deal with the problem.  But moving forward with smart and well-thought out plans is the only way they will benefit.   Instead, what now exists at Tree Lane is proving to be what so many predicted.

One might hope that some lessons will be learned from the current mess.   However, do not be too ready to think that will be the case.  The Tree Lane apartment’s owner and manager is Chicago-based Heartland Housing.  The city is taking legal action to address behavior and crime concerns associated with the property.  That is a positive move.   But that same company is seeking to have another complex approved for Park Street.  No one should be willing to think there will not be some in the city who enjoy being burned twice. Or burning more tax payer’s money.

Brenda Konkel, a Madison homeless advocate, who relishes in disruption–she reminds me of Chairman Mao who always thought constant revolution was the way to secure power–can not abide the “nuisance action”  which the city is pursuing in the courts.  I suspect she will be first in line to strongly endorse any Heartland Park Street project.   At the end of the day, however, what she and so many like her can not grasp is that Housing First, while being a very moral and humane idea, can not function without homeless people willing to fully engage in the process.  Just putting someone out of the elements does make for success.  There needs to be a full commitment from the homeless to receive services and strive to overcome what placed them on the streets in the first place.  Taxpayers have done their part.  A development on Tree Lane was created (though a wrong policy move) and filled with homeless people.

Now more money is being voted for the project.  But not for the security that those in the area who pay the taxes would benefit from.  Because by making the building safer it makes the neighborhood safer, too.

And so it goes.

Pregnant, Broke, And Homeless In Madison

The Wisconsin State Journal has been doing some remarkable and insightful reporting this year on the homeless situation in Madison.   There is no way the accounts from those featured in the paper does not touch the heart, or anger the political nature within to prod for changes.  But there is also anther reaction that has to be honestly discussed, too.

At what point do some of the homeless need to address self responsibility?

Today on the front page of the WSJ there are two photos accompanying a story about the challenges this city faces regarding homelessness.  Above the fold is a young looking woman on State Street that seeks money from passersby.  The sign she holds reads in part “Pregnant and Broke’.

On the bottom half of the paper the second photo is placed showing a young looking grandmother, a five month old grandson, and the child’s mother.  The family has been homeless for about five years.

One can ask many questions such as where are the fathers in these stories?  How did either of these women contemplate pregnancy when not financially able to raise a child, or even have a living arrangement?  Sex is lots of fun but there also comes the need for responsibility so to make sure one does not get pregnant when one is not able to take care of the child.

No other part of the reports from the newspaper has made me more sad than reading of the children who are homeless and the struggles they go through from schooling to daily living.  Some of the stories breaks the heart.  So to then read that supposed adults who are now homeless do not make sure they do not add to the problem is simply galling.

There are many among the citizenry of Madison who care and are willing to help in one form or another–from paying taxes to volunteering–in an effort to aid the homeless.  But there must be a good faith effort on the part of others–such as those featured on the front page of today’s paper–to act in a responsible fashion.

Many never state these reactions out loud in Madison as the level of liberal guilt that erupts from others can be akin to a gale.  But as a liberal I also feel compelled to be honest.  There is just something very wrong when we fail to ask of those who need help that they not make matters worse for themselves. 

Madison Not Alone For Booming Apartment Construction

The building boom continues in Madison.  Much of it is concentrated in the downtown area where ever-more number of rental units are being constructed for the young workers who have healthy incomes and a desire to have the life that a bustling city provides.    Madison is going wild when it comes to apartments being built, and it fits a pattern seen around the nation.

Density makes sense from a variety of perspectives.  It allows for the tax base to increase, economic activity to surge with everything from coffee shops to retail establishments being opened to meet new demand, and of course the environmental consideration is also a plus.   But there are internal pressures on existing neighborhoods where renters do not always view issues in the same way that homeowners do.  That is why it is imperative to have a healthy citywide dialogue about growth and development.  The need to grow and build is a natural condition of urban living, and one that needs to be embraced.    Doing it in the smartest way possible only makes a city more attractive and vibrant for all those who live there, and is a draw for those who see it as a potential home.

There have been frothy debates in Madison, and the latest one is taking place regarding 906 Williamson Street.  I personally have no issue with the proposed four story structure that will have retail space along with rental units and underground parking for 21 vehicles.  What I have a problem with is the destruction of a home built around 1904 that allows for moderately priced housing for a family.    It would be ideal if the home could be moved to another site, or be incorporated into the new development project.    Blending the past with the future always has an appealing glow to it in this area.

Renters made up the majority of the population in cities at the core of nine of the nation’s 11 largest metro areas in 2013, a sharp change from 2006, when renters were the majority in just five of those cities, according to a new report.

A resulting demand for apartments is rising so fast that it is starting to overwhelm supply in many cities, which is pushing up housing costs nationwide. “As the number of renters grow, if the supply of rental housing does not keep up—as it has not in most of these cities—then vacancy rates will fall, rents will rise, and more renters will struggle with the costs of housing,” said Ingrid Gould Ellen, the Furman Center’s faculty director.

In some cases, the rise in the number of renters reflects a reversion to levels before the housing boom, when easy credit and no-down-payment mortgages allowed many renters to become homeowners. Once the boom turned to bust, people went back to renting, either because they lost their homes to foreclosure or they became skittish about owning. In Chicago, renters made up 53% of the population in 1990, then dropped to 46% at the height of the housing boom in 2006 and returned to 52% in 2013.

In other cases, long-term demographic trends and changing attitudes have diminished the appeal of the traditional American dream of homeownership. In Houston, just 41% of the population were renters in 1970. The rate rose to 51% by 2000 then declined slightly during the housing boom before starting to rise again, hitting 54% in 2013.

But for many, slow income growth and a lack of savings are the main reasons for renting instead of buying, even as mortgage rates remain historically low. Accumulating savings has become even more difficult as rents rise in many cities. Rents outpaced inflation in all of the 11 cities except for Dallas and Houston, where they remained largely flat, according to the NYU-Capital One report. Rents rose the most in Washington, D.C., over the seven-year period, with a 21% increase in the median rent when adjusted for inflation.

Historic Madison Farmhouse In Marquette Neighborhood Makes a Splash

James and I walked by this home every day as it was under construction, and when time allowed for the owner to stop and chat we heard his story about the construction project.  For a long time the owner had a written description of the work that was taking place posted near the sidewalk so everyone could ‘participate’ in the progress.  Since the home has been completed it is a joy to walk along and see the warm lighting making this house a home.

Now the story has made for a feature in Madison Magazine.

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On the sunny corner of Baldwin and Spaight, Helen Nonn rocks gently on a porch swing relocated from her grandparents’ home in Tennessee. The swing made the journey to the Wil-Mar neighborhood along with a collection of mason jars, silver, crystal and the dressing gowns Helen and husband, Kristofer, used for their two boys, Ryer and Marlow. The Nonns wanted to bring family history to their newly redesigned home, which they purchased as first-time homebuyers in 2009.

The “little white house,” as Kristofer calls it, was originally built by cigar maker Matthias Wagner in 1868. In the more than 140 years since then, the house has changed hands a dozen times, and with minimal upkeep. The result was that it had recently fallen into disrepair, and wouldn’t have stood much longer.

Kristofer liked the historic home but wanted to reimagine it for his own family. Once he won approval from the neighborhood association, he did.

When Using Gay Rights Pushes The Envelope Too Far In Madison

As a gay man I am not interested in being used as a wedge issue over a local development.

Readers to this blog know where I stand on civil rights and equality for gay people.   It does not take long to wade through my posts to know I am uncompromising when it comes to allowing for same-sex marriage.  I also am pointed with my feelings about people who are gay (and closeted) in the public arena who do not live authentically, and in the process of their work undermine the gay community.    I have been open about my same-sex partner of 14 years, and am proud that our relationship has surpassed by 100% the average length of starter marriages for most straight couples.

But there comes a time when I feel using gay rights as an argument has limits, such as with some in Madison concerning a desire to stop a development project from proceeding.

The fight this time revolves around Steve Brown’s proposal to replace three buildings on the 100 block of West Gilman Street.   The 10-story Highlander apartment building, 121 W. Gilman St., and houses at 123 and 127 W. Gilman St., would be replaced by three five-story apartment buildings.   At the present time The Landmarks Commission seems content with demolishing the Highlander which is a 1960′s type eye-sore that one can honestly say was dreadful from the first day it opened,  and seems largely comfortable with moving the vintage house at 123 W. Gilman to the 100 block of West Gorham Street.    In my estimation it would be best not to move that building as it seems a move would only undermine the whole purpose of a historic district.  But I am also pragmatic enough to understand the larger goals of this current process, and so if moving the house allows for its preservation then I am ready to accept that action.

But it is the Clarenbach House at 123 W. Gilman, that is now being promoted as a place the city should honor for gay history.  Former State Representative Clarenbach lived at this residence in the city’s Mansion Hill historic district during 1978-80 and owned the property until 1987.   He was the mover and muscle in the Wisconsin Legislature that made sure passage was secured for the first law in the country which prohibited discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation.  It was a major landmark victory.  I, along with many, are most grateful for the service he provided when in office.

But should the house that he lived in be somehow elevated to a higher status based on his political abilities or sexual orientation?

Should the house be saved simply because it was previously home to the first openly gay elected official in the state, former Madison Alder Jimmy Yeadon, who was also the fourth openly gay elected official in the nation?

If one needs to resort to these arguments for saving the house than it seems to me the larger case for the house has been lost.

The reason this house should be respected should be based on when it was built and the type of architecture it contains.  The house already resides within a historic district and there should be teeth to the laws and ordinances on the books to secure the longevity of this house.  As I have already stated I would prefer to see this house stay at its present location, but if there needs to be a deal struck where it is moved to make way for a development that the various city committees deem appropriate than I can live with it being moved.

One can make legitimate arguments about the character of the neighborhood that would change with the new development, or what the need for new apartments in this area actually happen to be at this time.  One can talk about how a new development undermines the historic charm to the area.  There are countless avenues one can proceed with to press the case against Steve Brown’s proposal.

I took the approach in a previous post that  “demolition by neglect” should not be allowed to take place in Madison.

But what I and many others can not fathom, and hopefully with the backing of the city will never see some to fruition, is the destruction of the three-story house at 127 W. Gilman Street.  Wise and knowledgeable people have added much background about the historic aspects of this house during the ongoing conversation.  The rationale for not razing it has been made, and we can be pleased that the staff report to the city’s Planning Division recommends that this house not be destroyed.  The matter comes to a head this week when Planning will meet.

The part of this whole story that has smacked me as offensive from the start is the idea that if a property is allowed to be neglected long enough the only solution is to demolish it.  If a developer has grand plans for a plot of land and wants to get his way one route might be to just allow for the current building to erode and deteriorate.  That is exactly what many people in the city contend Brown did when it came to 127 W. Gilman.  In fact, that is what the Building Inspection Division accuses Brown of doing.

As a gay man I am not interested in being used as a wedge issue over a local development.  There are plenty of  more constructive ways to talk about historic houses, and the need to preserve them.  As for Clarenbach the best way to honor his work is to fight the new legal battles that are being waged across the nation on our way to full marriage equality.

Should Madison Library Be The Hope For Homeless?

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Finding real solutions for the homeless in Madison continues to be one of the most unsettling stories that keeps getting pushed off into the future.  There is no way not to notice the problem, and be troubled by it.  From walking around the Capitol area, to reading news accounts there is no shortage of evidence to show that a real problem exists.  What is most troubling  to me is that we are a rich city and have the means to work at crafting remedies.  But we keep failing at the job.

The latest news that makes me wonder if we do not need new faces with fresher ideas involved in the process of finding a way forward comes with the knowledge that as fall beckons and winter follows there is not  a permanent day resource center for the homeless.    But had there not been assurances things were moving in a positive direction for a place with lockers, showers, meals and connections to housing, job and social services?  After all in November 2012 the Dane County Board allocated $600,000 to build or purchase a space designed for that very purpose.  My  member of the county board,  John Hendrick, even opined such a place might be open by July 1st.

As I write on August 21st there is not even a site found for a facility to be placed.

But there is a new building in Madison that is being suggested as a remedy given the inability of ‘the system’ to have a real plan in place.

Officials also hope the renovated Central Library, which will reopen in September, can take some of the pressure off the homeless services.  “We have to acknowledge that will be reopening and back in the mix,” says Green. “The library has been wonderful to acknowledge they’re a service for everybody.”   Green, is director of Dane County Human Services.

For anyone with a conscience this is totally unacceptable.  There is no way the library should be expected to be the warming house and sleeping center during the day time for the homeless.  It is also not fair for the patrons of the library to deal with some of the issues that a percentage of the homeless have as a result of not having access to the programs that can assist them.

If it is not proper to foist every social problem into the classroom for a school teacher to deal with, then it also is not proper to use the local library as the default location for the homeless.  Especially when the local officials dropped the ball on this matter in a most dramatic and troubling way.

New ideas, and more important new faces are needed at election time to steer the way forward on this matter.

Our Madison Home Assessment Jumped 49.53%—City Dropped Ball For Years

One might think the headline to this post is a typo.  It is not.

At a time when the recent assessments in Madison indicated home values fell an average of 1.6 percent across the city how did our home increase by almost 50%?  I grant you increased values are better than the alternative, but still how does this happen?

Over the years since we moved in there have been restoration projects, and refurbishing of this and that.  We both think our home looks rather swell.   But there was nothing that we did over time to account for such an increase in the perceived value of our home.

Even the assessor’s office agreed with that point.

So when we talked with the appraiser on Monday in his office, the one who did a walk through of our home last fall, it was obvious that he was pleased to know we were not angry or loud or demanding anything.  In fact, to be honest, he seemed amused that we were there to better understand the process.

My dad, Royce, sat for a time on the Board of Review when serving for 40 years for the Town of Hancock, and there was no way not to not think of the stories he told about the angry ones he encountered.  I think that was one reason I wanted to treat this middle-aged appraiser in the office with more than ample calm.

Still the question loomed that needed a response.

How does a home get an increased assessment of nearly 50% in one year?   The man looking back at us from his side of the desk had a slight smile.

Well, that is where the City of Madison comes into the equation.  (You think?)

It seems that no walk-through of our home had taken place since roughly 1985, and therefore only administrative assessments were made over the years.   While other homes such as ours were being sold and changing hands in the area, and increasing in value somehow our home never registered a need to be dealt with.  While  I could not get a firmer answer on how that happened other than being told  “I have 11,000 properties to deal with” I moved on to other matters.

I posed a devil’s advocate question about how this property could have been adding to the tax base over the past many years thereby assisting with needed programs, but had not done so due to the low assessment.  The kindly face across the desk listened and registered what I had to say but did not really have much of a response.

Clearly over time someone at the city had dropped the ball and not taxed this home at the proper rate.

While James and I have no qualms about paying our share of taxes, and well understand the need to do so for society, I do question how the process works where a home can be so undervalued for so long, and then adjusted upwards so quickly.

As we prepared to leave the office I asked, for the sake of the stories I would tell over the coming days to friends, if there was a way to let me know what percentage of homes were assessed at more than 40%, or even near 50% this year.  Clearly a most small number to be sure, but might such a figure be given to me down the road?

I was informed that would not be possible as the computers seem not to calculate such pieces of information.

One would think that given a 50% assessment rate they could have at least thrown in a free piece of trivia to banter about with friends.

But no.

All this is making for more of an interesting story than any sense of angst for James and myself.

If only all the faces my Dad had to deal with at the Board of Review over the years could have felt the same.

BTW…Dad would have loved hearing about this story!

Keta Steebs Writes Of First Home, And The Outhouse

There are some columns by certain writers that need a larger audience.  That is why Door County writer Keta Steebs gets a place on this blog today with her column that can be read in its entirety here, and glimpsed in part below.   This is a gem!

Sixty-one years ago, I awoke to such a frigid morning so dark I could barely see my 1939 Plymouth, packed the night before with wedding presents. My $7 suitcase, unused since I toted it to Milwaukee nine years earlier in search of fame, fortune and a husband, was piled in the back seat with boxes holding seven blankets, five kitchen clocks, six toasters and the Candlewick candy dish my co-workers had chipped in to buy. It was quite a haul!

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Remember Ma and Pa Kettle’s ramshackle place in the “Egg and I” movie? Well, this little edifice could have been its even uglier twin. The first thing I noticed as we limped into the driveway was the outhouse, the second was the pump, the third the flapping screen door and the fourth a woodpile. The wood was not, as I foolishly hoped, for a fireplace but for a kitchen Goliath stamped “Monarch.”

The living room looked like it was furnished for a Ladies Aid meeting with rows of straight-backed chairs lined up on each side facing a wobbly oil heater in the room’s center. I later learned that, when hot, the heater hopped and skipped from one row to the other, Depressing as my new home was, it was paradise compared with the outhouse I had waited to visit until Herman left for work. The door was so solidly frozen, it took every ounce of my waning strength to tug it open.