Residents confront city officials over crime at troubled Tree Lane apartments

December 18, 2018

Dozens of Far West Side residents confronted city officials over bad behavior and crime at Madison’s latest attempt at housing the chronically homeless.

Amid sometimes testy exchanges between Mayor Paul Soglin and concerned residents at a community meeting Monday night, city officials answered questions about reducing crime and other problems associated with Heartland Housing’s $11.7 million, 45-unit project for Madison’s most-challenged families at 7933 Tree Lane.

Since the building opened this summer, Madison police have responded to 156 calls for service — 90 in the last three months — for problems including weapons offenses, drug-related activity, domestic disputes and overdoses.

The number of police calls to the building in December, 47, was nearly double the number of calls to the next busiest address in the West District, West Towne Mall, according to police data shared at the meeting.

“We’re still in the process of building relationships with the residents, with the community, with the businesses, all learning how to be good neighbors together,” said Madison police Capt. Cory Nelson during the meeting at Blackhawk Church.

The high number of calls has led businesses and residents who share the area with the project to demand changes to make the area safer for homeowners, business owners, customers and residents of the housing.

Abigail Darwin, who lives in the Oakbridge neighborhood, said managers of the building need to be given clear “guideposts” to hold residents and themselves accountable for fixing the problems.

“With this building, maybe it’s too late, but maybe it isn’t. ... Something needs to be done,” she said, adding that she’s concerned about residents with criminal histories, as well as for those in the building just looking for a fresh start.

“What is being done to protect them and their children?” she said.

Businesses near the development have also raised concerns about increased disturbance calls, loitering, theft and property damage that they attribute to the new residents.

Judy Susmilch, owner of Salons Etc., which is across Tree Lane from the troubled housing development, said she’s had to put her business on lockdown, with customers inside, several times when police have had a large presence in the area due to a call to the building.

“I don’t feel we’ve got a lot of time to get this under control,” she said. “We really do need some help.”

Making changes

At the meeting, police suggested several changes — including armed security guards, two guards on site at all times, stricter visitor policies and police access to surveillance systems — to reduce problems at the building, improve its culture and hold management accountable.

Soglin has also stationed Deputy Mayor Gloria Reyes, a former member of the Madison Police Department, at the site to guide Heartland’s management and meet with residents.

Many Far West Side residents also said they’d like to see stricter contracts with clearer expectations for building management. Others said they’d like to see better lighting in the area or improved social services.

Ald. Paul Skidmore, whose 9th District includes the building, said he still supports the housing-first approach to reducing homelessness, but that the management of the complex is inadequate and doesn’t have control of it. “Housing first” refers to getting the homeless into permanent housing and then offering them drug and mental health treatment and other support services.

“I’ve heard a steady stream of concerns and complaints,” Skidmore said about the project.

He said he’d pursue a city nuisance abatement action to pressure the complex’s managers to act if swift improvements aren’t made.

A nuisance abatement can lead to actions such as a meeting with police and the city attorney’s office, a written abatement plan, fines, asking the court to appoint a receiver to manage the property and more.

“Is it my intent to burn the place down? No. My intention is to end the threat to the neighborhood,” he said. “Every property owner has an obligation to maintain a safe household.”

Few problem residents

Still, not all those at Monday’s meeting thought the Tree Lane project was a blight on the neighborhood.

Some said they didn’t feel threatened by their formerly homeless neighbors and thought they were becoming scapegoats for all crime committed in the area.

Tiffany Helgerson, an Oakbridge resident for more than two years and volunteer at the Tree Lane complex, said she’d like to see others in the area become better neighbors by getting to know residents.

Many of the Tree Lane residents come from traumatic backgrounds but are “really, really trying” to improve their lives, she said.

“I’ve had the opportunity to get to know a lot of the families there and a lot of the families are wonderful people,” she said. “We really need to make sure that we’re doing our best to be welcoming because how else will we be able to make a difference in their lives if we don’t treat them with the same respect that we would expect?”

Most of the problems originate from a few problem tenants or visitors to the building, Soglin said.

“My guess is that 95 percent of them have never had a police call and never will,” he said.

The few problem residents are in the process of being evicted, Soglin said. So far, residents in seven units at the Tree Lane building will be evicted for problems ranging from lease violations to poor behavior.

“We need to create a stable platform of security,” said Police Chief Mike Koval. “The majority of constituents in there are overjoyed at the opportunity that’s been given to them.”

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