The Balsam-Russett area of the Meadowood neighborhood in southwest Madison is known as a troubled spot. This summer, the area was the site of multiple shootings and this fall received a federal grant for a crime reduction plan.
It's also home to a cluster of nonprofit housing providers trying to improve the lives of their residents.
Some community members say the nonprofits, with their building renovations and case management services, are actively improving the area. Others worry they may be drawing too many residents with unique challenges to a small area, where low-income families face plenty of challenges themselves.
In general, Ald. Matt Phair thinks the providers benefit the area. But he understands the tension.
“It’s a fine line,” Phair said. “When do you have too many service providers who can’t necessarily deal with all the challenges in the neighborhood?”
Over the years, nonprofit housing providers have been attracted to inexpensive four-unit apartment buildings on Leland Drive, Balsam Road and Raymond Road. Housing Initiatives manages apartments for formerly homeless individuals with severe mental illness on Balsam and Raymond. The Road Home has two “Housing & Hope” properties on Balsam that provide housing for families with children.
Nehemiah provides emergency and transitional housing as part of its re-entry program for those recently released from prison or jail, and Common Wealth Development, Inc., provides a variety of services, including job training and business incubation. It owns multiple affordable housing units in the area.
'A WIN-WIN SITUATION'
Leaders of the Meadowood Neighborhood Association say residents in the nearby single-family homes like what the nonprofits have done for the neighborhood.
When Lisa Veldran was president of the MNA, a representative from Housing Initiatives came to the association to introduce the organization’s goals — to serve military veterans who struggled with mental illness and homelessness — to the neighborhood.
The association liked the plan, Veldran said, because Housing Initiatives would have a case manager on site and perform upkeep on the property, an improvement over absentee landlords who were often impossible to contact about improvements or building inspections.
“It’s kind of been a win-win situation for us,” Veldran said. “I think it’s just knowing who our neighbors are, knowing who owns those properties, knowing they're going to maintain them, knowing they’re going to screen their tenants.”
Veldran and current MNA president Terry Evanson said the neighborhood supports the nonprofits.
“I have not heard any complaints from residents about the services the nonprofits provide,” Evanson said in an email. “In fact, just the opposite. People ... are impressed at the changes they see because of the work being done by these organizations.”
Both specifically noted the efforts of Common Wealth, which they said has remodeled apartments to make the area safer and more inviting. Common Wealth also has a reputation for enforcing rules for conduct in its buildings.
Phair has heard concerns, but the complaints are not “too bad, too intense or too frequent,” he said. “Just every once in awhile.”
Veldran acknowledged that the neighborhood isn’t perfect, but said that without the nonprofits, she thinks there would be a lot more police activity and calls. She also thinks they're a boon to diversity.
“We’re integrating people of different cultures,” Veldran said. “It’s really expanding the horizon of what is Meadowood — it’s not just single home owners."
'UNDER THE COVER OF NIGHT'
Tutankhamun “Coach” Assad is the founder of the Mellowhood Foundation, an organization that aims to empower area youth. Assad said members of MNA are mostly white and they don’t live in the areas of Meadowood dominated by rental properties.
“It’s easy to care about me if you don’t have to live by me,” he said. “It’s easy to say you have an inkling of how my life is led ... when you only have to spend an hour a week at a community supper.”
The reality for people living in the apartments on Balsam Road is quite different, Assad argued. At 5 p.m., the case managers go home. Under “the cover of night,” Assad said, a different dynamic takes over.
It creates an environment where “opportunistic men” prey upon residents of the nonprofit apartment buildigns, leading to gun sales, drug sales and violence, Assad said.
He said the struggling populations shouldn’t be placed in Meadowood — the same neighborhood where many of them got in trouble in the first place. Instead, they should be placed in thriving areas like Atwood or Shorewood. But you’ll never see them there, he said.
“You can't continue to ask a struggling neighborhood with decent citizens who want to maintain the safety and dignity of their neighborhood ... to carry the burden and bear the load,” he said.
“Just because it’s a low economic neighborhood, you think you can get away with this.”
THE ROAD HOME
Assad declined to name a specific nonprofit housing property, saying his were general concerns. However, other neighborhood residents pointed to the Road Home property as a particular concern at night.
Phair said he is aware of complaints of activity at the Road Home after the case manager leaves. There have been concerns with people out on the street at night and a few brawls over the years, he said. He’s talked about these concerns with the Road Home and understands that they work with people facing challenges. He said that overall, he thinks they’re doing pretty well in an imperfect situation.
Madison Police Department records show that in the last year (Oct. 26, 2016 to Oct. 15, 2017) officers were dispatched or assigned 81 times to the two Road Home properties at 5812 and 5806 Balsam Rd.
Lt. John Radovan, MPD records custodian, noted that these assignments don’t necessarily mean that the incident merited a police report.
“We understand many of the challenges and stigmas associated with providing such housing,” Kristin Rucinski, executive director of The Road Home, wrote in an email.
In the email, Rucinski listed The Road Home’s efforts in the community, including participation in monthly Neighborhood Resource Team meetings, Balsam-Leland landlord meetings, and the neighborhood's anti-violence march. The organization has also installed a security camera system that Rucinski said has “been a valuable resource for law enforcement and property management.”
The Road Home enjoys strong relationships with nearby organizations including the library, schools, the local Joining Forces For Families office and the neighborhood police officer, she said. The case manager is sometimes present on evenings and weekends, and lease concerns are handled with the organization’s third party management company, Meridian Group.
“Clearly, we are committed to being active participants in the community beyond providing case management during ‘business hours,’” she wrote.