Doing the Right Thing:
Avenue project serves as a model for community housing action.

By Bill Lueders

Appeared in Isthmus, Madison, Wisconsin's weekly newspaper in December, 1989.

When the Madison Mutual Housing Association announced in the spring of 1988 that it wanted to turn the former UW-Madison neurological hospital at 1954 East Washington Avenue into a mixed-income housing complex, some area residents assumed the worst. MHA executive director Susan Hobart and District 2 Alderman David Wallner, appearing at an Emerson Neighborhood association meeting that April, were accused, essentially, of trying to destroy the neighborhood by drawing in low-income undesirables.

view of the eight-unit building from the street

A few weeks later, on May 23, during the first of many MHA-sponsored forums on "The Avenue" plan (the name is taken from cab speak for Washington Avenue), association president Bill Perkins told a crowd of 75 that the cooperatively run complex would be attractive and that its tenants would fit in well with the neighborhood. Spat an attendee in loud reply: "He's full of shit!" Wallner took a lot of heat--and some 6 a.m. phone calls--for his support of the plan. A half-dozen residents announced their intention to move. Some of them signed a petition opposing the project in favor of a completing plan that would have used the facility to house the elderly. If the MHA folks' bid was accepted the signatories warned, "we will do everything we can to prevent them from getting the permits they need..." Shouting and recriminations peppered the early meetings. "I used to go home afterwards and cry," recalls Hobart. "I couldn't believe people were that angry, that afraid". She found herself asking: "Why I am doing this"?Today that question seems easier to answer, as even some of those who tried to dead-end "The Avenue" 18 months ago now laud Hobart and MHA in anticipation of the 40-unit complex's formal unveiling next week. "It's a lovely building and they have done a lovely job," says the neighbor who made the "full of shit" remark. "They did everything in their power to address our concerns"."As long as the people who put forward this project are involved in it, there's going to be no problems," says another neighbor who had threatened to move. "This is the type of thing that needs to happen".Indeed, The Avenue project, from start to finish, is a model of how to address this community's most pressing need--affordable and accessible housing--in a way that turns doubters in believers, foes into fans. MHA and the diverse group of players that have conspired to give this old hospital new life have not only done the right thing; they've also done it right.

site plan

The Process
Since its incorporation in 1983, the Madison Mutual Housing Association has developed more than 200 new housing units at some 33 sites throughout the city--all governed by the nonprofit group's belief that housing should be open, accessible and democratically controlled.

MHA properties are cooperatively managed by a resident-governed off-shoot called the Madison Mutual Housing Cooperative. In addition to working within this larger group, residents of individual dwellings meet regularly to establish rules and divvy up chores. "Cooperative housing gives people who can't afford a house the same opportunity a homeowner has to feel pride and have a stake in their homes," says Hobart adding that the skills people learn within a cooperative can make them more effective citizens in other arenas.The Avenue, co-sponsored by three groups working to provide housing to the elderly and people with disabilities--Access to Independence, Options in Community Living and Independent Living--is MHA's largest and most ambitious endeavor to date. It is also the first project in the state in which a private nonprofit group teamed up with a corporate investor to add low income housing (see side bar, this page).Although MHA's reputation and record of success won it a smattering of support within the neighborhood, the prevailing sentiment was that the project would be a low-income dumping ground. Alderman Wallner says the reaction contained "an element of racism," but other factors were also at work. The neighborhood, notes resident Brian Moushey, was beginning to feel deluged by special-needs housing,. Within a few blocks of the former hospital, then the site of county's main detoxification center, was a group home for troubled teens, one for developmentally disabled adults and the Goodwill home for the mentally ill where, this January a deranged resident stabbed a counselor to death.When MHA's $650,000 bid for the property was accepted in June 1988, Moushey and others were resentful that the plan was proceeding whether they liked it or not. At the same time, however, they began to realize that MHA was serious about accommodating the neighborhood's concerns.Eventually, dozens of residents took part in planning meetings and the number of units was cut early on from 60 to 40; the amount of on-site parking was increased to 66 stalls; wood (instead of aluminum) siding was used on MHA's eight-unit addition. A fence was put to separate the project from existing homes. Residents helped decide everything from where the parking entrances would go to which trees were cut down. They are also involved in deciding which applicants get accepted in the first place."MHA fulfilled its promise that neighbors would have some say in the planning," says resident Mary Ridgely. "Through that process I saw neighbors who were really vehemently opposed to the project soften.

One key area of neighborhood input was the adjacent James A. Graaskamp Park, named for the late UW real estate expert. Although MHA's goal all along was to design a park that was fully accessible to people with disabilities--the first of its kind in Wisconsin--neighbors energized the planning process. Linda Brown, whose young son uses a wheelchair, provided the group with models of accessible parks. A sandbox was added at the neighbors' request. Area children came to meetings to demand climbing structures and sledding-hill preservation. Remarks Hobart: "There's a couple of kids in this neighborhood who feel it's their park because they helped design it".

Dozens of neighbors turned out for the park's dedication on Oct. 5, and neighborhood children (including Brown's son) have enjoyed it ever since. Moushey, past president of the Burr Jones Neighborhood Association (which, like the Emerson association that subsumed it, is now inactive), says building a park at the site has been neighborhood goal for years.Now Moushey speculates the Avenue will become "the hub of the neighborhood"--its first year-round meeting place. "In the short term, I really think the facility can fulfill a lot of needs," he says.

How Smart Is It?
Speaking at the park's dedication, County Executive Rick Phelps pronounced: "The smartness of all this, the intelligence with which this was done really screams out at you.It's a good thing Phelps, whose aide Billy Feitlinger is Hobart's husband, has not yet toured the complex or the screaming he hears would likely burst an eardrum. The Avenue, is designed by the nonprofit architectural firm Design Coalition, Inc. is about as smart as smart can be.The complex consists of three buildings interwoven with green space. Besides the main 28-unit building and eight-unit addition, a two-story heating plant is being converted into four apartments, including two with lofts. In all there are 18 one-bedrooms, 17 two-bedroom and five three-bedroom apartments. In the basement of the main building is a spacious meeting room to be named after Liesi Blockstein, the late count board supervisor and community activist.Attractive features abound. The front door of the main building (the innards of which were completely gutted) can be opened electronically from any apartment. Each door within the complex will stay in an open position for 60 seconds so that people in wheelchairs (or, for that matter people carrying groceries or kids) can get in and out. A second, lower peephole in each door lets kids and people in wheelchairs look out.The hallway walls are lined with a 30 inch strip of carpeted wainscoting to prevent damage from wheelchairs. All doors have levers instead of doorknobs for people with limited use of their hands. The complex has five laundry rooms and ample storage space.None of the 40 units is exactly alike. All have spacious kitchens and bathrooms, attractive cabinets and floor tiling, energy-efficient windows and state-of-the-art furnaces. Six of the units are barrier-free, meaning they have showers, sinks, switches and storage spaces designed for people in wheelchairs. Most of the remaining units are wheelchair-accessible and can be modified to be barrier-free.In designing these barrier-free units (which, like the low-income units, are scattered throughout the project), MHA and its architect consulted extensively with people with disabilities. They learned, for instance, that while the conventional wisdom calls for rectangular barrier-free showers, residents with disabilities favored larger, square showers that can accommodate and attendant.I'm really impressed with the work that they've done," says Tracy Miller, housing counselor for Access to Independence. "They really show a commitment to designing housing that meets people's needs". Miller says her group receives more than 100 calls a year from people with disabilities seeking appropriate housing. MHA received four dozen applications for its six barrier-free units and eventually held a lottery to make the final cut.Says Hobart: "If every developer in town made a commitment to develop one of 10 units as barrier-free, we could meet the demand and they could fill the units".

All Smiles
When MHA removed the main building's aged cornerstone earlier this year, it discovered a brass box filled with newspaper clippings and photos dating back to 1923, when the facility was built. MHA plans a similar cornerstone stash, including photographs taken at the building's dedication ceremonies next Wednesday, Dec. 20 (beginning at 3 p.m.).At a tour of the facility late last week, Hobart navigated comfortably among the mess of ongoing work, scolding one contractor for installing a water softener without providing the first batch of salt, removing a sign about AA meetings left over from the facility's detox days and vowing, seemingly against all odds, that everything would be ready ("even if they have to work 24 hours a day") in time for residents to move in Jan. 1.Among those looking forward to life at the Avenue is Mary Thiessa, the mother of neighborhood resident Mary Ridgely. Thiessa, in good health and active at age 75, recently sold her home in Elmwood, WI. and chose Madison largely because of The Avenue opportunity. "It's great feeling and a good relief, and all my children are happy that I'm going to have this life," she says.The Avenue's occupants-to-be aren't the only ones in good cheer these days. " I'm damn proud of the work I did on that project," says Wallner, who recalls the simple experience of smiling at a person in the park as he rode by on his bicycle one day and having them smile back. "That's the kind of thing that makes it all worthwhile. All the complaints and the pissing and moaning--all that blows away".

How MHA Did It: Breaking New Ground
What would you expect to pay for a brand spanking new, spacious, attractive, highly energy-efficient three-bedroom apartment and its own park? A the Madison Mutual Housing association's new Avenue project, prices start at $320 per month. In fact, with the exception of one $525 pad, all 40 units are priced at $450 or less, with some going for as little. The average rent is $350.

In the case of the Avenue project, the group made innovative use of a federal tax credit for low-income housing passed by Congress as part of the Tax Reform Act of 1986. WPL Holdings Inc, the corporate parent of Wisconsin Power and Light, kicked in $1.3 million of the project's $2.9 million cost as an equity investment, with the remainder borrowed from and contributed by 24 other sources and more than 100 individuals. MHA can use this money essentially interest-free for 15 years; WPL Holdings benefits from its investment in the form of tax writeoffs in proportion to the number of units rented to people whose income falls below a certain level.

Tom Landgraf, corporate secretary and assistant treasurer of WPL Holdings, says that under the arrangement , WPL Holdings can expect a rate of return at least equal to that of ordinary utility activities or about 13% per annum. Depending on the number of residents in the federally mandated income brackets, that figure could rise as high as 18%.

"It's a real good investment," notes MHA executive director Susan, quickly adding that WPL Holdings "could have invested in a lead mine" instead of a local housing project.

The tax credits, which in 1989 were fully used for the first time in Wisconsin, are the only remaining form of federal assistance for the development of low-income housing.


Victory in Housing for the Handicapped (article, Spring 1990)
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