Asabi Hayes arrived for a meeting last month at the Warner Park Community Recreation Center and was told she wasn't welcome. The meeting was for residents of two north-side apartments, the Woodlands and Woodland Park, who didn't want her there, saying they feared retaliation. Hayes, hired in August to manage these apartments, broke down in tears.
"I'm willing to work with people, but unless they come to me I can't help them," she says. "Past management may have taken a strong hand and took things personally, but I'm more customer-oriented."
Between January and August of this year, police received 517 calls for service from these apartment complexes, roughly two calls for each of the 256 total units. The calls fell into 65 categories, ranging from domestic disturbances and suicides to sex assaults on children to drug dealing. The PDQ store abutting the Woodlands was robbed twice.
In response, the city has put Hayes and her employer, Hoffman Properties, under considerable pressure to improve conditions and root out troublesome tenants.
The apartment complexes - the Woodlands is in the 500 block of Northport Drive, across the street from the county's human services building, and Woodland Park, on Troy Drive behind Brennan's - house mostly immigrants and impoverished families. The majority of police calls have been for minor things like noise complaints and to report suspicious activity. But police are demanding that corrective measures be taken.
"The key thing here is the need to discuss the proper screening of tenants," says north-side district police Capt. Richard Bach. "The property owner must understand that us going there 517 times in eight months is unacceptable."
At the meeting, organized by the North Side Planning Council, residents talked of open-air gambling and drug activity, and of finding syringes in the neighborhood sandbox. Such conditions have fostered distrust, leaving residents suspicious of management, of each other, and everyone else. Three visits by a reporter to the complex yielded not a single resident willing to speak, on or off the record, about the troubles in their neighborhood.
Hayes doesn't understand why people are so afraid. She says no one risks his or her tenancy by speaking out. She has solicited feedback and speaks regularly with police, who give her credit for trying.
But North Side Planning Council facilitator Jim Powell suggests that Hayes is part of the problem. "A lot of residents intensely dislike her. They say she's cruel, abusive and rude," he says. "These apartments have had their ups and downs, but this is the worst they've ever been."
On a recent afternoon at Woodland Park, a maintenance crew was busy painting hallways, repairing railings, vacuuming commons areas and blowing leaves from the rain gutters. It was an unexpected sight, considering city building inspectors have opened 41 cases against the complexes since January, conducting 96 inspections and issuing one fine.
George Hank, supervisor of the city's Building Inspection Unit, says this number of cases is high by Madison's standards: "There appears to be a substantial amount of deferred maintenance issues in the apartments we have inspected."
Hayes says that, since August, she's reduced the backlog of maintenance requests by imposing a 48-hour deadline for all repairs - except emergencies, which are addressed more promptly. Further, she's re-schooled residents on rules about nonresident guests, inoperable vehicles in the parking lot and improper trash disposal. And 40 residents have been evicted since August, though most were for financial, not behavioral reasons.
In other words, Hayes is doing what she can. Now, she says, it's time for residents to do their part. "Residents also need to take ownership of the property," she says. "There's this mindset that, ‘I'm a renter, so it's the landlord's responsibility.'"
In September, the same month that she moved into the complex, Hayes sent out a survey asking tenants at each of the more than 500 units to anonymously rank things like housekeeping, maintenance, security and staff. Just 25 surveys were returned.
Hayes and complex owner David Hoffland have urged residents to form a tenants association, to help identify problems and suggest solutions. The same call is sounded by Powell of the planning council. He says management is only embracing the idea because it hopes to sell the buildings, each of which is assessed at $6.6 million. (Hoffman and his partners acquired the buildings in 2002, paying $6.3 million for Woodlands and $6.35 million for Woodland Park.)
"That's what you do when you sell property," says Powell. "You fix it up."
The problems at the Woodlands and Woodland Park have attracted the attention of city officials. Last month, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz went on a Friday night police ride-along on the north side.
There was only one police dispatch to either complex that night, from a mentally ill man who alleged that his neighbors were stealing his newspaper. Even so, the mayor wants steps taken to fix problems in the neighborhood.
"Clearly, management has to do a better job," says Cieslewicz. "There also has to be more neighborhood involvement. Like any neighborhood, what makes a substantial difference is getting residents together to form their own organization. I'd like to see that."
Building inspections have been stepped up, and police plan on meeting with Hoffman soon. "Our goal is to work with the owner so we don't have these ongoing issues," says Capt. Bach. "It's not a problem that police are going to solve alone. Responsibility ultimately lands on the property owner and residents."
Hayes, who has previously worked as the onsite manager at other apartments in Madison, says she'll continue looking ahead. Next summer, she'd like to install a playground and plan more neighborhood events. And she's hoping parents will do a better job of keeping their kids from causing problems: "We have many juvenile issues that aren't criminal in nature."
Meanwhile, Powell wants to help tenants organize by holding regular meetings. Already, he thinks residents are growing more comfortable with each other, adding, "Just the fact that they're meeting is an improvement."