Progress being made in Fourth Ward

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Marcia Nelesen
Sunday, January 13, 2013

— Burdette Erickson said he knew things were improving in the Fourth Ward when the drug dealers started moving in together.

"They didn't have that many places left to operate in," he said.

Burdette said living in the Fourth Ward is the best it's been in a decade.

Janesville police officer and neighborhood liaison Rod Hirsch said a resident told him last summer was the first she planted flowers because she didn't worry about them being torn out.

Such anecdotes are becoming more common in the Fourth Ward, so many people were surprised to hear home ownership declined in the past five years—from 58 percent in 2007 to 44 percent in 2012.

"We were expecting—and based on comments we've been hearing from the neighbors—that the numbers would be different," said Jennifer Petruzzello, Janesville's director of neighborhood services.

"It's a very different picture than what we were striving for."

The city in the last several years has spent millions in blight elimination, home ownership efforts, property inspections and low interest loans.

Increasing home ownership often is cited as the most effective way to improve neighborhoods.

She thinks the reason for the decline in ownership is the many foreclosures since the housing crash. The numbers likely would be worst without city intervention, she said.

For example, a property owner recently transferred 20 properties—a total of 35 units—back to his banks in lieu of foreclosure. That property owner had purchased all 20 properties in 2007 and 2008.

The landlord with the most properties in the Fourth Ward has 90 rental properties throughout the city. Of those, 46 were purchased after foreclosure, and 62 were purchased since January 2007.

"I think this demonstrates the increased level of investor purchasing over the past five years," Petruzzello said.

That means other things must be working in the Fourth Ward, officials said, including:

-- A strong neighborhood group, led by Erickson. Neighbors recently announced a new effort to publicly hold bad landlords accountable.

-- City investment to remove blight, rehab homes and put pressure on property owners to maintain their properties.

-- Strong police presence.

-- A nuisance ordinance that forces landlords to control their renters.

-- Involvement from the landlord association.

Erickson said he hears from neighbors who aren't afraid anymore. They marvel at the quiet at night.

"I can think of several bad landlords that have shaped up," Erickson said. "They aren't renting to the criminal aspects, the drug dealers. The nuisance ordinance and the police department have sent a message."

Public opinion in Janesville and even outside the community concerning the Fourth Ward is changing, as well, Erickson said.

Dale Hicks, president of the Janesville Area Rental Property Association, said people are taking better care of the properties.

"I think it's a combination of the fact that the city's been involved in it and that they're being held to a higher standard," Hicks said.

Hirsch said the nuisance ordinance is integral to the improvement.

People aren't afraid to leave their names when they call police with a complaint, for example.

Another ordinance stopped large groups of people from walking and loitering in the summer streets, as was the norm about six years ago.

Rock County probation officers keep a closer watch on their clients who live in the Fourth Ward and share the criminals' pictures with residents. If those on probation or parole are seen with people they have been ordered to stay away from, they are found in violation, Hirsch said.

A gang task force works with the schools. Officers park their squad cars and write their reports in the Fourth Ward or simply get out and walk around.

Residents know if they call, police will respond.

"There's a trust factor we've established down there," Hirsch said.

Meanwhile, Petruzzello said, foreclosures in the area finally are stabilizing because the city hasn't been receiving as many notices.

During the last three years, the city removed 17 housing units from the Fourth Ward by demolishing 12 properties. Petruzzello said. They rehabbed another 11 units, many of which were rental properties, and sold them to owners who will occupy them.

"So, from the city's program, we're still reducing the rental units in that area," Petruzzello said.

"But when you demolish a property, it's not available for home ownership, either. When you're trying to balance out the ratio, it is a smaller impact than if you convert it to owner-occupied housing."

The continuing concern is investors who pick up properties cheaply, put little into them and then rent them with little caution.

Nathan Bussan, who buys homes, renovates them and sells them, suggested the city could be more aggressive in eliminating multi-unit housing.

"A lot of those big old houses are multi-family, and they house a lot of drug dealers and a very poor class or people," he said.

He also suggested the city move even faster on such property complaints as peeling paint.

That's what people who invest in an area want," Bussan said. "Those who don't should leave.

"Let's face it. If you can't afford to keep it up, maybe that's not where you should be living," Bussan said.

Beloit requires landlords to register with the city, and the city does regular exterior and interior inspections.

Janesville staff recommended such a program to the city council several years ago. Petruzzello believes such a program would have a positive impact on the quality of housing.

All agree the Fourth Ward still has trouble areas, though those areas appear to be shrinking.

Linn Street, one of the worst blocks in the past, improved dramatically after the city took down several blighted houses, forcing the people living in them to leave, Erickson said.

The quality of the neighborhood can differ block to block.

"It's one house at a time," Erickson said. "You can't solve it overnight. You have to have patience, and you have to have a plan."

"It is working."

Last updated: 8:03 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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