Last summer, Janesville officials began a public push to illuminate the need for more housing in the city.
Apartments, townhouses, condos, homes, low-income housing, high-end housing—we need it all, officials said.
Proposed apartment projects have tended to get the most attention. They are larger and can accommodate more people than a single-family home, whose construction can go unnoticed among the grand plans and glittering renderings of new apartment complexes.
But the spotlight has slowly turned back to single-family homes. In December, the city council overrode a city staff recommendation to not pay for subdivision infrastructure.
The city once allowed infrastructure subsidies but dropped the policy in 2016. It had lost too much money building water and sewer lines, street improvements and other services for subdivisions that were never built in the recession’s aftermath.
Under the old policy, the city financed infrastructure at the outset, and the developers or landowners promised to pay back the city through five-year payment plans, Planning Director Duane Cherek said.
Though staff prefer not to revive the practice, the council wants to consider restoring it to trigger more home construction.
The city might have few single-family homes available for purchase, but there’s no shortage of available land. Janesville has plenty of remnants in subdivisions that began before the recession, still empty years after the crash.
City residential building permit data show Janesville has slowly climbed out of its housing doldrums. The market bottomed out in 2011 with only 31 permits issued. It eventually rose to a post-recession peak of 94 permits in 2017 before slipping to 83 last year.
That’s trivial compared to the early 2000s building boom, when the city consistently issued permits for more than 200 new homes annually.
Cherek said there are fewer building companies these days, and those that still exist have reduced their size to remain solvent. A shortage of construction and skilled trades workers also has slowed the pace for some projects.
That’s led to fewer new homes being built at one time. It’s easier to manage smaller-scale development, he said.
The construction tempo might be more sluggish, but Cherek believes Janesville will continue to see strong demand for housing. It has a good school district, strong quality-of-life amenities, a fruitful job market and a prime location along Interstate 90/39.
“All of those same things that drove residential development in the past are still very much there,” he said. “And now we’re seeing a diversification in the community. Look at our downtown, with all the things going on there and improving what’s there.”
The land once prepared for homes as the pre-recession economy boomed, when General Motors still pumped out SUVs, still has plenty of space for recovery. The Gazette took a closer look at five city subdivisions at various stages of development to take the pulse of Janesville’s single-family housing market.
Arbor Ridge might be the pinnacle of Janesville’s single-family home market. Its northern and southern entrances are marked with stone signs emblazoned with the subdivision logo. A nature conservancy offers private hiking trails for residents.
Being at the top means a narrower slice of potential homebuyers. Konya Schuh, who works for landowner Hendricks Land Development and markets Arbor Ridge as a Realtor through Century 21, said the subdivision’s home prices range from $400,000 to more than $1 million.
Progress is slow. Of the 65 lots created before 2009 during phase one of development, 27 have sold. Not all of those have had construction, either. And there’s another 130 lots not yet ready for building, she said.
The infrastructure is in place for phase one lots. Work would probably begin on phase two in a couple years, Schuh said.
Because phase one lots are already connected to city services, Schuh said the city reinstating its infrastructure policy would have no immediate impact on Arbor Ridge. Without knowing how the policy would function, she declined to say whether it would help phase two.
Sales are starting to pick up, however, even without the policy. Arbor Ridge sold six lots last year.
Hendricks Land Development typically doesn’t handle home building. Schuh hoped their partners would consider speculative homes, but builders were still gun-shy to pour so much money into a house without a buyer.
“These executives moving to Rock County looking for housing—you’re moving to a new community, new job, getting kids entrenched in the community. Most people don’t want to build right off the get-go,” she said. “That’s why I feel it’d be so nice to have high-end spec homes up there that are move-in ready for people relocating into the area.”
City staff highlighted this west-side subdivision as a reason to keep the infrastructure policy abolished. Janesville installed infrastructure in the subdivision right before the housing market collapsed, and the landowners never paid taxes, Clerk-Treasurer Dave Godek said.
The city ended up losing more than $1 million on the deal, he said.
Driving through the subdivision reveals signs of a development stuck in time. Aside from a handful of brick and stone homes, there’s only a couple Century 21 signs. Multiple roads wait to be extended into cornfields.
The city did issue one building permit in 2017 and one in 2018 for Greenway Point. But the subdivision’s ownership structure—Rock County has foreclosed on part of the property while the former developers retain the rest of it—complicates future activity.
Godek said if everything comes together, the subdivision could have 20 to 25 homes within walking distance of Parker High School. But the biggest question facing the property is who will be responsible for the unpaid, decade-old infrastructure costs.
The interest on the money borrowed to finance the infrastructure is “steamrolling and snowballing really bad,” he said.
The city is trying to work with the county to write off some of the costs and make it easier for someone to buy the property. But the county board and city council will need to find an arrangement that works for both, Godek said.
“At some point, we’ve got to figure out what to do,” he said. “I expect we’re going to see a write-off, but what that write-off is, we’re still trying to work through.”
One subdivision that has long been stuck in neutral is showing progress. Ridges of Rock County, a development known to some as the former Kennedy Homes project between Janesville and Milton, has sold 34 lots since being purchased in 2017 by Advantage Homes, company executive Virgil Waugh said.
There were 12 homes built at the time of the sale. Since then, Advantage has finished or started construction on nearly two dozen, he said.
Marketing helped jumpstart the subdivision, where the average price sits around $250,000. Advantage keeps a model home open every Sunday, and getting a few homes built made it easier to attract homebuyers, Waugh said.
“Once we got some activity going, it was easy to make sales on the other sites,” he said. “The big thing is it’s a pent-up demand. This is a great location. The north edge of Janesville is where a lot of people want to live.”
Ridges of Rock County has another 45 lots available plus nearly 80 that haven’t had infrastructure developed. The original developer had paid for and installed the first phase of water and sewer lines and more, Waugh said.
Like Schuh, the Arbor Ridge Realtor, Waugh said it was hard to have a position on the city restarting the old infrastructure policy without seeing what it would look like.
At least one developer wants nothing to do with the policy, no matter what its potential terms might be.
Chris Cannell of First Midwest Group said his company would prefer to maintain control of all aspects of development at Emerald Estates, a fledgling subdivision on the city’s east side. That helps keep costs down.
The company has been the lead developer since the project started more than a decade ago. The subdivision built its first phase of homes several years ago but waited on going any further until this fall. Crews have nearly finished extending roads into previously vacant land.
In October, the city council approved extending—but not paying for—public infrastructure to 13 new lots in Emerald Estates. Undeveloped land north of those lots has room for another 37 homes, Cannell said at that meeting.
The flurry of activity is thanks to increased demand for housing, he said.
There’s one subdivision in Janesville that has bucked the trend of languishing, vacant land—Harmony Grove, a cluster of mostly ranch homes on the far north side.
Cherek, the city planning director, said it’s the only one that has filled since the recession.
Forster Construction acquired the partially completed subdivision several years ago and began developing it immediately. It took only a few years to finish the final phases, co-owner Cindy Forster said.
She estimated the 64 homes in their section of the subdivision are valued between $200,000 and $300,000. The houses mostly follow the same design, with different colors and slightly different features between them.
Co-owner Tom Forster said the success at Harmony Grove was because the company runs an “efficient, well-organized” operation. Forster is now developing Red Hawk Farms subdivision in Milton.
The Forsters are striking while the market is robust. They have been developing homes for more than 20 years, and they know economic conditions can change quickly.
“The real estate market is always very cyclical,” Cindy said. “It’s healthy now, but no one has a crystal ball.”
Today, schoolchildren will sing and adults will give speeches in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.
But long before there was a national holiday honoring the civil rights leader, many people in the country did not support him.
When King was assassinated in 1968, a Harris Poll showed that almost 75 percent of Americans disapproved of the highly visible spokesman in the civil rights movement.
“There’s a kind of revisionist view that King was universally loved and respected,” Marc Perry said. “But during the time that he was most active from 1955 to 1968, he was not universally loved, and he faced a lot of opposition.”
Perry of the Diversity Action Team of Rock County wants to encourage a better understanding of King and what he believed.
On Monday, Jan. 28, Perry will lead a discussion on myths about the civil rights leader.
“It’s been on my mind for quite some time,” he said. “I want to make sure we don’t lose sight of Dr. King’s legacy and others in the movement.”
Perry is president of the team’s board of directors. The group’s mission is to fight racism and discrimination in Rock County.
The gathering is part of a monthly discussion in Beloit, called Courageous Conversations, that focuses on racial justice.
“It’s important to remember that Dr. King was more than an excellent orator,” Perry said. “He was a true activist. One of the things we don’t talk about is that he was arrested 29 times in the 13-year period when he was most active. He was willing to go to jail for his convictions. There was a level of commitment people do not necessarily understand.”
In April 1967, King denounced U.S. involvement in Vietnam at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and at a church in New York.
“Another thing we do not talk about is King’s condemnation of the Vietnam War,” Perry said. “That did not win him a lot of support.”
Perry praised King’s unwavering courage and determination.
“Every day for 13 years, this man was in the national spotlight,” Perry said. “He was criticized; he was ridiculed, and he and his family were threatened. People did any number of things to try and silence him. But he just absolutely refused to be silent.”
One of the biggest lessons to learn from King’s example is “to speak your truth, if you believe strongly in something,” Perry said.
Perry has high regard for King’s wife.
“The more I learn about Coretta Scott King, the more I respect her,” he said. “Imagine having people threatening to kill your children and husband on a regular basis. It’s not like she stood in the background. She was present for most of those historic moments we all know about.”
Kendall M. Corey
Laurie Elizabeth Knetter
Jeanne A. Morrison
Mardella M. “Mardy” Simes
On a summer night in 2017, a police officer conducting a drunken-driving sweep in northeast Wisconsin tried to pull over an SUV after a check showed the owner had a revoked driver’s license. The driver fled. As the officer gave chase, siren blaring, the vehicle blew through multiple stop signs in a residential area.
The officer stopped the pursuit for public safety reasons. When police found the vehicle parked later, the driver was nowhere to be found.
The vehicle owner told the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism that he was not driving the car that day; his ex-girlfriend had been using it for months. He asked that his identity be shielded in this story—“David” is a pseudonym—because although the case has been dismissed, prosecutors could still refile charges against him.
When David went to retrieve his SUV from the impound lot, he was arrested for felony eluding. The next day, the court commissioner set his bail at $5,000—more than David could afford.
So he sat in jail for 84 days waiting for court—even though he had witnesses to swear he was not driving the SUV the night of the chase.
Eventually, David’s public defenders got the case dismissed.
But he can never get back the nearly three months he served in jail for a crime he said he did not commit. David lost his job, car, apartment and visitation time with his now 12-year-old son. After he was released, his 50-50 custody changed to one weekend a month.
Although David got his job back, he had to dip into his retirement savings to pay off the loan still owed on the SUV that police seized. The impound fees, which had accumulated while he was jailed, eventually totaled more than the vehicle was worth.
“I thought you were supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, not guilty and then prove you’re innocent,” David said.
Such pretrial incarceration is common throughout the United States. About half a million U.S. residents are held in jail on any given day awaiting trial—a trend that has grown sharply since the 1980s, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, which researches and advocates against mass incarceration.
Some defendants spend longer in jail awaiting trial than their sentences ultimately call for. In Louisiana, the problem is so acute that some indigent defendants—who under the law are presumed innocent—can wait four years for their day in court.
Studies show incarceration for inability to pay bail can cascade into a chain of events that jeopardizes the lives of those charged, their families and society at large.
These problems, and a raft of lawsuits, have prompted numerous states including Wisconsin to question whether cash bail for minor offenses is cost-effective—or even constitutional.
According to a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court case, liberty is supposed to be “the norm,” and detention before trial “the carefully limited exception.” Today, for those too poor to post bail, detention is the norm.
At the same time, rich defendants can post high cash bails for even the most egregious charges such as homicide and rape, allowing these potentially dangerous defendants back into the community.
The Wisconsin Constitution states that cash bail can be used only as a means of making sure the accused appears for the next court hearing—meaning judges are not supposed to consider public safety when making decisions about bail.
Wisconsin judges still set high cash bails for serious crimes often using the justification that the accused is a high flight risk because he or she is facing a lengthy prison term, said Dane County Circuit Judge Nicholas McNamara.
Later this month, a Wisconsin legislative study committee will consider proposals to change the system including allowing or requiring judges to consider public safety when deciding whether to release a defendant pretrial and sharply reducing or eliminating cash as a condition of release.
Researchers have found that spending even a few days in jail awaiting trial correlates with defendants committing more crimes later on and pleading guilty even if they are innocent. Research also shows defendants detained pretrial for even brief stays are less likely to show up for court than defendants not detained. As more people are held due to inability to pay bail, the overall cost to taxpayers has ballooned, placing a financial burden on states, communities and their taxpayers.
The United States spends $14 billion annually on incarceration of approximately 450,000 inmates awaiting trial on any given day—or 63 percent of the country’s jailed population, according to a 2017 report by the Pretrial Justice Institute, which advocates for “safe, fair and effective” pretrial justice practices.
California made the decision in August to eliminate cash bail altogether, a move that the bail bond industry blocked pending a 2020 statewide referendum. Policymakers and judges across the country, including in New York, New Jersey, Georgia, Texas, Maryland and Ohio, have joined the chorus pushing to eliminate cash bail for minor offenses or set bail based on defendants’ ability to pay.
Increasingly, courts across the country have found use of cash bail unconstitutional. New York State Supreme Court Justice Maria G. Rosa said in overturning a ruling in a pretrial incarceration case, “Freedom should not depend on an individual’s economic status.”
Now-retired Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Kremers said back before the county changed its bail policies, many defendants could not afford even small cash bails.
“If you thought they were dangerous, you wouldn’t set bail at $200, right?” Kremers said.
In 2015, Wisconsin had the 18th lowest pretrial incarceration rate among the states, according to data from the Vera Institute of Justice, which works with governments to improve justice systems. That year, Wisconsin’s pretrial jail incarceration rate was 158.4 per 100,000 residents, compared to the national average of 209 per 100,000.
Dane County is one of the few Wisconsin counties where clear data are available. According to an April report by Judge McNamara, among all criminal cases in Dane County from 2012 to 2016, 81 percent of defendants were released on signature bonds, meaning they pay only if they fail to return for their next court date or violate terms of their release.
Public defender Fritz Anderson of Superior recalled the case of a young man charged with felony first degree reckless injury who did not have $50,000 to buy release until his case was heard.
“He was eventually exonerated, but he sat in jail for six months,” Anderson said. “That was six months of his life—gone.”
Laurie Sazama Osberg, a public defender from Eau Claire, had a client who was jailed for more than 170 days on a $1,000 cash bond—nearly double the time he was ultimately sentenced to—after testing revealed the substance he possessed was not a drug.
Said State Public Defender Kelli Thompson: “We have the presumption of innocence now, and yet we have people every single day that are being put in custody on high cash bail based on poverty alone.”
Republican Rep. Cindi Duchow of Delafield plans to re-introduce a constitutional amendment to require judges to consider the danger a defendant might pose to the community when setting bail. The amendment passed the Assembly with bipartisan support but stalled in the Senate.
The Legislature formed a study committee on bail and conditions of release to review Duchow’s proposal, examine Wisconsin’s pretrial laws and recommend solutions to the Legislature.
Democratic Rep. Evan Goyke, of Milwaukee, a former public defender, said Duchow’s proposal does not prevent dangerous but well-funded defendants from going free. A member of the study committee, Goyke is drawing up a proposal for “substantial reduction or elimination” of cash bail.
Another proposal would allow judges to hold dangerous defendants without bail.
“Eventually, I do think there will come a time when cash bail is not being used,” McNamara said. “But people must understand there will be some people—even though they are still innocent—there’s enough public safety concern to hold them in custody.”
Committee members are scheduled to finalize their recommended legislation at their next meeting Jan. 29.
While the study committee is mulling statewide changes, seven Wisconsin counties—Chippewa, Eau Claire, La Crosse, Marathon, Outagamie, Rock and Waukesha—are implementing new pretrial strategies as part of a pilot program.
Constance Kostelac, director of the state Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Information and Analysis, said these counties are adopting mechanisms to help ensure defendants meet terms of their release, show up in court or get diverted from jail altogether.
The counties will also pilot the Public Safety Assessment, an algorithm that helps judges identify low-risk defendants so they can be released pretrial without paying cash. This tool, called a risk assessment, is already being used in Milwaukee and Dane counties.
As Wisconsin takes small steps away from bail, Jason Hanson, a Dane County Circuit Court commissioner, warns not to disregard its usefulness. He said for many, cash bail is a fair tool for ensuring court appearances.
“Sometimes, it’s exactly the right answer,” he said.
Studies show pretrial incarceration can be counterproductive.
One study of more than 150,000 defendants in Kentucky from 2009 and 2010 found that low-risk defendants incarcerated before trial for just two to three days were 40 percent more likely to commit another crime pretrial than those who were released within 24 hours. The study was conducted by the Arnold Foundation, which works to advance community safety and improve the criminal justice system.
In Milwaukee County, 98 percent of those released to pretrial supervision whose cases were resolved in 2017 did not commit new violent crimes, according to a presentation by Kremers.
In fact, holding certain defendants pretrial can endanger public safety, said 1st Judicial District Court Administrator Holly Szablewski, who works in Milwaukee County.
“The longer you detain a low-risk person, the more you destabilize them,” she said, “and the more you destabilize them, the more likely they are to get rearrested or pick up new charges down the road.”
The nonprofit news outlet Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism provided this article to The Associated Press through a collaboration with Institute for Nonprofit News.