Housing types at Milwaukee’s Westlawn Gardens were conceptualized to meet the needs of a variety of individuals and families: seniors, disabled individuals, families with young children, and bigger families with children of different ages.
Brian Tomaino/Torti + Gallas Partners Housing types at Milwaukee’s Westlawn Gardens were conceptualized to meet the needs of a variety of individuals and families: seniors, disabled individuals, families with young children, and bigger families with children of different ages.

In 1923, Milwaukee became home to the country’s first public housing project. Garden Homes, on the city’s north side, was an unprecedented experiment: a fan-shaped subdivision featuring streets lined with two-story Colonial Revival houses, organized around a central green park. While the neighborhood’s history is marred by the legacy of segregation—at the time, Garden Homes was designated as whites-only—the design is still lauded by architects and planners as forward-thinking. Beyond its basic intention of providing housing for low-income and working-class families, Garden Homes was meant to be something more: a community.

Milwaukee’s Westlawn, the state’s largest public housing development, followed in 1952. Spanning a sizable 75 acres, it housed 1,800 low-income residents in 726 barracks-style housing units. As the decades wore on, it became clear that the boxy brick structures weren’t accommodating their residents’ needs; they weren’t large enough to comfortably house families, and the large blocks where the buildings sat isolated their residents, physically and socially, from their surroundings. By the mid-2000s, the neighborhood’s stormwater drains and energy systems had become severely outdated, and Milwaukee’s housing authority began eyeing the site for redevelopment.

Murphy Antoine, AIA, principal at Torti Gallas + Partners, was the project lead on the ground-up redesign of Westlawn, rechristened Westlawn Gardens. The project’s $82 million Phase 1 was completed in 2012, funded by the largest low-income housing tax credit award in the state’s history.

“We were really trying to make a place that was going to—and is going to—serve the Housing Authority and the city of Milwaukee’s residents, and make a more mixed-income community,” Antoine says.

Inclusive and collaborative design was a theme that carried through to Tree Lane Family Apartments in nearby Madison, Wis., a project of the Chicago-based nonprofit Heartland Housing. While Tree Lane, in contrast to the sprawling neighborhood of Westlawn Gardens, is only one building on a much smaller plot of land, its goal is also to provide a high standard of living through a community-based approach. The four-story, 45-unit building opened in June 2018, with an emphasis on in-house social services.

Active Listening

Throughout the design processes, Torti Gallas + Partners, Kindness Architecture + Planning, and Entelechy for Westlawn Gardens, and Valerio Dewalt Train Associates for Tree Lane prioritized the voices of the communities that the developments would be serving.

In the case of Tree Lane, which was being built for brand-new residents, Heartland Housing partnered with Madison’s YWCA to set up focus groups. Aside from on-site counseling and support services, communal gathering spaces and play areas for children were high priorities.

“In terms of those early meetings with [potential] residents, there was a social aspect with those folks that wanted places where they could meet as families and have a birthday party or potluck,” says David Jennerjahn, AIA, principal at Valerio Dewalt Train Associates in Chicago. He explains that many of the families in the building have multiple children, and one of their biggest concerns was where they could go when they weren’t in school. Jennerjahn and his team addressed this by including a multipurpose room, a computer room, and outdoor play spaces for younger children who needed supervision.

“The times that I’ve been to the building post-occupancy, I’ve observed a number of residents who interact with each other—they help each other, they know each other, they kind of look out for each other and each other’s kids,” Jennerjahn says. “It’s clear that everyone tends to know everyone. … I like to think the architecture is helping.”

Tree Lane is part of a larger Housing First initiative by the city of Madison, which prioritizes putting people who have experienced homelessness for a prolonged period of time into housing with few or no conditions. Voluntary support services are available to residents on-site. There’s mounting evidence that the Housing First model lowers overall costs for police, healthcare, and other support services. While Jennerjahn’s firm had worked on market-rate multifamily housing before, this was the first affordable housing project they had ever designed from scratch.

“You still pick high-quality materials, because you need them to be durable,” he says. “You don’t want to be replacing them in three years because you went with a low-quality or lesser-cost item. Where you’re trying to be efficient and where you’re trying to be smart about where you spend the money; that’s the difference.”

Following the Money

Obtaining funding is a perennial problem for public housing projects throughout the United States. The awards and grants that are available, through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as well as state agencies, are highly competitive. Antoine says that Milwaukee’s Housing Authority has been particularly successful in securing grants from HUD, but in the case of Westlawn Gardens, the first phase of the project was facilitated almost entirely through state tax credits purchased through syndication by private equity. Tree Lane was financed through low-income housing tax credits, and subsidized rent from the city and county helps fund management and upkeep of the building.

“Sixty to 80 percent of your development costs are typically accounted for from the equity you raise from low-income housing tax credits,” says Michael Goldberg, executive director of Heartland Housing. “So, it’s a critical piece. Without it, this development wouldn’t have been built.”

In affordable housing, tenants typically pay 30 percent of their income. “You’re dealing with a very vulnerable population, that have experienced traumas, that may not have great work histories, that may not have strong educations, that may be dealing with mental illness,” Goldberg says. “The idea is, you’re never going to pay more than 30 percent of your income toward housing, and that amount will move as your income moves.”

In the case of Westlawn Gardens and Tree Lane, financial decisions also played a prominent role in the way sustainability and health elements were factored into each development. Jennerjahn and his team originally began designing Tree Lane to the WELL Building Standard, which, he says, focuses more on the health and wellness of the occupants than the building’s energy performance.

“We created a large feature stair that faces the outside and has light coming in,” Jennerjahn says. “[We] were trying to encourage residents to use that stair for circulating among the floors, rather than taking the elevator.” Although Tree Lane ultimately didn’t complete WELL certification due to operational requirements and the additional cost of receiving that accreditation, Jennerjahn says that what they did incorporate wasn’t for nothing. He and his team placed an emphasis on optimizing natural light and air quality, as well as keeping energy costs down by making sure the building envelope was up to the highest standards.

Westlawn Gardens’ Phase 1 achieved Silver status through the LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED ND) criteria, which, Antoine says, was the highest at the time under those standards. “The bar was set pretty high, but all of those considerations are rolling into Phase 2,” he says. Phase 1 included updating the stormwater drains and the neighborhood’s energy grid. On an individual building level, Torti Gallas was able to build one of the homes to a LEED for Homes Platinum standard and get it accredited, subsequently building the rest of the housing to that same high standard.

“You could basically buy another house for what you were paying for the certification,” Antoine says. “It [was] the same project manual, the same specifications, the same standard for all the homes.’ ”

Phase 2 will have what Antoine calls a “higher standard for mixed-use,” with retail space and some market-rate housing. “Those aspects of a highly functioning and sustainable neighborhood come into pay as well,” he says.


For the residents of Tree Lane, the transition out of homelessness has posed challenges. Since the building opened last summer, Madison police have responded to calls related to weapons possession, drug-related activity, domestic disputes, and overdoses. In February, the Madison Common Council approved $275,250 for extra support programming throughout the rest of 2019 and will be seeking proposals from organizations offering support services beyond this year.

“Our role here in serving families is to try to be as holistic with case management as possible, with the underlying goal of supporting families to keep their housing as long as that is their own goal,” says Georgie Nazos, a housing specialist with the Road Home Dane County, which will be providing interim support services at Tree Lane until a longer-term provider is secured. She identifies racism, a lack of affordable housing in the community overall, and barriers to transportation as just a few of the challenges that the residents are facing. Homelessness continues to be one of Madison’s most pressing issues, with over 3500 people experiencing homelessness annually.

Goldberg sees these issues as an inevitable part of the path to providing this vulnerable population with long-term stable housing.

“We’re looking to create a home,” Goldberg says. “This isn’t transitional housing; it isn’t a shelter; it isn’t a program the way you sometimes think of group homes. This is an apartment building. It is their home.”