Common Wealth Development, Inc. has been supporting and preserving the vitality of neighborhoods in the Madison metropolitan area since 1979. Its current executive director, Justice Casteñeda, has been at the helm of the nonprofit organization since February of this year. He took over from Marianne Morton, who retired after more than 35 years. As Justice considers the future of his organization, within a framework of racial justice and health equity, he thinks about healthy housing, equitable economic development, and sustainable land use.
Common Wealth owns and manages 146 apartments. These units, renovated and rehabbed by Common Wealth, are targeted toward low- and moderate-income households. Apartments vary in size from studio to 3-bedroom. One hundred eleven of the apartments are scattered throughout the Williamson-Marquette neighborhood on Madison’s east side; 35 are located in the Meadowood neighborhood on Madison’s southwest side. The city, being aware of the organization’s institutional knowledge and expertise in housing, approached Common Wealth in 2012 to take over the buildings around Meadowood Park.
Common Wealth works with partner agencies to lower screening criteria for housing applicants and will also work with its tenants to make sure the rent is paid. Housing as if people matter is important to Justice. “We want people to fall in love with the places where they live,” he says.
In 2002, Common Wealth developed the Yahara River View Apartments, a 60-unit, three-story building on the Yahara River. Justice feels now may be the time for Common Wealth to be involved in such a development project again.
Justice makes the case that affordable housing is good for business. “If people can live near where they work, stress is reduced because their commute is reduced,” he maintains.
Common Wealth is good for many local businesses that rent space in its two business incubators. The Madison Enterprise Center (MEC), 100 S. Baldwin Street, is a partnership with Madison Gas & Electric that began in 1987. This space is for office and light-industrial businesses that are just starting up or expanding. A for-profit business can stay in the space from three to five years, produce a product or service, and have the potential for future job creation. “It’s incredibly affordable space,” Justice claims.
The other incubator operated by Common Wealth, Main Street Industries, at 931 E. Main Street, is for businesses with more capital invested than those at MEC. The 50,000-square-foot building was a Greyhound Bus terminal renovated in 1996. Requirements are the same as the MEC except the businesses are not required to leave after a certain period of years. “There are no spaces like this in downtown corridors in any national urban area,” Justice says.
For Justice, equitable economic development means a focus on the workforce along with a focus on business. Programs for both adults and youth are offered by Common Wealth. The Youth-Business Mentoring Program helps teens, whose unemployment rate is three times that of adults, enter the job market. Pre-employment training—how to find, apply, and interview for a job—is followed by placement with supportive businesses. Madison youth facing racial, economic, and other barriers to employment can also get involved in local government and gain training and employment through the Wanda Fullmore Youth Internship Program, named after longtime city clerk Wanda Fullmore, who retired in 2014. Fifty young people were placed in eight-week summer internships in 2017.
Once young people are earning a paycheck, they learn about basic finances—saving and budgeting, debt, and how to manage money—avoiding mistakes through financial literacy programs presented by Common Wealth.
Employment support is also offered for adults. Job Shop, in conjunction with the Orchard Ridge United Church of Christ and Joining Forces for Family, in the southwest area is a voluntary service center. One-to-one, hands-on help is available for people looking for work. Another program in the same neighborhood is the Southwest Transitional Employment Project (STEP), a collaborative program that helps local families who need a stable income and are often teetering on the precipice of homelessness.
Justice believes southwest Madison is in need of commercial development so jobs are available where people live. “I want Common Wealth to be involved in ensuring equitable access to all economic processes in Madison,” he states.
Sustainable land use is accomplished through the Madison Area Community Land Trust (MACLT), an organization affiliated with Common Wealth. The two share office space on Williamson Street. Since 1990, MACLT has provided affordable homes for low- to moderate-income home buyers in Madison. These homes are more affordable because the buyer purchases the home only, and ownership of the land remains with the land trust. Homeowners rent the land from MACLT for an affordable monthly fee. This model saves homeowners about $200 or more per month. When MACLT homeowners sell their home, a shared-appreciation formula ensures the home will be affordable for the next low-income buyer and remain permanently affordable.
“The world is volatile. Demand far exceeds resources, but Common Wealth is up to the challenge. We come out of a great tradition of supporting and sustaining healthy neighborhoods where people live, love, work, and play,” says Justice. One of Common Wealth’s first efforts to bring the community together was the Willy Street Fair, which has grown into a major two-day event and fundraiser drawing people from all over the city, presented now in collaboration with the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center. The 40th Annual Willy Street Fair took place this past September. Neighborly spirit, a Common Wealth asset, is evident at the Fair.
Common Wealth’s annual budget is $2.5 million. About 60 percent comes from earned revenue (housing and business incubator rents) and 40 percent from grants and gifts. Justice likes working for an organization that is not beholden to investors who demand sizeable profit margins. “We are able to be nimble, aggressive, and love each other along the way,” Justice declares. He goes on to praise Common Wealth and its people. “You can’t swing a dead sea snake without running into phenomenal people here in Madison.”
The community should keep an eye on Justice, who grew up in Madison, learned leadership and organizational theory during his eight years with the Marine Corps, and went on to earn his master’s degrees from Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He’s back in Madison getting to know a younger sister and bringing his vast array of experience from several cities and communities throughout the United States to bear on building community and achieving the goals of Common Wealth Development, Inc. for many years to come.
Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.
Common Wealth Development, Inc.
1501 Williamson Street
Madison, WI 53703