N eighborhood Housing Services of New Haven’s campus is like its own little neighborhood, a cluster of colorfully painted houses with homey furniture inside.
NHS’s mission is to revitalize neighborhoods in New Haven by tending to the building blocks of any residential block: its homes. The private nonprofit’s activities are generally divided into four areas. The first is affordable housing development. NHS buys dilapidated vacant properties and renovates them (see impressive before-and-after shots here), selling the new-and-improved properties to low- and middle-income homebuyers. The second involves homeownership services, where staff members provide assistance for prospective homebuyers and foreclosure counseling for those in need of it, and the third encourages environmentally friendlier technologies for the home.
Finally, there’s a community-building team, which, among other things, reaches out to a neighborhood’s residents to gauge whether NHS’s programs are making the difference they’re meant to. Standard questions include: How satisfied are you with your community? How do you feel in your home during the day and at night? Do you volunteer in your community? Understanding how people perceive and interact with their neighborhood helps the team understand what’s working and what’s still needed.
The first building in NHS’s own little neighborhood is a mauve house, and it’s where the community-building team lives. The team also organizes a leadership course every spring. “We work to empower residents so that they can learn the questions that could be asked, and how to get to resources, so that they can really start to make changes themselves in the neighborhood,” says Daniella Beltran, Assistant Community Building Specialist.
The 2012 Resident Leadership program spurred a greenhouse project to highlight the many urban farms that have been developed on vacant lots in Newhallville, and to provide a teaching space that can be used to involve more people in community gardening. The team developing it has met every other week for several months, splitting up into smaller working groups to address special topics like design, construction and, for when the time comes, event programming.
Behind the administrative building are two more houses, the visitor center and the homeownership center. The latter has private rooms for counseling sessions, as well as space for educational programs. Advisers help clients understand their financial situations and options, secure a mortgage or even avoid foreclosure. “It’s really unique to each person, figuring out what they need,” says Public Relations Coordinator Colleen Trompeter. These services are provided free of charge, following a $50 application fee.
The fourth building of the NHS campus is the LEED Platinum-certified Energy Conservation Lab, which houses the design and construction team and serves as a model and live testing ground for green home technologies, as well as a classroom on sustainable practices for homeowners. The main floor of the lab is lit with controllable tubular skylights, which funnel sunlight through the ceiling. There are two solar energy systems: regular photovoltaic panels, which produce electricity, and evacuated tube thermal collectors, which heat water. The roof is coated with white, which reflects sunlight. It’s also a “green roof,” housing trays of plants. These plants moderate temperatures and absorb rainfall, softening the blow to the city’s rainwater collection system. In fact, the building exports no rainwater, collecting it in the ground to reduce loads on the sanitary sewer system and stormwater system. Back inside, the building’s toilet uses only 0.8 gallons per flush, and its furniture is made from recycled materials. In the basement, a co-generator system runs heat to all four buildings on campus using waste heat from an electricity generator.
In short, NHS is setting a fantastic example for the rest of us. “We want to inspire people,” Kathy Fay, the lab’s manager, says—not just homeowners, but also small business owners. That said, “We try to not overwhelm people with technology,” Fay notes. “You probably can’t take all of these ideas back with you, but there’s probably something that will work for you.”
Whether renovating and selling affordable houses, helping stave off foreclosures and secure mortgages or getting households to run more efficiently, home is where NHS’s heart is, thumping away on New Haven’s behalf.
Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven
333 Sherman Ave, New Haven (map)
Written and photographed by Claire Zhang.