Home Stretch

Home Stretch

Ask almost any renter in New Haven how much they pay, and they’re likely to tell you, “Too much.” For lower-income families, though, the cost of housing can literally be too much—more than 50% of their income, in the case of over 120,000 households statewide, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Since 2001, median rent including utilities has risen 13% in Connecticut, while median renter household income has fallen by 12%, CBPP says.

Karen Dubois-Walton, president of Elm City Communities, New Haven’s housing authority, notes several factors that affect the cost of housing in the city. In addition to the growing gap between wages and rents, there’s a gap between federal funding and local need. Private investment in projects like new, upscale apartments drives up the cost of other housing. Then there are the “landlord conglomerate types” who are snatching up potentially affordable properties citywide when they come on the market and “making some improvements, sometimes not making much of an improvement,” she says.

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At the same time, there’s little investment in neighborhoods that have historically offered affordable housing. And as housing prices rise in neighboring communities, people are driven into the city to look for better deals, putting further pressure on the availability of affordable units. “If we don’t address this, we’re going to further segregate our community by income…, and income segregation also becomes segregation by race,” DuBois-Walton says, later adding, “I want people… to struggle with this issue about whether they believe that housing should be a right—that people have access to safe and affordable housing and, if so, what does that mean in terms of the public policy that we support our tax dollars?”

Elm City Communities dates back to 1938, when it was formed as the New Haven Housing Authority under the 1937 US Housing Act. The city’s first public residential projects—Elm Haven, Quinnipiac Terrace, Farnam Courts, McConaughy Terrace, Brookside and Rockview—were built in the late 1930s and 1940s. Decades later, many had become less-than-desirable places to live. Farnam Courts, for example, at the corner of Grand Avenue and Hamilton Street, was “known for its delayed maintenance and gang violence over the decades,” the New Haven Register wrote in 2017. In a 2016 story, residents complained about trash and broken glass strewn around the property, including on the children’s playground.

In 2016, Elm City Communities moved residents out and began demolition followed by construction of a new housing complex called Mill River Crossing. Today, two fresh, new buildings there have facades of stone with tan siding and an inviting entrance facing the corner. Completed in May of 2018, their 94 residential units are just the first phase of the project. Behind the building, beyond a scrubby, flat field, the last brick buildings of Farnam Courts stand behind a chain link fence. Demolition is about to begin, DuBois-Walton says; two more construction phases will bring Mill River Crossing to 259 units in a mixed-use, mixed-income community. Every Farnam Courts resident who wants to return will be able to.

It’s not perfect. Resident LaTasha Gorham says she applied for city housing when she was pregnant with her oldest son, now a tall nine-year-old riding his skateboard on the driveway behind the Mill River Crossing building. Her three-year-old was born before the family moved in. Gorham says she had to have a job, live in New Haven, and ultimately, when her name came up, be able to make a $150 deposit. If she moves, she can’t bring along the subsidy she’s currently getting, but even so, she’s not planning to stay too long. She has her sights set on owning a condo with a place where her kids can play outside.

On a sunny afternoon, she looked wistfully at the empty lot where she was hoping there might be a playground and splash pad by now. Drug dealers and users are often outside the building, she says, and once, when she came home from work after dark, a man assaulted her and dragged her halfway up the block before she got away. “I liked it when we first moved in, but there are some things that they need to improve on,” Gorham says, adding that noise from neighbors travels through the floors into her two-bedroom apartment.

The housing authority isn’t the only landlord in town; affordable units are owned and operated by other entities, with varying degrees of success—for example, Church Street South, which was torn down in April, 2019 following what a 2016 federal lawsuit called “demolition by neglect” on the part of owner Northland Investment Corporation. The suit was settled in March 2020 for $18.7 million. According to a story that month in the Register, Northland plans to rebuild on the site, though the percentage of affordable units is up in the air.

Boston-based Beacon Communities, described by CEO Dara Kovel as a “mission-based, private, for-profit company,” also does business in New Haven. Kovel is a New Haven native who cut her teeth in the nonprofit and municipal sectors before moving into private development. Beacon was responsible for the redevelopment of Elm Haven as Monterey Place, a mixture of homey, colorful buildings on Webster Street, which it currently owns and manages. The company is also working on a mixed-income, mixed-use development in the Ninth Square as well as financing for another 60-unit property nearby.

Private developers building affordable housing units benefit from tax credits, which they then sell to an investor—traditionally, a bank or financial institution that owns the vast majority of the project for as long as the tax credits last, Kovel explains. The developer’s income is derived from federally regulated developer fees paid to offset the time and risk involved in putting a project and its financing together, and from “ongoing operations” such as rent.

The housing authority, on the other hand, is funded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and overseen by a board of four mayor-appointed members and one resident of a housing authority community. One major challenge of operating public housing, DuBois-Walton says, is federal regulations that prevent “doing anything that a typical property owner would do,” such as taking out a second mortgage or a loan using the property as collateral. “You are restricted to what Congress appropriates to you each year,” DuBois-Walton says, and Congress appropriates only about 80% of operating costs.

With federal funding falling short year after year and housing falling into disrepair with no way to pay for proper upkeep, Elm City Communities took on a somewhat unusual role: After learning the ropes from private developers who handled rehabilitation and development projects starting in the 1990s, the agency decided to spin off a couple of nonprofits of its own—organizations that could do the same work but roll any profits back into the city’s next project. Through a nonprofit development arm, The Glendower Group, and a nonprofit property management arm, 360 Property Management, the housing authority has been able to take on its last few projects, including Mill River Crossing, by itself. Glendower and 360 can do business in a different way because, DuBois-Walton says, “Our motive is not profit for shareholders; our motive is to create housing that is sustainable.”

Yet another piece of the New Haven housing puzzle is the Livable Cities Initiative, a city agency that often works with developers putting together housing projects to be sure they meet the city’s needs. Its mission extends farther into the neighborhoods, supporting code enforcement, anti-blight measures, community management teams, neighborhood specialists, community programming and education.

In addition to building and maintaining 1,229 public housing units for “more than 1,900 families comprising low- and middle-income households, families with children, seniors, disabled, young couples starting out, people in career transition and those saving to buy a home of their own,” its website says, Elm City Communities provides housing subsidies through Section 8 of the US Housing Act to more than 4,700 families. However, pressure for more affordable housing continues to be urgent. Jennifer Heath, president and CEO of United Way of Greater New Haven, notes that even before COVID-19, “46% of households in our region living on the edge financially.”

In addition to recognizing the scope of the problem, DuBois-Walton wishes New Haveners would “challenge their assumptions a little bit” about public housing. “I wish that they would, if they have not, visit some of our properties,” she says, adding that anyone who’d like to take her up on the invitation should send her an email at kdwalton@elmcitycommunities.org.

“If you remember what was like and you see what can happen when you invest in that property,” she says, “…you see massively turned-around communities.” That investment, she adds, is not just in physical structures. It’s also in education, work training and creating mixed-income neighborhoods instead of segregated ones.

When you build thoughtful and affordable housing, you build a more connected city.

Elm City Communities
360 Orange St, New Haven (map)
(203) 498-8800 | kdwalton@elmcitycommunities.org

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photos provided courtesy of Elm City Communities. Images 1 and 2 depict Brookside Estates. Image 3 depicts Quinnipiac Terrace.

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