The wide gap between luxury condos and subsidized housing
By RENA EPSTEIN, Hartford Guardian Staff Writer
Hartford 21, the luxury high-rise that is still partly beams, studs and scaffolding, already has picked up the pace of downtown. Hard hats bustle about. A nearby sign proclaims the coming of “Feng, a new Asian bistro.” But a mile away on Wolcott Street, twelve dilapidated buildings fester like open sores, dragging down the resurgent Frog Hollow neighborhood instead of providing safe, secure low-income housing.
The story of housing in Hartford today is a tale of two cities. In one case, the state invests over $35 million to spur private development of a new, residential downtown, a metaphorically gated community designed to lure well-heeled couples with no dependent children and cash to spend. If retail development takes off as planned, they won’t have to walk far to spend it.
The tale of the other Hartford takes place in the surrounding neighborhoods, which are waking and shaking, blinking back to life--but still weighed down by poverty, less investment capital, neglected structures, and unmet needs for decent, dignified and affordable housing.
The story being written downtown about Hartford’s housing issues has met its share of skeptics like Tara Parrish, Lead Organizer at HART (Hartford Areas Rally Together), who asks, “What’s the message being sent about who deserves housing improvement why would we not pay attention to our old-time residents; they bring revenue into the city because they stay. They see the priority placed on downtown, which doesn’t include regular folks in Hartford. Downtown businesses aren’t geared to them.”
But others in the non-profit housing sector see a greater good. As Julie Donahue, Executive Director of Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity, explains, a viable city needs “the entire housing continuum. You need that tax base, to improve the schools, from dual income young couples and retirees. It will improve services at the other end of the continuum.” Luis Caban, Executive Director of SINA (Southside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance), is hopeful that the neighborhoods will ride downtown’s coattails toward a rosier future. He predicts that “you’ll see a lot of efforts to tie the downtown development to neighborhood development” as city planners get more involved.
But until Hartford truly spirals up, it remains the poorest municipality in Connecticut with almost one-third of residents living in poverty, according to the Hartford Community Development Plan for 2005-2010. Mayor Perez estimates that 20 percent of Hartford residents receive the housing assistance they need, but his goal is to reach an additional 12 percent still living in “overcrowded, old substandard housing.” Based on U.S. Census 2000 figures, that translates into approximately 4,500 to 5,4000 households. But Hartford’s housing crisis may reach farther than that. Keith Wardrip, research analyst for the National Low Income Housing Coalition, reports that in 2000, there were “10,226 rental households in Hartford that were classified as ‘extremely low income’ and spent more than 30% of their income on rent anything more than 30 percent starts to squeeze other expenses food, clothing, health care, etc.”
Why doesn’t enough affordable housing exist? The 1,000 luxury units opening downtown will not fill the void left by the demolition and reconstruction of federal public housing which, according to Lynne Ide, Associate Director of the Connecticut Housing Coalition, resulted in a net loss to Hartford of 1,644 low-cost rental units. While most agree that the dangerous, decaying “projects” had to be razed, why didn’t the Hartford Housing Authority (HHA) provide one-to-one unit replacement? Patricia Williams is HHA’s Director of HOPE VI, the federal grant program to revamp public housing. She explains, “to make better layouts, the number of units will decrease to make it decent.”
Courtney Anderson, chair of the HHA Board of Commissioners, sees other forces at work. He believes that “one-to-one replacement is necessary but lots of housing authorities oppose it because of the cost of relocating residents twice. And with rebuilding, it’s easier to find money for smaller redevelopment. HUD [the federal agency allocating HOPE VI funds] wants to ‘de-densify’ poverty. That side of the table argues that by building fewer units, some residents will move and disperse the poverty.”
Other government decisions also limit the creation of affordable housing.
Romulo Samaniego, Executive Director of the Broad-Park Development Corporation, recalls that Connecticut’s $1 billion revitalization plan for Hartford included $25 million for neighborhood development. “But half of that,” he says, “was spent on demolition,” leaving only $12 million for development in all 15 neighborhoods. He compares that to the $750 million spent on the Convention Center, concluding that “they should have put the $750 million into the neighborhoods because the Convention Center has to be subsidized and you need to beef up your neighborhoods to make your city work.” Samaniego also criticizes federal regulations that limit sources of financing for non-profit developers, and set criteria that effectively exclude some low-income housing applicants.
Finally, blight has decreased the stock of affordable housing. Ide sees a loss of affordable housing “through abandonment and urban decay of smaller apartment buildings and three-family houses.” In Hartford, a low ownership rate of 25% and a surfeit of absentee landlords have conspired to cause widespread neglect. Parrish suspects that “when the Patriots supposedly were coming, many landlords bought low on speculation.”
Mayor Perez reports a substantial decrease from 800 to 200 vacant buildings over the last ten years and said more must be done. Recently Connecticut passed a “Landlord Address” law to better track absentee landlords, and make them more accountable. Hartford City Councilwoman Veronica Airey-Wilson reports that personnel and procedural changes have been made to empower the city’s License and Inspections Department to move more quickly on problem properties.
In the end, many Hartford housing advocates praise Mayor Perez’s commitment to affordable housing, but see need outstripping supply until more players enter the field—namely, the suburbs. Many Connecticut towns tend to zone for low-density, relatively expensive housing, to curtail growth and education costs. But the state can rewrite the rulebook, mandating or financially rewarding towns to create more affordable housing. Until then, Mayor Perez says his administration intends to involve Hartford’s neighbors in affordable housing initiatives on a project-by-project basis, hoping someday they all will be dedicated to the dream of a decent home for every area resident.