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Hartford Housing Authority Remaking Itself Into A Force For Homeownership

Josh Kovner

June 20, 2011

HARTFORD A new director, a new board and a focus on homeownership have helped the Hartford Housing Authority mired in controversy a few years ago to become a formidable player in the city's still-tepid economic development scene.

The city agency, which had trouble getting out of its own way in the middle part of the last decade, has become the top seller of new single-family homes in Hartford. In the past two years, families have scooped up at least 30 homes in three rebuilt housing projects Dutch Point, Stowe Village and Charter Oak.

The prices, depending on family income and the financing package, range from $100,000 to $229,000. For higher-income families, market-rate housing at Dutch Point tops out at $254,118.

The houses at Dutch Point, once as battered, bleak and dangerous as a development could get, are now some of the sharpest in the Sheldon-Charter Oak neighborhood near Colt Park. The development includes 127 rental apartments, all of which are occupied.

"Beautiful we are glad we are living here,'' said David Rozario, a document specialist, who moved with his wife, Mukta, from Wethersfield to a home that the couple purchased a year ago on Osten Boulevard in Dutch Point.

"Yes, we heard something about what it was before,'' said Rozario. "But as you can see, it is fine now. A big park is right there for our grandchildren,'' he said, gesturing expansively to take in Colt Park. "Our church is nearby. We are happy.''

The promise of a rejuvenated Dutch Point, jointly developed by the housing authority and Community Builders Inc., has pushed the city to try to jump-start the stalled redevelopment of the former Capewell Horse Nail Factory into housing. Once a city landmark, the Capewell building between Charter Oak Avenue and Wyllys Street has been vacant for years. Only within the past year have the gaping window frames been boarded and the property fenced.

"We're looking to build on the solid work at Dutch Point and Capewell could anchor that activity,'' said David Panagore, the city of Hartford's chief operating officer and development director. "We need to ask ourselves what we can do as a city to support what the housing authority is accomplishing.''

To be taken seriously, the agency had to vastly improve its stewardship of tens of millions of dollars in federal funding and stop sabotaging itself with scandals. A former director, Lancelot Gordon Jr., was fired in the summer of 2006 over allegations of financial impropriety. Gordon countercharged in a wrongful-termination lawsuit that the agency was infested with corruption. There was also a series of federal audits that criticized the authority's fiscal operations and oversight, and an agency board that generated more controversy than progress.

Gordon's federal lawsuit was settled in 2008. Gordon had succeeded longtime Executive Director John Wardlaw, who began the redevelopment of Hartford's housing projects.

Four years ago, nearly the entire housing authority board was replaced. Three years ago, Alan E. Green, a child of Hartford public housing who went on to become a lawyer and administrator of philanthropic organizations in Hartford and New Haven, was hired as the agency's director.

Last week, Marilyn Rossetti, a former city councilwoman, ex-director of the city's largest neighborhood organizing group, and now the leader of an agency that helps homeless men find housing and jobs, was named board chairwoman.

"We have a very clear mission: quality affordable housing with a focus on homeownership,'' said Rossetti, who joined the board a year ago. "We're looking at how we relate to the city, to the state, to the feds. There's a new thought process here. We're aligned with Alan Green and his team about what the end results need to be.''

The board recently backed Green's plan to create a nonprofit real estate development corporation as a way to help strengthen neighborhoods around rebuilt housing projects. Through the nonprofit unit, housing officials would buy and improve surrounding residential and commercial properties. Many housing authorities throughout the nation have operated separate development branches for years as one way to break the cycle of sinking public money into poorly conceived housing projects and watching them spiral downward.

There's no shortage of challenges for the Hartford authority, however.

The $20 million reconstruction of Nelton Court, a low-income rental development that sits between Acton and Main streets in the Northeast neighborhood, is about to start in July after a delay of several years.

Between nearby Stowe Village, with 180 units and a rebuilt Nelton Court, with 80, there will be 260 families in a few-block area requiring services and amenities, which the sprawling Northeast neighborhood severely lacks.

Nelton Court had deteriorated to the level of the old Dutch Point before it was shut down and the remaining 84 families relocated. The 160 units of forlorn, barracks-style housing will be ripped down and replaced with 80, two- and three-story, townhouse-style units with individual entrances, ample green space on the property and a community center. Unlike nearby Stowe Village, there will not be any home-ownership opportunities in the new Nelton Court because these particular federal funds are strictly for replacement housing.

"We've got to protect our investment,'' Green said. "The quality of the neighborhood around Nelton Court is as important as the development itself and that's an underserved neighborhood. There's only one pharmacy, only one community center. We need a library branch, a laundromat ''

Green wants to spur economic activity in the neighborhood and is looking at commercially zoned land across the street from the former Rajun Cajun restaurant at 2790 Main St.

"We'd like to influence the private development of that parcel, or work with the city to acquire it,'' said Green, who lived in public housing on Westland Street in the Northeast neighborhood in the 1950s, "when it was a good, clean, safe environment.''

Green and city officials have also talked about the redevelopment of Westbrook Village, an ailing, partially vacant, state-owned housing development in the Upper Albany neighborhood near the University of Hartford. The plan would be to transform the area into a mixed-use community.

"We're working on what the right mix would be,'' Panagore said.

Panagore said that the work at the rebuilt developments demonstrates that "the housing authority has the ability to transform sites. As a city, we don't want to leave them out there by themselves. Alan Green and the board have taken that agency through a lot of changes. They are an economic development agency, as opposed to just a manager of subsidized housing."

To go with the renewed focus on homeownership and neighborhood development, Green wants to change the agency's name. He said he wasn't ready to reveal the new name, but wants to take the word "authority'' out of the title, as other agencies have done. The Stamford Housing Authority, which has had success with its nonprofit development arm, is now called Charter Oak Communities.

"What are we really an 'authority' of?'' Green said. "We provide housing to people. Our name should reflect that.''

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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