October 28, 2005
By OSHRAT CARMIEL, Courant Staff Writer
The overnight guest at a North End Hartford housing project stepped
outside his apartment to survey the neighborhood.
Not too much litter on the ground, so that's good, he noted. But
the porch lights don't come on after dark. And the asphalt walkway
behind his apartment? Ends abruptly, illogically, as if the pavers
stopped for lunch and never came back.
"Is that supposed to be a sidewalk?" Lancelot Gordon asked,
the night he chose to sleep over at Nelton Court - the city's last
barracks-style public housing complex.
The decision by Gordon, until now acting executive director of the
Hartford Housing Authority, to spend the night in public housing
baffled some colleagues at first. But in the end it appears to have
impressed: The agency's board this week named Gordon the permanent
executive director, selecting him from a pool of 32 applicants.
The unanimous vote took place via conference call, but a party to
celebrate the first new leader in 28 years - and to announce a new
deputy director - will take place today.
"Glad to have made the team," the
58-year-old Gordon said Thursday.
Gordon, who supervised affordable housing initiatives at the Greenwich
Housing Authority before taking a job as deputy director in Hartford
in 2004, is taking over the agency at a critical turning point.
It has torn down many of its dense housing projects and dispersed
its tenants. The goal now is to figure out how to modernize the agency,
be relevant and create an environment where, Gordon hopes, tenants'
upward mobility is just as important as real estate.
But Gordon is going to have to do all that while wrestling with
an array of significant problems - both old and new.
The agency has bulldozed hundreds of units over the past few years,
but is behind on building replacement housing - a tardiness that
could jeopardize federal money, according to a consultant hired to
study the agency. Rent collections are lagging, with $1.8 million
in rent from former tenants outstanding as of June; and the authority,
the consultant noted, has a poor reputation for customer service.
The agency's state-affiliated properties hemorrhage $200,000 annually,
and some remain lead paint hazards, officials say. To help plug the
deficit, the housing authority inappropriately used $1.7 million
in federal grant money, according to a recent audit by the federal
department of Housing and Urban Development.
On top of it all, contributions from HUD have been declining in
recent years - and will probably continue to do so.
As it works to replace the housing that was torn down in the last
decade, close watchers of the authority will notice a building boom
of sorts, said Courtney Anderson, chairman of the housing authority
board. The agency will receive $25 million in federal money for replacement
housing, which must be built by 2007, at risk of losing the money.
But the agency is striving to offer its tenants more than just real
Officials say tenants in public housing will start to see even more
programs that lead to mobility and financial well-being - everything
from credit classes and day-care facilities on public housing grounds
to a program that encourages saving by finding corporate sponsors
to offer a match for every dollar saved.
"We want to raise the standards," Gordon said. "We
want to change our whole image."
Gordon, a former resident of the Stowe Village housing project who
holds a master's degree in city planning, said the authority needs
to act more like a business. Vacancies should be filled, and residents
treated as partners rather than customers of last resort, he said.
"Typically, we weren't very nice," he
said of the authority's reputation.
That's how he got to spending
the night at Nelton Court. "I've
got to live here you know?" he said. "Because if I'm not
comfortable here, then we've got to make some changes."
Upon learning that Gordon was spending the night next door, Nelton
Court resident Amy Stevenson, 38, had a modest request for her landlord.
Could he please plant some greenery in the dirt patch that serves
as her backyard?
"I call it my bald spot," Stevenson said. "Only
thing I need is some grass and I'll be all right."
Gordon spent the night in what
is to become the "model apartment" for
prospective tenants in the housing project. The concrete wall, while
low in charm, had a fresh coat of warm beige paint. The floors? Hardwood,
freshly sanded and polished. And the kitchen had new appliances.
The only thing missing was a drain plug in the bathtub, he said,
after a survey of the two-bedroom apartment.
"Some people thought it was a little weird - what do you mean
you're spending the night in Nelton Court?" Anderson, the board
chairman, recalled. "But I think he wanted to connect with residents."
"That was impressive to me."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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