The legacy of Elm City’s affordable housing task force remains unclear

When the Board of Alders founded New Haven’s Affordable Housing Task Force in March 2018, their goal was simple: advocate for affordable housing opportunities through public testimony and experts’ presentations. Meeting monthly since its foundation, the task force has heard testimonies in excess of 100 pages from nonprofits, community groups and residents, alike.

The task force has now entered its final month of testimony, and on Jan. 9 and 15, members of the task force will present their final recommendations to the Board of Alders. The suggestions will fuel what has been a long debate over affordable housing options in New Haven, as city residents wait to see whether nine months of testimony and five task force meetings will culminate in new legislation or not.

“The goal is really clear,” said Affordable Task Force facilitator and Ward 8 Alder Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18. “It is to hear from residents, experts, advocates, do research, do studies and develop clear recommendations for the Board of Alders to act on to pass legislation to maintain and create more safe and affordable housing in New Haven.”

But as the task force reaches its conclusion, its legacy remains unclear.

An October protest has raised doubts about the validity of the task force’s collected testimonies. And the effectiveness of the task force has yet to be seen. Although the task force will present its suggestions to the Board of Alders, whether the Alders will vote to implement those changes is uncertain.

The facts: Connecticut and New Haven’s affordable housing

The first major obstacle in providing affordable housing is defining what exactly “affordable housing” is.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, affordable housing is defined as housing that does not consume more than 30 percent of a family’s or person’s total income. Although this number fluctuates depending on location, the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that the average wage necessary to attain affordable housing is approximately $50,000. Yet New Haven’s median income falls well short of that at $37,192. According to New Haven Housing Authority statistics, New Haven alone needs more than 22,000 units to meet affordable housing needs, while the state of Connecticut falls almost 90,000 units short.

Edward Mattison LAW ’68, chair of the City Plan Commission, said this funding will be beneficial in mitigating New Haven’s current lack of affordable housing.

“If you look at how many families are in our family shelters and on the waiting list for them, you will see how dire the need is for affordable housing in New Haven,” Mattison said in an interview with the News.

Yet, despite 1,500 new affordable housing units on the way to the Elm City, New Haven falls 25,062 housing units short when it comes to fulfilling residents’ need for low-income housing, according to Housing Authority of New Haven Executive Director Karen DuBois-Walton ’89.

DuBois-Walton, a member of the Affordable Housing Task Force, presented on the dearth of affordable housing options to the Affordable Housing Task Force in October. According to DuBois-Walton and Livable City Initiative Executive Director Serena Neal-Sanjurjo, only 34 percent of New Haven’s 57,000 housing units can be considered affordable, given the U.S. HUD’s definition and New Haven’s median income.

Forty-one percent of New Haven’s residents rent at a rate higher than 30 percent of total household income. And New Haven’s poverty level is 27 percent, compared to a national average of 12.3 percent.

Still, in spite of issues regarding affordable housing, Connecticut has long paved the way in the fight against homelessness, with New Haven bucking the trends of other similarly dense cities, such as Cleveland and Baltimore. From 2015 to 2017, family homelessness rose 24 percent in Cleveland, while Baltimore’s homeless population rose 6 percent from 2014 to 2016.

The Nutmeg state, on the other hand, became the first in the nation to eliminate chronic veteran homelessness. According to the Coalition to End Homelessness, in January 2018, Connecticut saw its homelessness rate drop 25 percent from 2007.

New Haven zoning laws

Among the many suggestions and testimonies provided to the Affordable Housing Task Force, one suggestion persists: new zoning laws that encourage affordable housing developments.

In an open letter to the Affordable Housing Task Force, the Room for All Coalition — which is made up of Mothers and Others for Justice, CT Bail Fund’s Housing Not Jails Collective, Y2Y, New Haven Legal Assistance Association and other activist groups — suggested that new zoning measures should force developers to designate below market rental rates for 10 to 20 percent of the housing units in a given housing development.

Yet, the coalition acknowledged that such a requirement may result in economic complications. To mitigate such a potential issues, they are proposing a system in which the city could consider tax abatement for housing units rented at particularly low rates.

“Although we believe that any inclusionary zoning ordinance should attempt to assist New Haven’s lowest income residents, we also recognize the complicated economics that make that difficult,” the coalition wrote in a statement.

Downtown Wooster Square Community Management leader Caroline Smith echoed the advice of the Room for All coalition in her Nov. 30 public testimony. Smith encouraged the city to adopt more inclusionary zoning laws at the hearing, emphasizing that affordable housing is both a civil rights and an economic issue.

“Our collective efforts to provide affordable housing in New Haven is both a civil rights and economic decision,” Smith said. “Right here, right now — with the creation of this Task Force — we have the possibility of affecting our city, and all its residents, positively for years to come.”

Smith added that the city should move to build on abandoned buildings and unused lots currently owned by the city.

Another frequently suggested formal recommendation is the adoption of a Homeless Bill of Rights and a Resolution to Decriminalize Homelessness. Developed by the Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, both measures fight for fairness in housing, fairness in employment and legal enforcement when enumerated rights are violated.

Housing and accountability

In October — about five months after the task force’s foundation — New Haven residents and activist leaders joined Kerry Ellington of the community and economic development unit of the New Haven Legal Assistance Association outside of City Hall to protest what they saw as lack of transparency from the task force.

“We are here today because New Haven needs affordable housing,” Ellington said at the rally. “We need new measures introduced on behalf of local residents. We are calling on members of the Affordable Housing Task Force and public officials to take action now!”

The group argued that the task force must be more readily equipped to follow through on citizens’ suggestions. The activists also demanded that the task force solicit testimony from underemployed residents.

Members of the task force responded with encouraging words for the protesters. DuBois-Walton praised the work of the protesters, while also emphasizing that New Haven cannot tackle the local and statewide affordable housing issue on its own.

“We need to aggressively call on neighboring surrounding towns to build affordable housing,” DuBois-Walton told the New Haven Independent after the rally.

She echoed those words a week later in the task force’s October meeting, during which she criticized neighboring towns — in particular, Cheshire, Milford, Branford and North Haven — that have lagged in recent years regarding affordable housing subsidies. Income disparity and institutional homelessness often fall along racial lines. DuBois-Walton argued that because certain areas fund affordable housing more than others in the greater New Haven area, the region becomes increasingly racially segregated.

“We see this investment in affordable housing as an equity issue in a range of ways,” DuBois-Walton said. “There is clearly a housing crisis in this community, and segregation is also a crisis.”

The future of Elm City housing

The Elm City has recently received support for affordable housing at the state level, despite skepticism from New Haven city officials. The question remains as to whether Gov.-elect Ned Lamont SOM ’80, who will begin his term in January, will continue what the Malloy administration has started with affordable housing development.

Gov. Dannel Malloy announced last month that his office would award $22 million in loans to the state of Connecticut, more than $10 million of which would be allocated to New Haven projects.

The Connecticut Department of Housing awarded the funding as part of the Competitive Housing Assistance for Multifamily Properties, an affordable housing initiative. According to a November press release from the governor’s office, the initiative provides developers and owners of multifamily affordable housing with the money necessary to create more affordable units in their developments.

“For nearly three decades, Connecticut made almost no attempt to encourage the development of affordable and multifamily housing in our state,” Malloy said in the Nov. 20 press release. “These new awards represent our administration’s ongoing commitment to improving Connecticut’s housing infrastructure and will play an important role in attracting new talent to our workforce, incentivizing our young people to stay in Connecticut and encouraging business growth.”

Yet, Mattison, who sits on the Affordable Housing Task Force, told the News that he was skeptical of the governor’s decision to provide the allotted funding.

“The federal government is continuing to pay for the promises that they have made in the past, but there aren’t any new ones,” Mattison said in an interview with the News. “That means that although we’re not losing subsidized housing, we’re not increasing it all.

With Lamont’s successful governorship campaign, those in New Haven and throughout the state have continued to hope for further expansion of affordable housing options.

According to Greenberg, Lamont will prove to be an advocate for affordable housing developments throughout New Haven and Connecticut.

“We look forward to working with his administration to promote affordable housing developments,” said Greenberg. “From talking with him, I know he recognizes that the future of this state depends on the health of urban areas like New Haven.”

Although Lamont focused much of his campaign on revitalizing the state’s economy and bringing jobs back to Connecticut, he still placed value on the importance of home ownership.

Additionally, the governor-elect argued in his platform that strong communities and stable homes are key in supporting local economies.

“Every Connecticut resident deserves a safe home that doesn’t break the bank,” Lamont’s platform read. “If we can build the range of housing options our residents and employers need, they will stay in Connecticut, participate in the life of our communities, contribute to our tax base, and support local businesses and shops.”

Nick Tabio | nick.tabio@yale.edu

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