The Vitals of “Revitalization”: Residents Call for Affordable Housing, Jobs in Hill to Downtown Discussion

New Haven is laying plans for comprehensive redevelopment that will reconfigure the 293 acre Hill to Downtown District for “safe” and seamless travel between the Hill neighborhood, Union Station, and downtown while making way for biomedical science-driven tax dollars, but affordable housing in the Church Street South complex may be gutted in the process.

This was one of the concerns-driven by a larger history of development projects in New Haven that have failed to bring affordable housing and jobs to lower income residents-that brought people out en mass to last Thursday night’s Board of Aldermen joint Legislative and Redevelopment Committee meeting. Memories are long, and the legacy is longer, with projects such as the unfinished Richard C. Lee Connector that prompted the displacement of 880 families in the 1950s painting the backdrop for gentrification images-chain stores, luxury apartments, inflated rent and displacement-that, to this day, manifest around words such as “revitalization”.

“First we have to think about the people,” said Dimitrius Bynum, who lives in the Hill at the Amistad Catholic Worker House-which brought its own handful of local activists out to the meeting. “We’re bringing new businesses in, but we gotta help people stay in New Haven. I’d like to see New Haven grow together, and leave no one behind.”

The Board of Aldermen is considering adding the Hill to Downtown Plan to the city’s Comprehensive Plan for Development. This is only the first step in a process that will include bids for state approval for a “new” Lafeyette Street, the altering of existing zoning laws, and of course, public input-a component that may or may not have been stressed so far depending on who you ask.

“We never want to lose sight of this as a community plan,” said New Haven Livable Cities Executive Director Kurt Johnson. “We want everyone involved in the process.”

Project planning personnel say that hundreds of residents-including Church Street South tenants at community meetings held at the complex-have had input, but local activists paint a different picture. The Amistad Catholic Worker House, which serves 10 meals throughout a given week, conducted its own informal polling.

“We see literally hundreds of faces from the neighborhood every week,” said Amistad Catholic Worker activist Greg Williams. “When it said that hundreds of residents had been consulted, needless to say we went to our table, and I have yet to hear a single person who has said they have heard of this.”

The Board of Aldermen saw a lot of faces at its table Thursday night, but getting community members who will be most affected by the plan to the meeting took organizing on the part of Amistad Catholic Worker and other activists due to the 6 p.m. start time-after the homeless shelters finish taking people in and during soup kitchen serving hours-Greg Williams said.

“Most of our meetings are held at night,” said Joint Committee Chair Jessica Holmes. “So I want people to be aware that you can submit a written testimony. We’ll do everything we can to improve access.”

The hearing is being continued, and the Board will take testimony as long as it is kept open, Holmes said. They have yet to set a date for the next meeting, but she said they will likely aim for some time in April.

The first concern is for the residents of Church Street South-New Haven resident Duvette Jonah delivered a list of demands from tenants of the complex for the replacement of every affordable unit that is eliminated, and the opportunity to return at the existing rate when new ones are built.

“I spoke with dozens of residents,” Jonah said. “What is going to happen to the families? Will they have temporary housing or relocation expenses covered?”

At least for now, that will not be decided with the approval or rejection of the plan, which has its sights on redeveloping the Church Street South, but will have to work with Northwood Development-which purchased the property in 2008-to get any work at the 300-unit Section 8 complex done, Holmes said during a phone interview.

While “there is no active proposal to redevelop the complex”, Northwood Development has been discussing the prospect of doubling the amount of units for a mix of moderate and affordable housing, according to the power point presentation given by Johnson during the meeting.

One of the tentative initiatives highlighted in city’s own Hill to Downtown Plan is the demolishment of Church Street South’s existing apartments, followed by the construction of 750 new units-but only a150 of which will be designated affordable.

Overall, the city plan wants to add 1400 new housing units-300 of which will be classified as “low to moderate income”-over the next ten years.

“Does it include the people of Church Street South?” Greg Williams asked. “Does it include the people who wait for a construction job every day? Does it include the people who were turned away from Columbus House? Because we do not have enough shelter beds, let alone affordable housing.”

James Campell is homeless, so, needless to say, affordable housing in New Haven, at least so far, has not included him.

“People need to have a place to live,” Campell said. “I’m still working on being able to afford a place to live, and I haven’t found that yet.”

Community members have expressed concern over the phrasing “low to moderate” income, saying that “moderate” implies something that creeps closer to market value.

“I think that’s a legitimate concern,” Holmes said over the phone. “And that’s something we should ask more about.”

At minimum wage-before this year’s bump from $8.25 to $8.70-a New Haven resident would have to work 3 full-time jobs in order to afford market rate housing, according to a 2013 report from the Washington D.C.-based National Low Income Housing Coalition.

So, New Haven’s going to need more jobs-and lots of them. Johnson expects the anticipated 10,000 construction positions to be a catalyst for that, but for a city where the unemployment rate sits at a Connecticut Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 10.7-compared to the statewide 7.5-it goes back to the question of, who does that include?

“I feel like all our community’s resources are being sold,” said New Haven resident Rodney Williams. “Where is the committee for job training? Why can’t people get trained for these construction jobs? New Haven’s a goldmine for everyone except the people of New Haven. After they build the buildings, the kids can’t work in the building.”

While project proponents eagerly await the arrival of biomedical research facilities-potential for anywhere between 600,000 and 1 million square feet of lab space is expected-residents see an opportunity they will not be able to share in.

“Most of the long term jobs are going to people with high levels of education,” Campell said. “Those jobs will not be for the average person.”

And so far, most of them have not been-as of 2011, only 31 percent of New Haven residents were employed by one of the city’s almost 77,000 jobs, according to a report from the Connecticut Center for a New Economy.

It’s no wonder when one looks at the largest employers-Yale University topped the list with 16,497 people on its payroll. Yale New Haven Hospital-with 8,580 employees-came in second.

“What you’re showing us is beautiful,” Rodney Williams said. “But if we don’t get work, we’re not going to be able to afford to live here.”

The Hill to Downtown Plan document-a longer breakdown than what was presented at the meeting-projects the creation of 2500 permanent jobs. The key is tapping into city resources to train residents for them, Holmes said over the phone.

“There are some positions that will require PhDs, but there will also be a lot of jobs that come with the fields that will be support-based,” she said. “You’ll need people to do technical and desk work, and those are good jobs.”

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