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Hartford Projects Help Keep City Poor

July 29, 2007
By TOM CONDON, Courant Staff Writer

The state, under court order in the Sheff v. O'Neill case, is attempting to break up racial and economic segregation in Hartford's schools. Thus far, $1.2 billion has been invested in magnet schools and related programs. The money has produced some nice schools, as well it should, but has done nothing to end racial segregation in city schools. Indeed, the schools are slightly more segregated than they were when the Sheff case was filed in 1989.

The plaintiffs are back in court because the legislature hasn't signed off on a new plan to spend another $112 million over five years.

It's not unreasonable for state officials to ask why their investment hasn't worked. They might begin their inquiry by looking in the mirror.

One reason there's a concentration of poor kids in Hartford schools is that government keeps building low-income housing in Hartford.

I recently questioned the wisdom of building a $15.7 million, 57-unit, mostly low-income housing development called North End Gateway on Main Street in Hartford, right next to a 265-unit low-income development.

Here comes another one. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford plans to turn the former Cathedral School building into housing for low-income residents.

The project, to be called Cathedral Green, will have 28 units of supportive housing for homeless families, families at risk of homelessness or those falling 50 percent below the area's median poverty level, said Rose Alma Senatore, chief executive officer of Catholic Charities.

The $8.5 million project will be financed with public funds, from the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority and other sources.

Senatore insists the project has strong neighborhood support. She said focus groups, which began in Catholic Charities' family center, cited affordable housing as a primary need.

Support in the neighborhood is not unanimous. The Asylum Hill Problem Solving Revitalization Association, a neighborhood group, actually sued the housing finance authority in late 2002 for locating too much low-income housing in their neighborhood.

The lawsuit was filed after the housing finance authority approved tax credits for two low-income apartment developments in Asylum Hill.

The case was brought by lawyers from the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, who understood that it would be very hard to break the concentration of poor and minority kids in the schools if government kept putting their families all in the same place. The suit charged that the housing finance authority approves too many proposals in "racially concentrated neighborhoods" that are already overburdened with poverty.

The legal action failed. It went to the state Supreme Court, which reaffirmed a verdict last year for the defendant on mostly procedural grounds. Thus, the court never got to the question of whether the high concentration of poor people in a 1-square-mile neighborhood is a good idea.

It isn't.

The real tragedy of the Cathedral School is that it is no longer a school (it closed in 2001). Hartford was a healthier city when it had nine Catholic elementary schools and a high school (it now has two elementary schools). One proposal was to move a school now located at the nearby Asylum Hill Congregational Church to the property, but archdiocesan officials opted for housing.

Neighbors were upset to learn that Cathedral Day Care would have to close because of the renovation of the building, a decision I do not understand.

If they're going to put supportive housing there for families with children, wouldn't you want a good day-care center? Well, it was scheduled to be closed Friday. Senatore said her office is helping find slots for the clients and could eventually open a new day care if it is needed.

I am a Catholic, for the record, and know the church does a great deal for those in need, both here (e.g. The House of Bread) and across much of the world. It's hard to criticize anyone for wanting to house the poor. Supportive housing, which makes services available on site, can work very well. While there is no housing shortage in the neighborhood, two- and three-bedroom units, which Cathedral Green will feature, can be hard to find.

What I'm talking about is location. Asylum Hill already has a lot of low-income housing, as well as halfway houses, counseling centers and other social service agencies. What was the point of breaking up the dysfunctional concentrations of poor people in the public housing projects if the folks are being reassembled in certain neighborhoods?

A recent report by The Brookings Institution titled "Restoring Prosperity: The State Role in Reviving America's Older Industrial Cities," looked at 65 struggling cities including Hartford.

It called on state officials to work with their local counterparts to improve these cities, and urged the creation of healthy neighborhoods "attractive to families with a range of incomes." The report suggested that housing subsidies be "spread throughout the metropolitan area."

Right on both counts. Asylum Hill, like the city at large, needs people with a mix of incomes. It needs to rebuild its middle class. Middle-class people create an economy, a level of civic participation and a standard of behavior that makes an area livable. Developer David Nyberg is bringing some market-rate housing to Asylum Hill; Cathedral Green could do well by the neighborhood if some of its units were market rate as well.

It is not the church that is driving this; it is government's checkbook. Political leaders have to realize that they cannot solve the Sheff problem if they are at the same time perpetuating it.

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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