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Is Low-Income Housing What Hartford Needs?

July 1, 2007
By TOM CONDON, Courant Staff Writer

I got an e-press release from Gov. M. Jodi Rell's office recently, announcing the state was about to put $3.4 million into a 57-unit, $15.7 million low-income housing develop- ment called North End Gateway on Main Street in Hartford, just north of I-84.

The governor's press release said, in the flowery language characteristic of the press release genre ("build on the positive changes"; "new sense of pride"; etc.) that this is a good thing. The mayor said as much at the groundbreaking Monday.

The governor's press release said there'll be 45 low- and moderate-income units and 12 market-rate units, though when I later spoke to co-developer Daniel O. Merida, he said there would be 14 market-rate units.

Merida, of the nonprofit development company Sheldon Oak Central, is partnered with SRC Construction Inc., headed by Meriden developer Salvatore Carabetta. This is at least the fourth project the two will have joined forces on, including the SANA low-income housing development next door.

As the governor's press release indicates, the new project, like the other ones, is being funded with public money, the majority from federal tax credits for low-income housing. Merida said he's aiming for tenants with family incomes ranging from $30,000 to $48,000 a year, though the federal guidelines allow a broader income range.

Before I jump on the bandwagon - and I may - could we go over a couple of things?

Why is so much of the area's low-income housing located in Hartford? The answer from the people who put it there is that people need a place to live and Hartford is where the services that low-income people need are located. That is true, as far as it goes.

Keep bringing more low-income people in, and the city will be on the hook for more services, which raises taxes, which discourages middle-class people from living in the city. Yet the city desperately needs more middle-class residents; it is they who serve on boards, coach youth sports, run for office, pay taxes.

Hartford has to become a mixed-income city again, both by attracting middle-class people and moving low-income residents into the middle class. In new construction, the city should only be putting public money only into mixed-income projects, and offering some assistance where appropriate to privately funded market-rate housing.

One problem is that the few funding programs left, e.g. the low-income tax credit program, support low- and moderate-income housing. This achieves a short-term goal of affordable housing, but doesn't lead to a revitalization of the city. Some of the policy people have quietly begun to talk about this. No one wants to say the bad word "gentrification," because it carries the connotation of wiping out whole neighborhoods of low-income people and replacing them with hedge-fund yuppies. That's not going to happen, nor should it.

But it would be nice if some people with the means to fix up and maintain their homes moved into what are now low-income neighborhoods. This has happened in a couple of places, with considerable success. Though there've been some repair problems, the innovative housing on Mortson Street and Putnam Heights has drawn a good mix of middle-class folks to the city. That was funded in part by the Capitol City Economic Development Authority, which took an economic development point of view. That's a reason CCEDA ought to be kept in business as a city-state development agency.

Mortson-Putnam Heights was a combination of new and existing buildings. Since there are already vacancies and city's population isn't growing much, if at all, the new apartments on Main Street will draw some people out of existing units, creating more vacancies in marginal neighborhoods. What's the impact?

Having said that, North End Gateway has some good things going for it. The location is a strength. It is an already dense area, on a good bus line, close to downtown, close to Capital Community College (which may be an underrated attraction). Merida hopes to attract people who work downtown. If he does, the project has a good chance of being successful.

The location is also in an area that is ripe for renewal. An outstanding preservation project of 19th-century homes on Belden Street and the new public safety complex in the former board of education building on High Street should trigger a revival of an area that was part of downtown until it was cut off by I-84.

Though the design of North End Gateway appears to capture the low-rise, Victorian style predominant in the neighborhood, it would have been nice if it had been part of a comprehensive neighborhood plan. Because if for whatever reason the project doesn't fit, too bad - once it's built, it's not going anywhere.

Some have questioned why the city is doing business with Mr. Carabetta. He is suing the city's housing authority, claiming it reneged on a deal with him to redevelop the Nelton Court housing project. Also, Carabetta has yet to pay subcontractors more than $1 million for work done and paid for by the city at the Breakthrough Magnet School (though the city says this is near resolution).

While the Nelton Court matter is troubling, the Carabetta-Merida partnership renovated and manages the 265-unit SANA (formerly SAND) apartment complex next door, and appears to be doing a good job.

A few years ago, the city was pushing for a retail-commercial development on the site. This has somehow morphed into a residential project with the hope of a retail component on a front acre of the approximately 4-acre site.

The project may work. But, building housing on cleared, free land with public money is relatively easy. The mayor gets a project in the North End, an area where he's thought to be vulnerable in this fall's election. What the city really needs is more commercial development - more businesses that will provide the good jobs that will lift city residents into the middle class.

That is much harder, but it's where the energy, imagination and the next $15.7 million ought to go.

My column last week on bad tenants drew so many responses, from landlords, tenants and tenant advocates, that I will write about it again. If you have a way the present system can be improved, or if you think it works as is, send me an e-mail.

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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