Nelton Court is almost a museum piece of failed urban housing policy. The 14 barracks-style brick buildings with 120 apartments in Hartford's North End were built early in World War II to house workers drawn to the city's booming defense industries. But over time, the industries and skilled workers left and the housing project became home to poorer people. Drugs and violent crime became commonplace in the increasingly decrepit buildings.
Nelton, the last of the old federally funded public housing projects still standing in Hartford, followed the same downward trajectory as Dutch Point, Charter Oak Terrace, Stowe Village, Rice Heights and Bellevue Square. Those once-successful communities failed, in the opinion of former Hartford Housing Authority executive director John Wardlaw and others, because they had too high a concentration of very poor people.
I wonder if the same fate will befall the whole city, for the same reason.
Though Hartford already has a hugely disproportionate number of the region's poor — the city's poverty rate is 32 percent; the state's is 8.3 percent — public policy is still pushing more low-income housing into the city.
For example, the housing authority has $15 million committed from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to replace Nelton Court.
If you had $15 million for housing in Hartford with no strings attached, you might use it strategically. You might rehab existing buildings for the current residents of Nelton Court, fill in some empty spaces in or near downtown or finish important projects such as the Capewell factory conversion.
But, as housing authority Chairman Mark Ojakian said, this particular grant can only be used to replace Nelton Court. Since the buildings are shot and the residents need places to live, the housing authority will do the deal, and the city will get more new low-income housing. That's been the trend.
Last summer the governor's office glowingly announced a state contribution of $3.4 million to a $15.7 million, 57-unit, mostly low-income housing development Main Street, right next to a 265-unit low-income project done a few years ago.
At about the same time, the Archdiocese of Hartford announced plans to turn the former Cathedral School building into 28 units of housing for low-income residents.
A 40-unit low-income development for grandparents raising their grandchildren has just been completed on the grounds of the vacant Clark Street school, despite opposition from neighborhood residents whose children played in the former school's playground.
A few years ago, residents of the Asylum Hill neighborhood actually sued the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority for locating too much low-income housing in their neighborhood. They lost that one, but have just thwarted a plan by the nonprofit Broad-Park Development Corp. to build a 12-unit building on Huntington Street that would have housed and served persons with mental illness.
The neighbors have nothing against the potential tenants; their neighborhood is already over-saturated with social service facilities. The proposed building would have gone against the neighborhood plan of development and added density when the neighboring Asylum Hill Congregational Church has led an effort, with Habitat For Humanity, to lessen density with one- or two-family houses on the street.
This gets to the heart of the matter. None of this low-income housing is being built as part of a sensible citywide plan. Nor is it the result of a cost-benefit or need analysis (possibly excepting the housing for the mentally ill, where location is the issue).
It's not being built because of a local boom in employment, as in 1942. It's being built because there is government money available for it and developers can turn a nice development fee.
Since the days when Nelton Court was built, Hartford's population has shrunk. In an article about the travails of Buffalo, N.Y., in the autumn issue of City Journal, Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser observes that shrinking cities invite poverty, for two reasons. The obvious one is that the loss of population usually means jobs have vanished, and so people get poorer. The less obvious reason is that declining areas "become magnets for poor people, attracted by cheap housing."
He continues, "The influx of the poor reinforces a city's downward spiral, since it drives up public expenditures while doing little to expand the local tax base."
Does this sound vaguely familiar? Hartford cannot become the repository for all the region's poor people and hope to survive, never mind prosper. Funders have to grasp this. The mayor has to understand it, as do regional and state officials.
Housing ought to be part of a broader plan to revive the city. The plan should include the goal of rebuilding the middle class. To that end, all new housing in the city ought to be mixed-income (the housing authority is trying to create a mixed-income remake of the aging state-built Westbrook Village and Bowles Park projects), with as much market-rate housing as the market will bear (the new downtown housing is the best thing to happen in decades).
New housing ought, where possible, to infill the many gaps in the cityscape. It might make sense to shrink the city's built environment, as cities such as Youngstown, Ohio, are doing, and focus on downtown, major avenues and neighborhood centers. Mixed-income housing around the train and bus station would make sense. Grandparent housing in a school playground makes no sense.
Public investment in infrastructure ought to be about thoughtfully rebuilding the city, not about generating development fees. Glaeser would cut back investments in buildings for more investment in people, specifically in education — "the best tool we have to fight poverty."
If he's right, and I think he is, the best economic development tool we've got right now may well be Sheff v. O'Neill, the desegregation lawsuit that's caused a major investment in new schools and programs. All in all, I'd rather my tax dollars went to a school we needed instead of housing we didn't need.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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