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Meeting Set On Redoing Housing

By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

January 30, 2008

Shatoya Oates and her two boys are the only residents of their four-unit building at Westbrook Village, a $365-a-month publicly owned apartment in the city that has been broken into so many times she's changed the locks herself.

For Oates, who works two jobs, the apartment is all she can afford. So, as city officials and leaders of the Hartford Housing Authority are again expressing a sense of optimism about a possible $300 million project to knock down and rebuild Westbrook Village and nearby Bowles Park, Oates wants to hear what they have to say.

Because she has an interest in what comes next.

"There are so many improvements that need to be made that it's not even worth fixing," she said of Westbrook Village. Still, as talk of redevelopment resurfaces, so do her concerns. "There are a lot of questions in my mind. Where are our families going to live, where are our families going to go?"

The Hartford Housing Authority says there are at least two reasons for Oates and other tenants to be hopeful.

The authority is in the final stages of negotiations with a developer it selected over a year ago to knock down the two aging, state-financed housing projects in the city's northwest corner and build affordable apartments, houses and commercial space in their place. The Massachusetts-based developers will meet with residents and stakeholders tonight to begin formulating a vision for the area's future.

"This is really the first kind of group meeting with all of the residents and the developer to say, 'We are moving this forward, this is real, and we want you as residents to be actively engaged in the process,'" said Mark Ojakian, the authority's chairman.

Meanwhile, the authority and its allies are readying state legislation seeking the $300 million they say is needed for the redevelopment project.

"It's as much a dollar amount as a statement of support," Ojakian said. The developers "are going to have to know that the state is willing to make some sort of financial commitment to the project."

Westbrook Village and Bowles Park are on roughly 140 acres abutting the University of Hartford, just west of Hartford's Blue Hills neighborhood.

The state built the two developments in the post-war years as moderate rental housing that unlike subsidized federal housing was intended to pay for itself from the rents that its residents paid. But as the units aged and public housing became less desirable, the rents couldn't keep up with the expenses. Today, half of the total 720 units are occupied. State funding dried up, people moved out and rodents moved in.

Authority and city leaders have said they've tried to deal with the short-term health and safety issues. The authority has also restructured and laid off employees in part to keep the developments from losing money.

"Now we need a long-term plan," said Mayor Eddie A. Perez. "I know that tenants I wouldn't say they're happy, but I think they know we're responding within the means that we have."

"It's a long time overdue, [but] we needed to get our house in order," Perez said.

The authority selected developer Corcoran Jennison for the project in September 2006. Allegations of corruption and bid rigging leveled by fired Executive Director Lancelot Gordon Jr. led Perez to disband the housing authority's board and reconstitute it in late 2006. The presence of a new board coupled with the lack of a permanent executive director slowed progress considerably.

On the legislative front, state Rep. Kenneth P. Green, D-Hartford, said he will introduce legislation this year to start funding the redevelopment . A priority for him going forward is that any new redevelopment plan include the tenants who live there now.

Marty Jones, president of Corcoran Jennison, said her company remains enthusiastic about the project.

But state funding is essential.

Without financial assistance, housing that's affordable to low- and moderate-income families is not something that the private sector could do on its own," she said.

The housing authority will host the meeting tonight on the project in the auditorium of Annie Fisher School at 6 p.m. The school is at 280 Plainfield St.

June Downer, vice president of the Bowles Park Tenants Association, said she hopes people turn out.

"We don't want to feel as if, in the long run, when they finish the project, we're going to be left out in the cold," she said.

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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