Residents' Dispute Puts Future Of Hartford Housing Cooperative In Question
By MARK SPENCER
May 20, 2010
HARTFORD - - When the Chappelle Gardens housing cooperative was facing foreclosure in the early 1990s, resident Ludella Williams led the charge to bring it back from the brink of collapse.
She attended countless meetings, organized residents and lobbied politicians, leading to an innovative agreement in 1995 with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that gave Chappelle's low- and moderate-income residents the opportunity to buy their apartments after 15 years.
With that deadline approaching in September, Chappelle is once again in trouble. But a group of residents say this time, the problem is Williams, now 87.
They say Williams, president of the residents' association, runs the 188-unit, 22-acre cooperative in the city's North End as her own personal kingdom, ignoring or intimidating anyone who disagrees with her.
"We're being held hostage in our own community," said Shawnda Barlow, who grew up in Chappelle Gardens and returned to live there with her two children four years ago.
Barlow and a group of other residents have been meeting weekly and working with an organizer from Hartford Areas Rally Together to get their concerns addressed. The group is asking why up to 40 units at the complex have been vacant at a time, some of those for up to 10 years, and have been allowed to fall into disrepair.
They also say Chappelle management routinely turns away low-income applicants. Although the complex has 117 units designated for the federal Section 8 rent subsidy program, only 23 were being used as of May 1, according to HUD, statistics Williams disputes.
The centerpiece of Chappelle is a $965,000 community center that opened in 2007 and is named for Williams. But residents say they aren't allowed to use it.
Opponents of Williams say they have no voice in how Chappelle is run and often don't know who's on the board of directors or when elections are held.
"We want her out, immediately," Barlow said, "and the board of directors."
But Williams shows no sign of budging.
"Who Are They To Complain?"
Williams fled the drug- and gang-infested Bellevue Square housing project in Hartford and moved to Chappelle Gardens shortly after it opened in 1973 to raise her nine children.
It was "beautiful, gorgeous, wonderful," and she knew she wanted to live there until the day she died.
She had seen Bellevue Square fall into chaos and was determined not to let the same thing happen at Chappelle. Williams said she organized tenants, who worked together to keep the drug dealers at bay and develop programs for children and families.
After retiring as a unit aide from Hartford Hospital in 1989, she volunteered for various organizations and was a foster grandmother for Nutmeg Big Brothers/ Big Sisters. But her first passion always has been keeping Chappelle Gardens on track, and she has no time for agitators.
"Who are they to complain?" she asked. "They need to sit down. They need to get a life."
It's unclear exactly how long Williams has been president of Chappelle Gardens Inc. She says 10 to 12 years; other residents say it's been at least 15 years. An investigative report recently issued by the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities says Williams has been president for 22 years.
The by-laws of Chappelle Gardens Inc. set a maximum of three years in office.
Williams sees herself as a bulwark against any forces that threaten Chappelle, and said she remains president only because no one else wants the job.
"You have a complex where no one wants to do anything," Williams said. "You think I like this? No. I work 24 hours a day to keep Chappelle from drowning."
But some residents say Williams works hard at controlling every aspect of the complex.
Jill Tucker, who has lived at Chappelle since 1992, said residents aren't given a chance to participate. Complaints can elicit retaliation, she said, from eviction notices to towed cars. After some residents complained to HUD last year, a notice was sent out advising people to bring their concerns to the attention of Chappelle management.
"HUD cannot solve your problems so stop calling them," the notice said.
"Everybody's angry, everybody's frustrated," Tucker said. "We want a change, but it's not happening."
Questions about how Chappelle has been run may cast doubt on the 1995 HUD agreement.
By 1991, shoddy construction had forced the cooperative corporation that owned Chappelle, also led by Williams, to spend more than expected on maintenance. The corporation fell more than $1 million behind in mortgage payments and HUD foreclosed. After several years of wrangling, HUD agreed to sell the property for $1 to a new residents association, Chappelle Gardens Inc., and an $8.5 million grant was provided for renovations.
William R. Breetz, the attorney who represented Chappelle at the time and helped draft the agreement, said the idea was to convert the complex to a condominium eventually, allowing residents to purchase their homes in 15 years, having earned an equity credit of 3 percent of the value of the property for every year of residence.
"It was a plan to take a failed property and give people a chance to live the American dream," said Breetz, executive director of the Connecticut Urban Legal Initiative Inc. at the University of Connecticut School of Law.
The 15-year anniversary of the agreement is Sept. 26, but residents at Chappelle still have no idea how the condo conversion will work, or even if it will happen, said Tara Parrish, a community organizer with Hartford Areas Rally Together who is working with residents. "They don't know if they're going to own anything or if they're going to get kicked out," Parrish said.
When asked about the condo conversion plan, Williams said the board and its attorney were working on a package of information for residents and trying to determine "are we ready for it or not?"
A HUD spokesman said the department's primary involvement with Chappelle was administering the Section 8 low income housing subsidy program there, which also has raised concerns. Of Chappelle's 188 units, 117 are designated for Section 8, but only 23 are being used, according to HUD. Up to 40 units have been left vacant despite a waiting list of families seeking housing, according to HUD and state officials. The remaining apartments are rented at market rate.
The unused Section 8 slots shocked Breetz, who said they are "worth their weight in gold" because rent payments are guaranteed. Income from those apartments is essential to keeping Chappelle economically viable, he said. Breetz withdrew as Chappelle's lawyer about five years ago, but declined to say why.
The high vacancy rates have been noted by HUD in yearly reviews of Chappelle management. HUD also has noted that the appeals process for applicants is inappropriate, because the same people who initially reject applications review the appeals.
Some residents say Williams and a few hand-picked allies, including office manager and board member Rafella Black, keep tight control over who can move in.
"She refuses to rent to low- and moderate-income people," Barlow said. "She just doesn't want them."
The state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities recently completed an investigation of Chappelle after receiving a complaint from Barlow. Investigator Cira L. Romann wrote in a draft report to the commission that Chappelle's management provided no explanation for why so many units are vacant.
"The investigation revealed that respondents had no legitimate business reason for the high vacancy rate, especially in larger units that would most likely house families with children," the report said.
Williams disputes HUD's figures and said 36 Section 8 apartments are filled. She said the only vacant apartments are four-bedrooms, which Chappelle has had a hard time filling because there aren't as many large families these days.
Williams also vehemently denies that she will not rent to low-income people.
"That's a lie," she said. "I'm low income."
The inability to meet HUD standards, such as renting to low-income people and maintaining the property, are factors in the departure of the complex's latest management company, The Carabetta Organization, a Meriden-based company that manages about 9,000 units in 40 developments in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
"We find we can't manage the property according to HUD operating standards," said Bill Stetson, senior vice president of Carabetta. "Our recommendations are not being approved by the president of the board of directors." Carabetta, which signed a contract with Chappelle in November, has notified the board that it is leaving at the end of the month.
In the meantime, residents continue to organize and have retained an attorney. Parrish said residents have asked for a special meeting of the board of directors so an election can be held. If that fails, she said, they will seek a court-ordered injunction to force an election.
Williams insists elections have been held every two years, but few residents participate.
"They sit back, so what are you going to do, say we won't have a president?" she said. "Someone has to do it. Someone has to be a leader."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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