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Sleepover Also An Eye Opener

October 28, 2005
By OSHRAT CARMIEL, Courant Staff Writer

The overnight guest at a North End Hartford housing project stepped outside his apartment to survey the neighborhood.

Not too much litter on the ground, so that's good, he noted. But the porch lights don't come on after dark. And the asphalt walkway behind his apartment? Ends abruptly, illogically, as if the pavers stopped for lunch and never came back.

"Is that supposed to be a sidewalk?" Lancelot Gordon asked, the night he chose to sleep over at Nelton Court - the city's last barracks-style public housing complex.

The decision by Gordon, until now acting executive director of the Hartford Housing Authority, to spend the night in public housing baffled some colleagues at first. But in the end it appears to have impressed: The agency's board this week named Gordon the permanent executive director, selecting him from a pool of 32 applicants.

The unanimous vote took place via conference call, but a party to celebrate the first new leader in 28 years - and to announce a new deputy director - will take place today.

"Glad to have made the team," the 58-year-old Gordon said Thursday.

Gordon, who supervised affordable housing initiatives at the Greenwich Housing Authority before taking a job as deputy director in Hartford in 2004, is taking over the agency at a critical turning point.

It has torn down many of its dense housing projects and dispersed its tenants. The goal now is to figure out how to modernize the agency, be relevant and create an environment where, Gordon hopes, tenants' upward mobility is just as important as real estate.

But Gordon is going to have to do all that while wrestling with an array of significant problems - both old and new.

The agency has bulldozed hundreds of units over the past few years, but is behind on building replacement housing - a tardiness that could jeopardize federal money, according to a consultant hired to study the agency. Rent collections are lagging, with $1.8 million in rent from former tenants outstanding as of June; and the authority, the consultant noted, has a poor reputation for customer service.

The agency's state-affiliated properties hemorrhage $200,000 annually, and some remain lead paint hazards, officials say. To help plug the deficit, the housing authority inappropriately used $1.7 million in federal grant money, according to a recent audit by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development.

On top of it all, contributions from HUD have been declining in recent years - and will probably continue to do so.

As it works to replace the housing that was torn down in the last decade, close watchers of the authority will notice a building boom of sorts, said Courtney Anderson, chairman of the housing authority board. The agency will receive $25 million in federal money for replacement housing, which must be built by 2007, at risk of losing the money.

But the agency is striving to offer its tenants more than just real estate.

Officials say tenants in public housing will start to see even more programs that lead to mobility and financial well-being - everything from credit classes and day-care facilities on public housing grounds to a program that encourages saving by finding corporate sponsors to offer a match for every dollar saved.

"We want to raise the standards," Gordon said. "We want to change our whole image."

Gordon, a former resident of the Stowe Village housing project who holds a master's degree in city planning, said the authority needs to act more like a business. Vacancies should be filled, and residents treated as partners rather than customers of last resort, he said.

"Typically, we weren't very nice," he said of the authority's reputation.

That's how he got to spending the night at Nelton Court. "I've got to live here you know?" he said. "Because if I'm not comfortable here, then we've got to make some changes."

Upon learning that Gordon was spending the night next door, Nelton Court resident Amy Stevenson, 38, had a modest request for her landlord. Could he please plant some greenery in the dirt patch that serves as her backyard?

"I call it my bald spot," Stevenson said. "Only thing I need is some grass and I'll be all right."

Gordon spent the night in what is to become the "model apartment" for prospective tenants in the housing project. The concrete wall, while low in charm, had a fresh coat of warm beige paint. The floors? Hardwood, freshly sanded and polished. And the kitchen had new appliances.

The only thing missing was a drain plug in the bathtub, he said, after a survey of the two-bedroom apartment.

"Some people thought it was a little weird - what do you mean you're spending the night in Nelton Court?" Anderson, the board chairman, recalled. "But I think he wanted to connect with residents."

"That was impressive to me."

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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