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State's Lack Of Affordable Housing Hits Home For Family Of Four

MONICA POLANCO

December 08, 2009

Teeka Plummer is articulate, resourceful and persistent, but for six months, she has searched unsuccessfully for an apartment for herself and her three children.

She has called the state's 211 support line. She has called homeless shelters, her local social services department, nonprofit agencies, housing programs and top elected officials. A housing expert and clinician have made calls on her behalf. Plummer even wrote to Oprah Winfrey.

The reasons for the family's homelessness are unusual they involve child abuse allegations that Plummer made against her former landlord but their struggle reflects what Connecticut housing experts have long known: There is a massive demand for affordable housing and not enough resources to fill the need. Connecticut, in fact, has ranked 47th in the nation for new housing per capita since 2000. The state has new luxury retirement communities and four- and five-bedroom homes, but for working families, there are few open doors.

It wasn't until Plummer contacted The Courant that her luck began to change.

On Monday, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and state Sen. Anthony Guglielmo both of whom Plummer had previously asked for help called her after a reporter inquired about Plummer's situation.

A Manchester couple has taken in Plummer's family temporarily, but more than 4,000 other homeless Connecticut residents remain in shelters, doubled up with friends and family or out in the cold.

Connecticut has the sixth least affordable rental market in the country, according to a report issued this year by the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Connecticut Housing Coalition. Households here must make nearly $45,000 a year to afford a typical two-bedroom apartment nearly three times the salary of a worker paid the minimum wage.

The inadequate supply combined with demand has driven up rental costs, said David Fink, policy director for the Partnership for Strong Communities, a Hartford-based group that works to end homelessness.

"What we really need are affordable rentals and condos and townhomes," Fink said.

Many Hurdles

Several factors contribute to Connecticut's inadequate supply of affordable housing defined as dwellings that cost less than 30 percent of a household's gross income.

First, generating public support can be tough, Fink said, especially among communities that mistakenly believe that affordable housing increases the number of schoolchildren and drives up taxes.

The Center for Urban Policy Research at Rutgers University found that most of Connecticut's school budget increases from 2000 to 2005 a period of prolific construction throughout the country were unrelated to enrollment or the number of children in a town. To some people, affordable housing means stark, monolithic buildings that would contrast with the look of the typical New England town. But today's affordable housing from Hartford to Fairfield is small in scale, high in quality and blends with the neighborhood, said Jeffrey Freiser, executive director of the Connecticut Housing Coalition.

Another barrier is even harder to overcome.

"At its worst, some people see their town line as an immigration border," Freiser said. "And they use zoning to keep certain people out. Therefore, we continue to fight against the hyper-segregation of Connecticut's residential patterns."

Reduced state and federal financing for affordable units whose construction must be heavily subsidized also contributes to the inadequate supply.

And the foreclosure crisis has increased the competition. Those vying for apartments include former homeowners, aspiring homeowners who don't meet new, stringent mortgage requirements and tenants evicted after banks seized their landlords' multifamily housing properties.

The most vulnerable residents are those who already were on the edge and now are competing against more skilled workers who have been laid off or who have lost their homes.

Between 2008 and 2009, the number of homeless families in the state's rural and suburban areas increased by at least 33 percent, an alarming figure, advocates said. Many told the advocates that they became homeless because of rental costs. Most of the adults in homeless families said they had no history of hospitalization for mental illness or substance abuse, two problems that have historically been linked to homelessness.

Hurt By State Cuts

The state's $337 million budget deficit is expected to hurt existing housing assistance programs.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell has ordered the Department of Social Services to cut $2.1 million from its housing and homeless services which includes money for emergency shelters, transitional living and rental assistance to help close the budget gap.

She also has asked the legislature to eliminate the remaining $2.4 million in the HOME Connecticut program. The program, approved two years ago, gives towns grants to identify affordable housing sites and to build units. Fifty towns have received grants to identify sites, but they would receive no additional help for construction up to $4,000 per unit under Rell's proposal.

The legislature is expected to vote on that proposal and others when it meets during a special session Dec. 15.

Fink acknowledged the gravity of the state's budget crisis, but said the proposed cuts would increase the number of people seeking help. The state Department of Economic and Community Development has included HOME Connecticut in its long-range state housing plan, a development that Fink said is at odds with Rell's proposal.

"I feel for the governor and [Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management] Bob Genuario, but this is like avoiding the oil change, and nobody should be surprised when the engine goes out in six months," he said.

Inadequate affordable housing, Fink said, contributes to the state's well-documented exodus of 25- to 34-year-olds, which then leads to a shrinking labor force and aging population.

Fink's group continues to push for the creation of 10,000 supportive housing units not all of them new by 2014. Supportive housing a model the group believes is the most effective and least expensive solution to chronic homelessness provides residents with affordable rentals and such permanent services as money management and psychotherapy.

"You have to not only eradicate homelessness, you have to prevent homelessness," Fink said. "The way you prevent it is to give people places to live that they can afford."

'My Only Hope'

Teeka Plummer's letters to state officials flowed from the heart.

"I am writing to you out of sheer desperation," Plummer wrote to the attorney general last month. "I fear that I have exhausted all other resources and you are my only hope."

In the e-mailed letters, Plummer explained that she and her three daughters became homeless Aug. 31 after their landlord evicted them from their Vernon apartment.

Several weeks earlier, Plummer's daughter told her that the landlord had been sexually abusing her, Plummer said. Police charged the man whose identity is being withheld to protect Plummer's daughter with fourth-degree sexual assault and risk of injury to a child. He has pleaded not guilty.

"It certainly tells the story of a woman with enormous courage and fortitude fighting some very severe problems," Blumenthal said after reading Plummer's letter.

Plummer, 32, said she began looking for a new home before police charged her former landlord, but hit one dead end after another. Overwhelmed by the crisis, Plummer said she lost her job as a Kmart supervisor.

She stayed with friends and family and was forced to place her daughters in different homes because of a lack of room. Two weeks ago, Michele and Steven Daunis of Manchester opened their home to the entire family for up to a year, a limit imposed by their landlord. Their decision alleviated Plummer's constant worry about where she and her children would sleep.

"You can't see a family separated like that," said Michele Daunis, Plummer's longtime friend. "My husband and I can't just sit back and allow that to happen."

On Monday, Blumenthal and Guglielmo whom Plummer had written to in June pledged to help, calling DSS on her behalf. A caseworker said she was doing her best.

"It's just absurd to me that nobody could have helped," she said, although she acknowledged that some people tried valiantly to find resources for her.

Now, she's focused on helping her daughters overcome the trauma of being homeless. Her 6-year-old, who had been sleeping at a different house, told a friend that her mother had gotten sick of her. Plummer's 4-year-old couldn't understand why her sisters weren't under the same roof. Her oldest, who is 12, became a mother by proxy and now resists rules.

Now, with the help of some political heavyweights, Plummer said she hopes to have her own apartment soon.

"I'm trying to remain hopeful, but it's hard because I've had so much rejection that it's hard for me to get my hopes up about anything."

"But I'm trying," 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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