The economic downturn of the early 1990’s hit Hartford hard. G. Fox closed. Gang violence increased. The number of blighted and abandoned properties rose dramatically.
One of the few bright spots was a row of seven, well-maintained “Perfect Six” apartment houses just east of Pope Park on Park Terrace. When the development first opened in 1991, it meant the start of a new type of housing in Hartford: mutual housing.
Since then, the Mutual Housing Association of Greater Hartford (MHAGH) has opened seven more housing developments in Hartford and its suburbs. Two more are currently being built. And the organization’s original Park Terrace development is still well-maintained and still going strong. In fact, some of the development’s original tenants are still living there 18 years later.
The concept of mutual housing was first developed in Germany. In its basic form, a mutual housing development is owned by an association formed by the tenants. The tenants also help to maintain and manage the development.
Catherine MacKinnon, who has served as Executive Director of MHAGH since 1992, said the original concept of mutual housing has been modified to suit Hartford’s character and it has also evolved over the years in the face of changing laws and financial condition.
The mutual housing concept was originally brought to the U.S. by NeighborWorks, a national network of more than 230 community-based organizations. MacKinnon said the group has been a strong advocate for homeownership but saw mutual housing as a way to bridge the gap between renting and actually owning a home.
Ironically, while MHAGH first made a name for itself in Hartford by renovating and restoring many of the apartment buildings that had been abandoned during the economic downturn of the early 1990’s, it was first introduced into the city in response to the boom-times of the 1980’s. In the ‘80’s, rising property values prompted numerous Hartford apartment houses to convert their residential units into condominiums. As a result, many tenants were displaced. MacKinnon said mutual housing was seen as a way to “maintain affordable housing units permanently, so that no one would be displaced.”
The success of the original Park Terrace development encouraged MHAGH to expand. Grove Street (21 units) was opened in a former Catholic School in Windsor Locks. Willow Arms (81 units) was built in Tariffville in the late 1990’s. In Hartford, MHAGH developments include Dart Gardens (54 units) on Brookfield Street, Webster Street (30 units) and Plaza Terrace (14 units) on Martin Street.
MHAGH has also expanded dramatically into the area adjacent to its original Park Terrace development. In 2004, Park Terrace II (62 units) was completed. This development consists of one, two, three and four bedroom apartments in several renovated buildings along the southern edge of Pope Park.
In 2007, MHAGH completed Zion Street (24 units), a new development just east of the original Park Terrace development. Zion Street combines the architectural style of Hartford's storied "Perfect Six" houses with the efficient "Row House" design first found in Philadelphia and now common in many U.S. cities. The design for Zion Street earned MHAGH a Historic Preservation award from the Hartford Preservation Alliance in 2007.
In addition to housing, MHAGH runs several programs designed to assist city residents.
The Ready To Rent program helps residents clear up their credit history and any other problems that would hinder them from acquiring quality housing.
MacKinnon said this program grew out of MHAGH’s Park Terrace II project. “We had about 1,000 applicants for 68 units. But out of those 1,000, about 800 had serious credit issues. We could’ve filled the units just with the people who had clear credit records, but it didn’t seem fair. A lot of these folks [with credit history problems] were paying higher rents than what we were charging. To turn them down and leave them in a higher rent apartment would probably make their credit history situation worse,” said MacKinnon. So MHAGH began working with prospective tenants to rectify their credit problems. This assistance eventually became the Ready To Rent program, which helps people to repair credit, create workable budgets, develop housing search plans and more.
MHAGH is also planning to start a Leadership Academy, which would be available to both MHAGH residents and members of the community at large.