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Thriving On New Models For City Housing

Dan Haar

May 27, 2010

As Tamarra Carson stands in the doorway of The Kitchen, a bakery with an attached café at the Billings Forge complex in Hartford's Frog Hollow neighborhood, her co-worker hauls a load of watermelon rinds out to the compost heap.

Carson will finish work in the café's kitchen soon, and her three children will arrive from school. Her gaze finds the family's third-floor, three-bedroom corner apartment just across the courtyard.

She has high ceilings and a view of the state Capitol. "It's kind of like a New York City apartment," said Carson, 32, who grew up in Windsor.

More important, she added, "You know how you live in an apartment building and people will bother you? It's better here."

Carson is lucky that her search for an apartment with a Section 8 voucher brought her two years ago to Billings Forge, a self-contained complex with 98 apartments, artists' studios, a community center, an upscale restaurant, community gardens and The Kitchen, where she works. She was unemployed two years ago, so let's change that to extremely lucky.

It's downright idyllic, and the key to it — one key — is a model of philanthropy that could emerge as a force in the search for workable housing answers.

Billings Forge, a mixed-income development, was already an apartment complex when The Melville Charitable Trust bought it five years ago for $5.5 million. Melville poured in another $5 million or so, and works with a nonprofit agency, Billings Forge Community Works, to operate the place, more or less breaking even on yearly costs. A mile or so away, in downtown, The Hollander at 410 Asylum St. stands as another monument to philanthropic housing development. The long-vacant building had little value and its owners, the Hollander family, decided to make a lasting gesture after it became clear they couldn't tear it down for yet another parking lot.

Common Ground, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to ending homelessness and building communities, spent $22 million on the rehab, and residents moved in last fall. Now The Hollander's 70 units are full, some at market rates and some restricted to residents making between $23,690 and $45,960 a year, typically with a subsidy.

This type of development, inspired by philanthropic owners and built in the tradition of nonprofit, community-oriented housing, was among the bright ideas in urban revitalization highlighted Wednesday at a discussion organized by the Partnership for Strong Communities. The forum — part of a series at the Lyceum, also owned by Melville in Frog Hollow — looked at the great potential of city neighborhoods.

"We're not any longer talking about dumping public money into cities just to increase the concentration of poor people living in them. We're talking about attracting a mix of incomes to cities by focusing on neighborhood growth and preservation," said Timothy Bannon, executive director of the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority.

The philanthropic, community-building model of development isn't going to spread wildly. But it's a catalyst for other investment and a stabilizing force, so the effect of just of a few of these projects is huge.

Will there be more? Economic conditions say yes. Building values remain low, and many are in disrepair. At the same time, said Katy Frankel, economic development coordinator at Common Ground, "There's an overwhelming wealth of housing stock in Hartford to be utilized . . . they're beautiful homes."

Bob Hohler, executive director of The Melville Charitable Trust, said a new generation of philanthropists is poised to push ahead with the sort of "program-related investment" that Melville is doing at Billings Forge. It could pay off big-time for the foundations if the properties multiply in value.

But Hohler added, "This is not your grandmother's Oldsmobile, where you invest in a program for three years and then you move on. This is an investment for generations."

That means decades of work for the organizers. For the neighborhood, it means a permanent economic anchor. For Tamarra Carson, it means a stable life for her boys, a teen and a tween, and her 8-year-old girl.

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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