Housing agencies assist in crisis

Sarah Caldwell could not stop returning to one point: she has never seen a low-income housing crisis of this magnitude before.

Caldwell, the executive director of New Haven’s Liberty Community Services Inc., said housing inquiries for the past year have been pouring in at unprecedented levels. For the fiscal year ending last June, Liberty’s Department of Outreach reported 5,400 requests for housing information. That is more than double the usual number, Caldwell said.

And Liberty is just one of many groups in the city offering help to those looking for affordable housing.

“As a provider, I have never been more frustrated. We literally have people dying on our list,” Caldwell said, referring to the many AIDS patients waiting for housing. “That’s so horrible as a provider to say that.”

In the past eight years, supportive housing units have emerged as an effective response to begin addressing the housing problem. For the poor, these units are an alternative to shelters and dilapidated public housing projects. From the outside, they look no different from other apartment buildings or houses.

“For the tenants there’s really no stigma,” said Janice Elliot, the program director of the Corporation for Supportive Housing in Connecticut. “No one goes by and says, ‘Oh that’s the building.'”

Supportive housing units — distinguished by the social support services and subsidized rent they offer tenants — have been so successful in Connecticut that the state is pouring in additional millions to fund more such projects. And to use that money, various community groups and state agencies under the guidance of the Corporation for Supportive Housing are now assembling plans to create more affordable housing units.

In May of 2000, Gov. John G. Rowland marked $2.1 million in funding for the Connecticut Supportive Housing Pilots initiative, which creates affordable housing units with support services for people with serious mental illnesses or substance abuse problems. Five state agencies will cooperate to complete construction and provide social services support, and the initiative will have two phases.

The first phase, now complete, established 200 units across the state in already existing sites — including 25 in New Haven — all with subsidized rent and support services. The second phase, which is set to begin, will see the construction of new sites that will create 50 to 60 units statewide.

The Cedar Hill Apartment complex on State Street is a model for supportive housing. Columbus House provides support services, and the low-income apartments have a mix of tenants. Some are typical low-income individuals who can only afford lower rents while others are battling both substance abuse and a serious mental illness. Cedar Hill seeks to offer these individuals stability.

Brett Hill, the executive director of Home Inc., said there are two philosophies on how to help the poor find permanent housing. One is to focus on providing rent subsidies that can be used at any location, so that low-income people are not concentrated in certain areas but instead integrated into communities. Section Eight vouchers, which approved individuals can use to pay any landlord, are one such example.

The other philosophy is to build sites aimed at low-income individuals that provide services and create a sense of community for them. The Corporation for Supportive Housing falls under the latter category.

The sites for new supported housing units have not yet been selected, but the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority will review plans for them by July 1.

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