Hill school on hold pending lawsuit

Three months ago, they were on the verge of watching the city demolish their homes to make room for a long-awaited school. Now, with a pro bono lawyer, a group of 41 plaintiffs from the blighted upper Hill neighborhood has sued the city for allegedly violating the U.S. Constitution, accusing New Haven of targeting their neighborhood rather than others for school construction because of the area’s poverty.

The plaintiffs’ lawyer, John Williams, is charging that the city has violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment by pointing to similar efforts by the city to build schools as part of its massive school construction project in other neighborhoods of New Haven, including Westville, Fair Haven and East Rock. Williams said that in those cases, residents were allowed a far greater amount of input in the city’s decisions and treated more fairly than those in the upper Hill because they were more affluent. But the city contends that the project to build a new Prince/Welch Annex school has been needed for 20 years and that in order for new schools to be built in New Haven, homes somewhere must inevitably be razed.

A federal court judge ruled in July that in response to the city’s request to have more time to prepare its case, all demolition would be held off at least until a final hearing at the end of October.

“We consider that postponement a victory,” said Ruth Drews, a leader of the Save The Upper Hill Now group. “The judge recognizes there’s a lot of depth to this case.”

Williams said one indication that the city is discriminating against the poor is that the new Prince/Welch Annex school will house as many students as the old one but will take up nine times as much space.

“School construction is being used as a cover for an urban relocation program,” Williams said. “That’s nuts when that’s going to demolish affordable housing in a city that’s desperate for affordable housing.”

Williams is a local civil rights lawyer who was approached in April by Bonita Grubbs of the Christian Community Action group. This group is located in the upper Hill and is one of the plaintiffs in the case.

School construction consultant Susan Weisselberg said the city is continuing with the process of acquisition and relocation in the neighborhood. She added that the city now owns 90 percent of the site.

“We believe that the judge will rule in our favor and we will be able to build this school,” Weisselberg said.

Carlos Torre, the president of the New Haven Board of Education, said that while he understood the complaints of some residents that the city was offering them too little money for their homes, the school is needed in the upper Hill.

“The city has reached its limit in terms of land, but it has not reached its limit in terms of need,” Torre said.

Only emergency demolitions will be allowed under the judge’s injunction. For instance, if a house is on fire, the city may then consult with the plaintiffs and determine that it should be demolished.

Williams said that because of the city’s relocation efforts in the neighborhood, one plaintiff has become homeless and some others are now living with relatives.

“The motivation I think is pretty clear because there is no other rational explanation for this,” Williams said.

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