Mayor takes on poverty gap

To eradicate poverty in New Haven, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said, the city must overcome a legacy of poor urban planning.

Speaking at the Yale Law School yesterday, the mayor drew a link between much of New Haven’s socioeconomic disparity and the high numbers of new immigrants, released felons and generational poverty. In front of an audience of over 100 law students, local residents and professors, the mayor blamed the city’s socioeconomic disparities on development and housing patterns.

DeStefano explained that the city’s disproportionately high volume of subsidized and rental housing helps attract lower-income residents. A surplus of multi-family rental housing, most of which were built prior to World War II, has meant that a third of residential buildings in New Haven — 16 percent of affordable housing in Connecticut — are Section 8 or project-based housing, he said. “If you are poor, New Haven is a great place to live,” DeStefano said.

This trend, together with the city’s limited tax base — a product of early colonial settlement patterns, the mayor said — have helped exacerbate pressure on the city’s limited resources, DeStefano said. He added that residents of neighboring suburbs who are able to free-ride on city services and infrastructure present an additional obstacle to poverty-reduction initiatives.

“Those able to afford single-family homes have moved to newer communities, leaving New Haven with the second-highest percentage of rental housing in the state,” he said.

The mayor also pointed out that the city’s tendency to attract certain groups, such as immigrants and ex-felons, has generated a slew of new challenges for local officials. Teenage pregnancy rates are rising among the burgeoning Latino population, and 80 percent of shooting victims are former felons, he said. At any time, DeStefano estimated, there are over 5,000 individuals in New Haven who are on either parole, probation or some form of early release.

Though the mayor mentioned a number of measures the city has taken to breach the poverty gap — including current reforms in public schools and an initiative to find construction jobs for unskilled local workers — he nonetheless stated that real poverty eradication requires organic change.

DeStefano said prioritizing education reform is key in reducing the city’s endemic generational poverty. Among the initiatives to be introduced include a “Promise Plan” providing college funding for graduating high school seniors of the class of 2011, efforts to recruit specialist teachers and better principals, and a task force to monitor school performance starting next September.

But for Paul Bass ’82, editor of the New Haven Independent and a lecturer in the Department of Political Science, the education reforms have been slow in the making: “DeStefano has taken a long while to realize that revitalizing the public school system is not simply about constructing new schools,” he said in an interview later in the day.

Bass added that greater transparency in local government is also needed to bolster independence and confidence among the leaders of New Haven’s poorer communities.

But judging by the nods in the lecture room during his talk, much of the audience appeared to agree with the mayor’s sentiments.

Andrew Giering LAW ’11, a local resident, noted that given the number of private and religious schools in the city, public schools will have trouble recruiting students with a high academic level.

Jay Pottenger Jr., the Nathan Baker clinical professor of law, said he “completely agreed” with what the mayor had to say.

“It is undeniably true that New Haven’s history means that certain poverty reduction mechanisms are not readily amenable,” Pottenger said. “But I am an optimist. There is hope.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Andrew Giering’s LAW ’11 year of graduation and misquoted his opinions on New Haven public schools.

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