MORRISON: Buildings, buses and budgets for New Haven

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Photo by Madeleine Witt.

Since Mayor John DeStefano Jr. announced his retirement, the narrative has been the same, be it in the News, the New Haven Register or the New Haven Independent. The city is better off than it was 20 years ago, thanks in large part to the mayor, notwithstanding incidents of corruption and mismanagement. And the universal hope expressed by all has been to build upon DeStefano’s successes — the improved relationship between town and gown, education reform and an eventual return to community policing — and to do away with the cronyism that undermined an otherwise progressive, forward-leaning two decades.

Now is the time for all of us to articulate specifically how we can continue to see improvements in the Elm City. Regardless of who our next mayor is, he should stand strongly against bad landlords, improve our transportation network and reset our budget priorities.

As Neena Satija ’11 documented well in a series for the Independent, New Haven suffers from an epidemic of malignant landlords who strategically foreclose and degrade properties for their own financial gain. The actions of these landlords make buildings unhealthy or even unsafe, and depress property values in poor neighborhoods. This blight, in turn, puts incredible tax pressure on middle-class neighborhoods, as they face higher taxes to compensate for the lost value elsewhere. The city ought to take more aggressive steps than it has previously to keep these landlords from abusing the system and deteriorating our city’s housing. Prison sentences, instead of small fines, for bad landlords have been implemented elsewhere and have strongly deterred this malicious behavior.

Though the local bus system in New Haven is administered by the state, the new mayor should advocate strongly for a regional bus network that gets workers to jobs more efficiently. Today, many of the transit-dependent residents of New Haven work in suburban mall centers, but our transit system focuses on getting people from neighborhoods to the Green and offers limited service outside of the city limits. A quality transit system would fix that disconnect, in part through better feeder service off of Metro-North stations. Southern Connecticut has one of the greatest rail lines in the county, yet without better bus connections at stations, many people are unable to use it.

With little question, the city faces significant budget woes in the future. An increasing percent of the city budget is spent on pensions and debt service, crowding out funding for teachers, community centers and other amenities that residents want and need. Much of the debt is due to the city’s school rebuilding program, which gave the district new, beautiful buildings and made New Haven the largest district in the state. Despite the costs, the city continues to support the construction of more schools — the Board of Aldermen approved two last year. Such investments are increasingly unsustainable, especially when many of the new schools have underutilized facilities, some libraries go unstaffed and Board of Education employees are laid off to cut costs. We need more money for programs, not buildings, both for the health of our city and the health of its pocketbook. The new mayor should end new school construction and articulate a plan for lowering debt and using the savings over the long term for more impactful city services.

By tackling the issue of slumlords, the new mayor would ensure higher-quality housing for poorer residents, while making it easier for middle-class homeowners to afford life in the Elm City. A better transportation network would ease our unemployment crisis, as workers would have more reliable, convenient connections to suburban job centers. And a moratorium on expensive capital projects that have drained our budget would keep us from diverting precious resources away from helping students. These three issues were neglected in the DeStefano administration. If the new mayor takes them on, we can be confident that we will see continued progress in this city.

Drew Morrison is a junior in Branford College. Contact him at drew.morrison@yale.edu .

This column is part of the News’ Friday Forum. Click to continue.

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