The first official day of fall was a fitting date for Casa Otonal — a neighborhood community group whose name means “The Autumn House” in Spanish — to showcase a unique new housing facility.

Casa Otonal project leaders and city officials including Mayor John DeStefano Jr. held the ground-breaking ceremony Wednesday for Casa Familia, the first affordable housing project in Connecticut geared towards grandparents who raise and have full custody over their grandchildren.

“It’s partnership like this that builds strong communities,” State Representative Juan Candelaria (D-New Haven) said. “It’s developments like this that bring families together.”

Affordable housing contracts from the Department of Housing and Urban Development generally do not allow children to live in facilities specifically designated for elderly residents, said Linda Kantor, president of Casa Familia. But because the project was mainly funded by state and local resources — including the city of New Haven, Connecticut Housing Finance Authority and the Greater New Haven Community Loan Fund — the coordinators were able to circumvent this restriction.

The planned four-story residence, located just west of the Yale-New Haven Medical Center at 130 Sylvan Ave., will contain 30 two- and three-bedroom apartment units. The building will be handicap accessible, and there will be designated space in the basement for after-school programs or other community activities, said Liz Torres of Community Builders, Inc, the site developer.

“We’re going to be working very intensely with the residents,” she said.

In addition, the first floor will contain office space and a commercial space that will likely be used as a salon. Torres said the design for the facility was modeled after a similar grandparent-grandchild residential unit in Dorchester, Mass.

Along with Casa Familia, Casa Otonal also operates a community center, convenience store and elderly housing facility on the same street. Many of the elderly residents support Casa Familia because they care for grandchildren or have friends that do.

“It’s a good idea to do it as soon as possible,” Eulgia Melendez, a resident of the elderly housing facility, said. “It’s good for the grandparents to take care of grandchildren.”

Frank DeJesus, who also lives on Sylvan Avenue, said he knew a lot of grandparents who wanted to care for their grandchildren, and that 130 Sylvan is the perfect location for such a facility.

“It’s a quiet neighborhood. There are a whole lot of decent people around here,” DeJesus said.

Patricia McCann-Vissepo, the executive director of Casa Otonal Inc., said while Casa Otonal is dedicated primarily to the Hispanic community, the project is not meant to discriminate against non-Hispanics. Rather, its purpose is to reach out to a community that has been particularly hard hit by social factors that make it difficult for parents to raise children.

She said while previous buildings on the future lot of Casa Familia were “stereotypical of bad inner-city housing,” the seemingly safer mixed grandchild-grandparent project was not an easy one to coordinate.

“It’s a new concept, and it’s a relatively dense project,” she said. “Citizens were nervous about having too many people concentrated in that area. There was no established precedent.”

McCann-Vissepo and Kantor said current Casa Otonal initiatives, such as after school programs and summer day camps, are a clear testament to the strength of the community.

“Casa has been a refuge, an oasis, a beacon of light looking forward,” Kantor said.

The units should be completed by December 2005.

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