When Erik Johnson boarded a plane for southern California on Tuesday, he was leaving behind more than his job as executive director of the Livable City Initiative, New Haven’s housing code enforcement agency and neighborhood development department. He was leaving home.
Johnson grew up in the Newhallville neighborhood before embarking on a career in city planning that took him to Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C, and ultimately back home to New Haven to head the LCI in 2010. He announced in late October that he would be taking a job with a non-profit development organization just outside of Los Angeles, and his last day at City Hall was Monday. In an interview that afternoon, he said working in his hometown came with an added sense of responsibility.
“On some level, the job felt more important because you have an obligation to make where you’re from better,” Johnson said.
Mayor Toni Harp is now in the process of reviewing candidates to replace Johnson as leader of a city department with a sprawling mandate of enforcing housing codes, reducing blight, supporting home-ownership and improving quality of life in New Haven neighborhoods.
Johnson’s resignation came in spite of the mayor and economic development chief Matthew Nemerson, who oversees the LCI, negotiating with him over the summer to keep him in town. In May, he told Harp that he was taking a higher-paying job as the deputy development director for the city of Hartford. After Harp increased his salary from about $98,000 to $120,000 and promised to overhaul the LCI by refocusing it on neighborhood development, Johnson agreed to stay.
But after he was offered a job in California, he told Harp he was leaving.
“I got an unexpected and really great opportunity to work with a really talented group of people,” Johnson said. “I hope my story, if I have a story, shows other people form New Haven and black men in particular that you can come home and you can leave home to do other things. If the opportunity presents itself to come back again, I would, hopefully as a better leader and professional to serve this community.”
New Haven City Hall spokesman Laurence Grotheer said Harp had accepted his resignation this October “with regret.”
As he settles into his new job across the country, the city is still in the process of determining the future of the LCI. Nemerson said he does not foresee major changes to the role of executive director or to the day-to-day work of the department, even though he and Harp told Johnson over the summer they would rename it the Office of Housing and Neighborhood Development.
The LCI was formed by former Mayor John DeStefano Jr. in the mid-1990s, taking on the code-enforcement and development duties of the existing Office of Housing and Neighborhood Development, but also acquiring a new mission: combating blight in the city.
By the end of the 20th century, New Haven was suffering from depopulation and vacant homes, said Jim Paley, executive director of the non-profit organization Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven. Believing an empty lot to be healthier for a neighborhood than a deteriorating, empty home, the LCI has torn down hundreds of previously vacant buildings.
When Johnson claimed the position of executive director in 2010, however, New Haven was on the upswing: After decades of migration to New Haven’s surrounding suburbs, the city’s population stabilized in the mid-2000s and, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, increased by about 6 percent between 2000 and 2010. Because blight has been less of a problem in New Haven, Johnson prioritized helping to create a cohesive New Haven identity and inspire neighborhood pride.
“This is a much better place than we give it credit for,” Johnson said.
Nemerson said the city is looking for a candidate who can manage a team well and allocate resources efficiently. Grotheer said Harp has received applications from both city and non-city employees. Once Harp chooses Johnson’s successor, the three will work together to plan any major changes to the LCI. Grotheer said the mayor hopes to choose a successor “sooner rather than later.”
Alder Anna Festa, who represents Ward 10, which includes the affluent East Rock neighborhood, said she thinks LCI needs to take a more neighborhood-specific approach to blight. East Rock lacks the abandoned homes that dot some of the city’s neighborhoods, but residents are not always satisfied with the appearance of properties, and feel they don’t have many options to get help from the city.
Festa said she had never felt certain that the Office of Housing and Neighborhood Development needed to be reorganized into the LCI back in the 1990s.
“They switched it for a reason,” Festa said. “I’m still trying to figure out what that reason is.
Ward 4 Alder Andrea Jackson-Brooks, whose district includes the Hill, said her constituents have found the LCI to be attentive and effective at resolving housing issues in the neighborhood. To Jackson-Brooks, the creation of the LCI signaled a new focus on neighborhood issues. She thinks the next executive director should continue the department’s current work.
In 2012, the LCI renovated several homes in the Hill and sold them to working-class families. The neighborhood also played host to the “Hill-to-Downtown project,” a multi-faceted effort to connect the Hill neighborhood to the Yale School of Medicine and Union Station. The Hill was separated from downtown in the 1950s by the construction of Highway Route 34.
Nemerson said the breadth of the LCI’s tasks gives its executive director a degree of flexibility in choosing priorities and projects.
“Everybody in one of these director positions brings his or her own skills,” Nemerson said. “Erik had a passion for planning. Planning isn’t really part of LCI, but it doesn’t make sense not to let Erik try his hand at doing some planning things.”
Projects Johnson listed as highlights of his tenure include updating the department’s technology, rehabilitating several homes in the Hill and, earlier this year, launching a program called Re: New Haven that incentivizes people who do not currently live in the city to buy homes in the Elm City. First-time homebuyers with incomes below 120 percent of the median family income in New Haven can receive a $10,000 loan that will be completely forgiven if they live in the home for five years. Including funding for energy-saving renovations and in-state college tuition paid by New Haven Promise, Re: New Haven pledges up to $80,000 in benefits to participants.
Paley said he had found Johnson to be a strong leader with an understanding of the city’s diverse neighborhoods and their challenges. Going forward, Paley hopes the LCI will have a stronger focus on aggressively attacking blight. Neighborhood Housing Services sometimes acquires foreclosed-on homes from the city; it then renovates them and sells them at affordable prices. That task, Paley said, is more difficult when a home is surrounded by blighted properties owned by absentee landlords. He would like to see the city take such owners to court more often.
“The city doesn’t really want to do this. It’s confrontational; it probably takes them time and paying attorneys, all that stuff,” Paley said. “But it’s really important because those buildings have a serious negative impact on the work that we’re doing.”
He considers the city to be at a crossroads — dramatic racial and socioeconomic divisions between neighborhoods persist, but change looks possible. Paley said he thinks the LCI is largely serving its purpose and need not change dramatically from the course Johnson set over the last four years.
One organizational change Paley would not mind seeing is a new name. He remembers when the department was renamed from the Office of Housing and Neighborhood Development, triggering confusion about its purpose.
“Who names a housing department an initiative? An initiative is different from a department,” Paley said. “I won’t shed any tears if the LCI ceases to exist as long as it’s replaced by an organization that takes all the strengths that the current LCI has and then says, ‘How can we make this better?’”