The divide between New Haven’s wealthiest and poorest residents has continued to widen over the past decade, with a recent Bloomberg report ranking New Haven 39th in the country for the highest income inequality. But the inequality extends beyond income, to domains as far-reaching as education, housing and transportation. In the second of a three-part series on Elm City inequality, Stephanie Addenbrooke investigates how housing in the Elm City divides the haves and have-nots.
Read the first installment of the series, on inequality inside and outside the classroom, here.
Walking into Church Street South, visitors are welcomed by a simple, geometric mural: a smiling sun with people smiling beneath it. Once a bright entry into a thriving housing complex, the mural is now faded, much like the complex seated behind it.
Tenants of Church Street South, located across from the historic Union Station, were displaced and placed in temporary housing in early September after the leaders of the city’s Living Community Initiative and building enforcement office evaluated the conditions of people living there. The evaluations were enforced after tenants opened a lawsuit about the unlivable conditions against the landlords, Northland Investment Corporation, through New Haven Legal Assistance.
Mayor Toni Harp told the News that the city has been working in collaboration with the landlords and the Housing Authority to move families to safer housing, but the next steps still remain unclear. The complex as a whole, which houses close to 300 families, will either be remediated or torn down, Harp said.
“One of our basic needs is a home, and no one can live in a place that is environmentally hazardous,” Harp said.
But living in a hazardous environment was the reality for many of the Church Street South tenants and others across the city. Natalie Gonzalez, who was recently displaced from her home in Church Street South, told the News after her first displacement in early September that her home had mold growing in it, with the smell becoming so strong that it made her physically sick.
Along with her neighbors who have also been displaced, she has been left frustrated.
“I’ve been complaining since 2008, but they didn’t want to fix my apartment. There was no response at all. No response. They didn’t even send anybody,” Gonzalez said.
THE CITY’S HOUSING LANDSCAPE
A new apartment building is now open on the corner of College and Crown Streets. Right in the center of downtown and minutes from City Hall stands a brand-new five-story complex, a project that was estimated to cost $50 million.
“The upscale complex by Centerplan Development Company will offer residents the unique combination of premium amenities and convenient location which will attract buyers that are not only looking for a home, but a lifestyle,” the developers wrote on the apartment block’s Facebook page on March 10.
The lifestyle, however, is not accessible to the entire New Haven community, reflecting economic divides in the Elm City.
A report from the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. released in January this year highlighted that the state of Connecticut has the largest income gap between the top 1 percent and the other 99 percent. The state is home to towns of phenomenal wealth, such as Greenwich, and cities plagued by poverty, such as Bridgeport.
When translated into dollar amounts, the top 1 percent earns an average income of $2,683,600, while the average income of everyone else is $53,603. And, in regard to income growth, in Connecticut the top 1 percent of earners saw an average of 35 percent growth from 2009 to 2012, whereas the other 99 percent received a negative 5.4 percent growth in the same years.
The numbers, when focused specifically on New Haven, are so striking that Bloomberg ranked the Elm City 39th in the country for the highest income inequality. New Haven was also 49th on a list of the cities with the highest rates of poverty in the country.
Numbers like these can cause sites like College and Crown to receive significant backlash from the rest of the community. A resident of Church Street South, who wished to remain anonymous to protect his identity when applying for city jobs, said it is disheartening, and sometimes offensive, to see a lot of projects arise for the sake of Yale students, graduates and professors when people for whom New Haven is their home are “thrown to the side a little.”
“Most of us can’t afford even the cheapest apartments in these buildings,” he said.
Data from Partnership for Strong Communities — a Connecticut-based research forum working on addressing issues of homelessness in the state — would suggest that he is correct. The median annual income for renting households is $27,452, with the median gross rent in the city being $1,090 per month. For the average renter in New Haven, 48 percent of their income is spent on rent.
At the College and Crown apartments, the cheapest apartment — listed as a “Junior 1 Bedroom” — has a monthly rent of $1,620. The most expensive apartments — “Loft” apartments on the top floor— have a monthly rent of $5,000. For the median renter to live in these apartments, they would have to spend 71 percent of their pre-tax income on rent each month.
Centerplan Development Company, the group overseeing the project, did not return a request for comment.
The Partnership for Strong Communities group identifies any living situation which costs above 30 percent of a household’s income as “cost-burdensome.” In New Haven, according to the group’s 2015 data, 59 percent of renters are in this category, as are 42 percent of people who own their homes. Furthermore, 21 percent of all households in the city fall under a category defined by local nonprofit organization DataHaven as “severely cost-burdened,” meaning that over half of a household’s income is spent on their rent.
For people living downtown, where the rents are higher, these numbers increase, leading to a concentration of homelessness in the city’s core.
SPOTLIGHT ON DOWNTOWN
The sharp housing inequality in the city most prominently manifests itself in the downtown area within a one-mile radius of City Hall, said Ward 18 Alder Salvatore DeCola, who represents the East Shore area. Many developers interviewed said they are attracted to the prospect of profiting on the expansion of the University and the biotech companies which are funneling new jobs and more high-income earners into the area.
“There’s not much affordable housing downtown,” DeCola said. “In the next three or four years, 3,500 new apartments will be available, but most of them are high-end. So, there is a problem.”
Last Wednesday, that list of new apartments grew even longer as the City Plan Commission approved another apartment development, to be built no more than 50 feet away from the College and Crown apartments. Metro Properties wants to develop a series of studio apartments above the BAR restaurant, which would be targeted toward Yale graduate students.
While the apartments may be a new development, that section of town has featured vacant buildings, which, in the past, have served as a popular place of refuge and shelter for the city’s homeless population. This information was brought to light by New Haven Police Department spokesman David Hartman when the department discovered the torso of Ray Roberson, whose body parts were discovered in three locations — including this area — across the city this past July.
Ward 7 Alder Abigail Roth ’90 LAW ’94 — who represents portions of Wooster Square, the Medical District and the Hill and Dwight neighborhoods — presented a more optimistic vision. Roth said she is confident that the new developments will increase the density of people using the area, which can simultaneously help address some previous safety concerns. Furthermore, she also said, because the developments will not displace anyone currently living in the area, the situation is “better than nothing.”
And, in “New Haven Vision 2025” — a 10-year development program for the city which was recently approved by the City Plan Commission and is now awaiting approval from the Board of Alders — the plan is to increase the number of these housing complexes downtown. The complex that the program uses as a prime example of positive housing development in the city is 360 State St., the first high-rise apartment building in the city.
THE YALE CONNECTION
While the focus has been on Church Street South as of late, the conversation turned to Yale this week when the New Haven Independent reported that families originally displaced from the housing complex would be displaced yet again. This time, they would be moved from hotel rooms at the Premiere Hotel and Suites at Long Wharf so that Yale parents who had booked the rooms for the upcoming Family Weekend could take the rooms.
Kiana Hernandez ’18 posted a link to the article in the popular Facebook group “Overheard at Yale,” commenting that students should be mindful of the impact Yale can have on the day-to-day lives of those living in the city. She told the News that she feels many students are unaware of this impact, which can have both positive and negative effects.
“I feel like from the viewpoint of the student, it’s great because then Yale can create new spaces for new programs and centers and stuff,” Hernandez, who grew up in the New Haven area, said. “But from the perspective of a New Haven resident, there’s this sense of ‘Yale is buying everything.’”
But not all of her classmates agreed with her comments on the article, with others arguing that Yale can serve as a major economic driver for the city — an anchor institution that generates jobs, particularly in the health and tech sectors. In fact, the University and Yale-New Haven Hospital are currently the city’s two largest employers, providing jobs for 40 percent of the city.
Roth said, particularly in her ward, making space for people in a higher income bracket can be positive as those with higher incomes would pay higher taxes and put more money into the local economy.
Ward 22 Alder Jeanette Morrison, whose constituency includes residents from both parts of Dixwell and parts of the Yale campus, said irrespective of whether or not Yale is a positive force, it brings about diversity of income and therefore a diversity of demands and needs in regard to housing.
“That’s why I think this neighborhood is so diverse in people because of the availability of housing and where the setting is. In this area you have a lot of people that are affiliated with Yale because they’re a student or they work there,” Morrison said. “As far as cost, the cost ranges from people who have very little money to people who have a lot of money.”
These differences can be difficult to address, and no simple solution has made itself evident. DeCola described the issue as “a very complicated puzzle.”
There has been progress, however. Ruth Hanna ’17, one of the directors of Yale’s Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, said this August, Connecticut became the first state to end chronic homelessness among veterans, adding that the total number of people experiencing homelessness in New Haven has dropped 9 percent — from 660 to 567 individuals — since 2011, according to a report released by the social advocacy group Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.
“Any number of people experiencing homelessness is disturbing, but recent events provide reason for hope,” she said.
But, while homelessness numbers have dropped, alders interviewed emphasized that the inequality seen in New Haven’s housing market is a clear demonstration that the income divide remains a critical challenge facing city policymakers — a challenge that requires not only more affordable housing options, but a comprehensive review of all barriers to better employment opportunities.
Sarah Bruley contributed reporting.
Correction, Sept. 25: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the project at College and Crown streets would open for occupancy in December. In fact, it is open now.