Kiana Marie Hernandez ’18 and her mother spent close to a year searching the Elm City for an apartment they could call home.
It was not the decor or the locations that hindered the process. Rather, they found the majority of New Haven’s apartments too expensive for their family.
For each apartment they tried, they found the unit’s price too high for the family’s budget or the living conditions unsuitable for Hernandez’s 10-year-old younger sister.
Hernandez and her family are not alone in this challenge. Many low- and middle-income residents in the Elm City are forced to enter a city housing market riddled with low vacancy rates and rising prices. New Haven boasted the lowest vacancy rate, 2.1 percent, in the entire country, according to a 2014 report from New York real estate research firm Reis. Additionally, in the upcoming year, 2,000 apartment units will go online at rates of over $2,000 per month, said Morris Cove Alderman Salvatore DeCola.
Recently, over 200 families living in the deteriorated Church Street South housing complex were told that they must leave their homes in a year due to unsafe living conditions such as mold infestations and structural deficiencies. Though the residents were given financial support to seek alternative housing, disparities between the low rent they currently pay for Church Street South units and the higher cost of suitable apartments on the housing market have pushed the families to ask for increased funding from Northland Investment Corporation — the owner of Church Street South. The families and their legal representatives have since forced Northland Investment Corporation and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to reconsider their payment plants to the complex’s residents.
Edward Mattison LAW ’68, member of the mayor’s City Plan Committee, saw firsthand the impact of low vacancy rates while at a homeless shelter for families. The director of the shelter told him every single family in the shelter possessed Section 8 housing vouchers — money given to qualifying families by the federal government to subsidize affordable housing, Mattison said. But none of them had been able to find open housing at or below the maximum threshold for Section 8 housing, he added.
“It is said — and for all I know it is true — that the vacancy rates for low- and middle-income homes in New Haven are one of the lowest in the country,” Mattison said. “It doesn’t exactly feel like that. But it is certainly clear that we have a very low vacancy rate for low- and middle-income housing.”
The HUD defines a four person low-income family in New Haven as one with an income of $20,000 or less per year. The maximum price of Section 8 housing — which is partially subsidized by the federal government — in New Haven is around $1,200 to $1,300 per month for a two-bedroom apartment, Mattison said.
The accessibility of livable, affordable housing also proved a point of contention between candidates at Tuesday’s mayoral election. Mayoral hopeful Ron Howard attacked what he considered Toni Harp’s unsuitable response to Church Street South.
“We ought to be ashamed of ourselves,” Howard said. “All the lives that are over there. Those are families with their children.”
AN INCREASINGLY EXPENSIVE MARKET
Approximately 2,000 new apartments will become available within the next year, but their rates of over $2,000 per unit are well above the means of most of the Elm City’s renting households. Data from Partnership for Strong Communities, a Connecticut-based research forum, found the median annual income for renting households to be $27,452, and the median rent for the city is currently $1,090 per month. The research also found that average renters in New Haven spend around 48 percent of their income on housing.
Units at Church Street South are at or under the median rent reported by the Partnership for Strong Communities. The Church Street South apartments start at $838 for a one-bedroom and rise at least as high as $1,445 for a four-bedroom.
Supported by a mother earning less than $30,000 per year, Hernandez’s family has a budget that runs just above the median annual income for renting households in the city. Apartments that cost more than $1,500 were “crazy” expensive for her family, Hernandez said.
Just a few miles from Church Street South, several up-scale apartment complexes have opened within the last two years. The Winchester Lofts opened in Science Park in 2013 and units in College & Crown: A Centerpiece are now up for lease. The Novella, which runs its apartments from $1,400 for a studio to $3,200 for a two-bedroom, opened its doors earlier this year. DeCola said he has heard some developers also hope to turn the Niagara Bank Trust, located at the intersection of Elm and Church Streets, into an apartment complex.
BUILDINGS AND VACANCIES
Though the new buildings may help address the problem New Haven has with low vacancy rates, they only help a particular portion of the population. In September, Mayor Toni Harp celebrated the opening of Ashmun Flats in Science Park, developed by Juan Salas-Romer, whose rent ranges between $1,400 and $2,450 a month. In her address to the crowd, Harp applauded the lofts for helping address the city’s low vacancy rates.
Most of the people living downtown do not plan to stay permanently, DeCola said.
“Downtown is becoming more of a transit type of living than a permanent type of living,” DeCola said. “Most of the people come down here for schools and jobs. They’re not going to have a vehicle so they’re going to live downtown.”
Redha Qabazard SPH ’17, who lives in the Novella building at the corner of Chapel and Howe Streets, said he has noticed his building is especially popular among Yale graduate students and young professionals. Few, if any, families live in the building, he added.
DeCola said he applauds downtown’s transformation from abandoned buildings to a vibrant center of commerce, adding that he hopes the amenities downtown will become accessible to all families in New Haven.
Though Hernandez attended Career High School, which is less than a mile from the New Haven Green, almost none of her classmates could afford to live downtown, she said.
NEW HAVEN VISION 2025
The challenges facing Elm City families seeking affordable housing do not go unnoticed by City Hall. The Board of Alders regularly discusses and supports affordable housing initiatives in the city, DeCola said. The city’s proposed comprehensive plan for urban development, “New Haven Vision 2025,” would also give the Board of Alders and the Mayor’s Office a set of goals to streamline their efforts to relieve housing challenges that face New Haven families like Hernandez’s. According to the current draft of the plan, the city would seek to increase New Haven’s homeownership growth rate by three percent.
Assistant Director of Comprehensive Planning Susmitha Attota said the city has helped low- and middle-income families find affordable housing in the past by publicizing the housing programs the city already has. She added that a 2013 survey administered by the city found many residents were simply not aware of public housing programs.
Several other potential solutions would involve both City Hall and private developers. Attota said the city could explore the possibility of providing monetary incentives to developers to accommodate affordable housing. She added that housing officials could also look into taxing private developers and putting those tax revenues into a fund for affordable housing developments.
“[Housing directors] might conduct a study and think that one option is better than the other option,” Attota said. “There will be a range of options and the city staff will pick up those recommendations.”
The cooperation of private developers would improve the accessibility of affordable housing, but DeCola said the Board of Alders often finds receiving a commitment from private developers difficult.
Still, private developers could be a part of the solution — they spearhead many housing projects receiving public funding. Private developer Northland, for example, provided money to subsidize housing in Church Street South, though they did not maintain the complex to code standards.
Scarcity of government funding also prevents City Hall from building more affordable housing, Mattison said, adding that low- and middle-income housing is often built with a federal subsidy. But the federal government has substantially reduced the amount of such subsidies granted over the last few years, he said.
“In New Haven at least, it is not possible to build housing that a low-income person can afford unless there is some form of subsidy,” Mattison said. “All across the country these subsidies are drying up.”
Still, he noted that New Haven’s zoning plans provide hope that future affordable homes for low- and middle-income families will be built. He said he suspected very little of the city is zoned to accommodate only single-standing suburban homes that are generally not affordable for low-income housing.
Attota added that she believes the success of the policy city housing officials select will depend upon how well the city oversees its plans. The market analysis would initially determine the best options for the area, whether it be all affordable units or mixed-income, Attota said.
Still, though, the city would have more work to do, she said.
“This is our vision and what we want to be. Once we start reaching that we will get to roadblocks. If we don’t have an idea of where we want to be it will be more distressing,” Attota said.
Despite plans being brainstormed in the city, residents of Church Street South are still living with leaking ceilings and moldy water. In the 12 years that Hernandez has spent in Section 8 housing, her parents have often experienced difficulties getting lasting repairs. Hernandez’s family moved to three different apartments in The Fairways — an apartment complex located across the Quinnipiac River from Fair Haven — but experienced maintenance issues each time. Hernandez said her parents often asked the landlord to make a repair, only to see the same problem reemerge a few months later.
“I think it would be nice if … apartments that are specifically for low-income people were to be held to a certain standard,” Hernandez said. “Sometimes they let the apartment slowly slip, like the Church Street South apartments, so that they are uninhabitable.”
Correction: Friday, Oct. 16: A previous version of this article stated that the Niagara Bank building was located at the corner of Elm and College streets. It is actually located at the corner of Elm and Church streets.