I hadn’t come to the New Haven mayoral debate expecting fireworks. Everyone knew incumbent Mayor Toni Harp was going to win re-election in a landslide. But the forum had a tense moment when her opponent Ron Smith, former city clerk and Newhallville alder, criticized the new wave of “luxury apartments … going up in the hood.” He cited Winchester Lofts in Newhallville as one example, whose units are unaffordable to many residents of the Elm City. “You know good and well,” he said, his voice rising, “we can’t afford $1,900 a month.” I thought, as many did, that Mayor Harp won the debate. But looking back a month later, Smith’s anger is the one moment from the debate that I remember because it cut through the political theater to expose an uncomfortable truth.
Right now, developers and employers are making exciting investments in New Haven. I sit on the Downtown Wooster Square Community Management Team, a neighborhood advocacy group for the area surrounding and including Yale. In just the past two months, three developers have visited us to discuss building new apartments in the area.
But while New Haven is a city on the rise, not all New Haveners are rising with it. Even as scores of new apartments open downtown, names on waiting lists for affordable housing number in the thousands. Now, after deplorable conditions were exposed at the Church Street South apartments in The Hill neighborhood, the complex’s uncertain future means 301 units of subsidized housing are in jeopardy. Because of the controversy, the issue of safe, affordable housing has been brought into sharp focus. In the short term, we must preserve the affordable units at Church Street South — but it’s also time for a broader conversation about housing in our city.
There is nothing inherently wrong with building luxury apartments in New Haven. More development means more property tax dollars for our cash-starved city, meaning more money for parks and after-school programs that benefit everyone. Modern, attractive housing options will incentivize businesses to relocate and remain here in New Haven, creating jobs in neighborhoods that need them badly.
But there’s a problem when luxury housing starts to replace affordable housing, when we prioritize penthouses for professionals but fail to provide enough affordable housing for working-class families in the Elm City. The lack of affordable housing doesn’t just hurt families stuck on waiting lists. Neglectful or downright criminal affordable housing landlords can exploit renters with no other options, forcing them to choose between living in disgusting, often unsafe conditions or living on the street.
The newest wave of development isn’t going to help New Haveners struggling to pay the rent. At The Novella, a new apartment complex at the corner of Chapel and Howe streets, rent for a studio apartment starts at $1,400 a month. There’s no evidence that the market rents at other luxury developments, like Metro 301 on Crown Street, will be much different.
Some developers have committed, as part of their agreement with the city, to include “affordable housing” in their apartment complexes. But instead of taking such promises at face value, we should dig deeper and ask for more. When most developers say “affordable housing,” they mean they will rent a proportion of their apartments at rents below market rate. This is a good strategy to help middle- and working-class families, but in a city where so many workers are un- or under-employed, these options are not nearly enough. One friend of mine on the Community Management Team characterized it this way: “They’re taking $1,500 studio apartments, renting them out to students at the med school for a thousand bucks a month, and calling it affordable housing.”
So what should we do about Church Street South, the sprawling complex near Union Station? Investigators recently found that it was so poorly maintained that its residents needed to be moved into hotels on the property manager’s dime. In light of the situation in the city, we can’t afford to lose the 301 units of affordable housing it provides, especially the rare affordable multi-bedroom units that can house large families.
The complex is owned by Northland Investment Corporation, which has neither shown interest in respecting the basic human dignity of its tenants, nor in preserving all the affordable housing units in its plans for redevelopment. It should sell the complex to someone who will do both, such as the nonprofit group Preservation of Affordable Housing, which has offered to buy the complex and expressed interest in redeveloping it as a mixed-income community and preserving all affordable units.
The preservation of these units is an important step, but it is not the full solution to housing in the city. We need to build — and in this case, rebuild — a New Haven that all New Haveners can afford.
Fish Stark is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .