Jiahui Hu

After hearing an announcement last week from Northland Investment Corporation and public officials, several Church Street South residents looked to the sky in gratitude.

City officials, representatives from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and Northland — the private developer that has owned the condemned complex since 2008 — told residents last Tuesday that they would all be receiving portable vouchers, federal money to offset the cost of rent at any new home the residents can find. Northland and public officials originally planned to screen and find homes for each displaced family. But the announcement means that Church Street South tenants will select their own housing. Units at Church Street South have suffered from structural damage and unlivable conditions, including moldy water and chronic leakages, for at least a decade. After several residents filed litigation last summer, Northland moved 58 families into temporary hotel housing.

The city and Northland also committed last week to finding or creating 301 new federally subsidized apartment units in New Haven. The 301 units will replace the 301 units that previously housed residents at Church Street South. After Northland and the city find the new units, former Church Street South tenants will be given first pick in leasing them. Officials have not yet released a timeline for the availability of new housing units and vouchers.

“We received permission from HUD headquarters in Washington to expedite the next step of the process by providing portable vouchers,” Rhonda Siciliano, HUD deputy regional administrator, said. “We have also already begun the process of reaching out to landlords and housing organizations in Connecticut to see if they would be interested in accepting the budget authority that Northland is currently receiving so that we can transfer the subsidy to them to preserve the affordable housing.”

PORTABLE VOUCHERS FOR A PRESSING PROBLEM

Northland and public officials announced this fall that all 58 families in hotels would be moved into apartments by Thanksgiving. But two days before Thanksgiving, only 10 families had been relocated.

Northland and public officials instead announced they would expedite the process of moving families out of Church Street South by granting portable vouchers to all families still at the complex. Northland and the city have not yet announced when the vouchers will be released.

The original plan to move families into apartments had proved to be a more lengthy and slow process than HUD, Northland and the city expected, Siciliano said. She noted that the housing market in New Haven offers few vacancies, especially for the family-sized units many residents need. Siciliano added that scheduling convenient apartment visits for the families also lengthened the moving process.

The process of finding new homes also lagged because Northland negotiated monthly rather than yearly contracts with landlords, said Amy Marx LAW ’00, attorney at the New Haven Legal Assistance Association. Marx said the model Northland used to move families was originally designed for emergencies such as Hurricane Sandy or Hurricane Katrina. In these situations, families plan to move back to their original homes in the near future, necessitating monthly contracts.

Many New Haven landlords — who are unfamiliar with monthly leases because standard leases are yearlong — hesitated to rent to Church Street South families, Marx said. She added that she and her team worked to convince landlords to enter the temporary leases with Church Street South residents.

“Eventually there was a realization by HUD, Northland and the city that this process is not very efficient or fast enough,” Marx said.

Northland and public officials now hope to move all families in temporary housing to apartments by Christmas, Siciliano said. Thirty-four former Church Street South families remain in hotel rooms at this time, she added.

LONG-TERM SOLUTIONS

The announcement Tuesday also stated a new commitment to replace all 301 affordable housing units for New Haven that Church Street South provided. Northland and public officials have already sent letters to dozens of landlords in the area asking if they would like to receive a fraction of the $3.1 million in federal housing grants given to Northland to subsidize affordable housing at Church Street South.

In return for the grant money, those landlords would agree to provide affordable housing units. Siciliano added former residents of Church Street South would be offered the first pick of the newly subsidized homes.

“There are 301 brick-and-mortar units at Church Street South,” Marx said. “The funding and those units would continue to exist in some form throughout New Haven.”

Ten landlords in New Haven have already responded to Northland and public officials’ offers, Siciliano said. She added Northland, HUD and city officials will meet with residents in the near future to explain the plans.

The promise to replace Church Street South’s units, Marx said, created an essential commitment on behalf of Northland and the city to preserve affordable housing in the city. This promise was not included in previous announcements.

Many Section 8 residents — those who live in federally subsidized housing — who are given vouchers after being sent away from failed housing projects are unable to find long-term affordable housing, Marx said. The competition for affordable housing, as well as hurdles to navigating the market, such as limited English proficiency and disabilities, present formidable challenges for families moving out.

The city and Northland’s announcement to preserving affordable housing in New Haven helps ensure that families at Church Street South are guaranteed housing years down the road, Marx said.

“It is critical that these 301 units be built somewhere with the right to return for these families,” Marx said. “A year out from now if someone is not able to use their section 8 voucher, there would be a serious risk of homelessness.”

Marx added that the new housing units in New Haven should include the family units that Church Street South had provided. Three, four or five-bedroom apartments are scarce in the affordable housing market even though many New Haven families need them.

As public officials seek new allies for affordable housing in the city, the eggshell-white complex still stands. Preservation of Affordable Housing, a Boston-based housing nonprofit organization, offered to purchase the complex and preserve affordable housing on the premises. But Northland has not responded to the offer, POAH Executive Director Bart Lloyd said.

Northland bought the location in 2008 with the intention to build mixed-income apartments on the complex. Under Northland’s plans, around 20 percent of the units would have been affordable housing units. But the contract fell through in 2011 when Northland did not agree to the Board of Alders’ request that 28 percent of the units be affordable housing.

“I was in New Haven on Thanksgiving morning, at the railroad station, and walked the site,” Lloyd said. “However, I do not think we are on the owner’s radar screen as a viable option.”

Northland did not return request for comment on its future plans for the complex.

The Church Street South complex was built in 1969.