Deniz Saip

In a corner classroom on the second floor of Linsly-Chittenden Hall, the chair of New Haven’s City Plan Commission, Edward Mattison LAW ’68, shared his reflections on the issues of homelessness and housing that plague the Elm City.

The on-campus organization City Yale, which brings speakers to campus to discuss topics that specifically concern municipalities, hosted Mattison on Monday night. Last week, the Affordable Housing Task Force, of which Mattison is a member, unanimously approved a final report and recommendations for New Haven to address its affordable housing crisis. While the report spanned more than 20 pages of suggestions as to steps that the Elm City and its various agencies can take, Mattison reflected on lingering issues and what he sees as a possible fix — rooming houses. Rooming houses, as their names suggest, are forms of housing in which one house has multiple rooms that are rented out on a per-room basis.

“It’s doable but it’s not great,” Mattison said of rooming houses. “But what’s the alternative? The alternative is that people don’t have housing. … I just don’t like seeing people on the streets and I don’t see what else is going to happen.”

According to Mattison, rooming houses were once standard affordable housing options in American cities, including New Haven. Often used to accommodate individuals instead of families, they provide a more accessible form of housing than, for example, an apartment.

In the 1920s, New Haven’s census showed that there were 125 rooming houses, each with an unknown number of rooms. Today, the Elm City has just seven rooming houses totalling 87 rooms — a statistic Mattison laments, in light of the way cities like Chicago have increased support for rooming housing. The Windy City currently has 27,000 rooming houses.

Recently, the Elm City’s affordable housing crisis has bubbled up to the surface. Mattison noted that in recent years the city saw a slight decrease in homelessness — especially for targeted groups such as military veterans. But Mattison said the city’s existing infrastructure to combat homelessness is still inadequate and has struggled to make significant gains, especially as budgets have grown tighter.

The Affordable Housing Task Force, which will no longer meet after its final vote last week, was triggered in part by the planned conversion of the Duncan Hotel into a boutique hotel. Previously, the facility was part-hotel, part-rooming house — and the conversion displaced 19 low-income residents in March.

Although the conversion of the Duncan brought the lack of rooming houses to the radar of city officials, Mattison cited concern beyond those residents directly impacted. Mattison said that rooming has shown to be an effective way to keep people off the streets in relatively low-responsibility settings.

Mattison cited Chicago as his primary model of successful reinvigoration of the rooming housing model.

“I knew about the Duncan Hotel case,” said Seamus Joyce-Johnson ’19, an attendee of the event and board member of City Yale. “But I didn’t know that there was a larger conversation happening in New Haven about trying to bring in rooming houses … and how it had worked, and not worked, in other cities.”

Unlike traditional apartments where renters are responsible for utilities and furnishings, rooming houses include both in their rate, which, at around $600 a month per room, is also lower than most apartment rental rates. But Mattison noted that the city seems unwilling to support the rooming houses as a solution to housing and homelessness — likely out of an unwillingness to commit the resources necessary to implement and support the systematic success of rooming houses in the city.

The city currently operates sober houses, which are similar to rooming houses in structure but are targeted towards people in certain programs, namely those transitioning from addiction programs back into the community. But, Mattison noted that these sober houses have become longer-term options instead of transitional housing. In one case, the average stay of a resident is a staggering nine years, reflecting what Mattison views as a large-scale deficiency of options analogous to more widely accessible sober housing.

“[Mattison] has a lot of history in New Haven and so he has a lot of stories to tell,” Robert Scaramuccia ’19, co-president of City Yale, told the News. “He also has a lot of opinions that are interesting to hear, think about and talk about.”

Mattison graduated from Yale Law School in 1968.

Angela Xiao |