FEATURE: A Tale of Two Cities
Are off-campus Yale students exacerbating New Haven’s housing crisis amid this pandemic?
“Help, Housing, Hope.” The front mural of the Christian Community Action’s Hillside Family Shelter on Davenport Avenue displays this three-word motto in pastel blue and yellow hues.
Merryl Eaton, Christian Community Action’s director for advocacy and education, said that the shelter’s directors follow this motto by bolstering the voices of those most affected by the housing crisis.
“The voice of the people most impacted by an issue should be heard, and their recommendations should be used in the making of public policy,” Eaton said.
The Christian Community Action (CCA) Hillside Family Shelter, named for its location in The Hill, the southwesternmost neighborhood of New Haven, provides temporary emergency housing for in-need families. Unlike some religious shelters, the doors of the Christian Community Action (CCA) Hillside Family Shelter are open to single mothers and their teenage sons, same-sex married couples and single fathers with their daughters. Like most shelters, they face logistical constraints when placing families into shelters, but their “Room for All” policy never separates the 34 families they house. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, CCA — specifically its advocacy group Mothers and Others for Justice — has been on the front lines of the affordable housing fight.
The United States’ pandemic-induced economic decline has exacerbated the existing housing crisis in Connecticut. Additionally, the state’s surging unemployment rates have left many residents unable to pay their rent. Though Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont signed an executive order to extend eviction moratoriums — a legal authorization to delay the obligation to pay rent — until Jan. 1, 2021, affordable housing advocates are concerned that the pandemic will have long-lasting effects on renters and landlords.
Nicole Barnofski is the chief program officer at New Reach, a nonprofit that helps those affected by homelessness and poverty by providing housing and other forms of support. “It’s been an increased challenge for us to be able to work not only to support the housing needs of our clients, but look to the best interest of our landlords and partners…knowing that they’re [experiencing] strenuous circumstances,” Barnofski said. Some landlords are uncomfortable working with programs knowing they might have to undergo expensive legal processes, she said.
Marta Goldman, the director of investments and partnerships at New Reach, added that she is concerned about the economic conditions that renters will face once the moratorium is lifted. Goldman and Terri Jo Ciocca, the organization’s grant writer, said that Connecticut’s unemployment rate has more than doubled from March to September 2020.
“We’re looking at that, and we’re thinking, obviously that’s going to trickle down and cause problems for people that are vulnerable,” Goldman said.
Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, Connecticut averaged 20,000 evictions per year. This year, eviction filings are predicted to double to 40,000. New Haven evicts residents at twice the national rate — with 4.05 percent of renter homes evicted every year. According to a donor briefing by the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, the rising housing costs in Connecticut, caused by the influx of residents moving to Connecticut, has led to the current housing crisis.
“When you gentrify, when you put in housing and do things that result in the increase in the value of housing in a particular area, what you’re doing is pushing out long-term residents that put up with crime and the long-term neglect of the cities,” Erin Kemple, the executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, said in the briefing.
As a result of new on-campus regulations, more Yale students have opted for off-campus housing this year than ever before. According to an email to the News in September, Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun said that 1,530 enrolled students chose to live outside of their residential colleges — 560 more than the average 970 students that opt into off-campus housing under normal circumstances. In total, there has been a 79 percent increase in off-campus Yalies (taking into account the 200 unenrolled students living off campus). Some sophomores, who as a class were not invited to live on campus during the fall semester, have also opted to live in New Haven. With the influx of Yale students obtaining off-campus housing in New Haven this semester, it is worthwhile to investigate the extent to which Yale students contribute to the New Haven COVID-19 affordable housing crisis.
IN A DICKENSIAN REALITY
“To me, New Haven is a Dickens novel. It’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’” Eaton said. “On a block of pretty beat-up, dilapidated houses, there’s [also] a really contemporary, lovely home.”
Developers construct affordable housing around the state area median income — the “midpoint of a region’s income distribution” — which is $62,741 for an individual in Connecticut. Given that affordable housing is defined as no more than 30 percent of the individual’s gross income, however, the cost of affordable housing for an average New Haven resident — who has a median income of only $37,508 — should be significantly less than in Connecticut at large. In poverty-stricken neighborhoods in New Haven, specifically Newhallville, the figure is only one-third of the state median income — $27,800. For Eaton, this definition of “affordable” housing is a major hurdle.
“One of the things that has happened is that housing is no longer a human right. It is a way of amassing wealth,” said Eaton.
Increasing home value is the primary way both affluent and middle-class families amass wealth. Home value spikes make the rich richer but have an adverse effect on communities struggling to find affordable housing like those in New Haven.
“There is not a state in the country where a tenant can afford a two-bedroom apartment on minimum wage,” Eaton said.
According to Eaton, there is a rift between Connecticut social service programs and the on-the-ground reality of what types of housing poor families can afford.
“For instance, due to high rents and low wages, a single mother with children in CT can probably only afford a one bedroom apartment if they need immediate housing,” Eaton said. “However, since this seems too small for a family with older children or children of a different gender, the Department of Children and Families often will not approve the apartment as satisfactory.” Social services may separate children from single mothers who can’t find appropriate housing.
ON PREDATORY LANDLORDS
Out of state landlords — most notoriously Mandy Management — often buy New Haven’s low income properties. Several of the Mothers and Others for Justice members have raised concerns about Mandy Management, a top New Haven real estate agency. Moldy apartments and dangerous electrical systems, which can amass over $2,000 in electric bills to be paid by the renters, were just some of Eaton’s clients’ complaints. In a Fair Rent Commission hearing this year, the commission eliminated a Mandy tenant’s rent for the calendar year after a persistent rodent infestation in his apartment. During the hearing, alders from Newhallville and the Hill also expressed their dismay at landlords neglecting their properties and mistreating their tenants.
In an email to the New Haven Independent, Mandy Management founder Menachem Gurevitch addressed these allegations.
“We learn from our mistakes and keep improving our management systems and staff,” Gurevitch wrote. “We provide housing to families burned out of their apartments or after other terrible losses. Agencies are now coming to us in times of crisis to provide housing because we have a strong reputation for responsiveness, honesty, quality, and affordability.”
The Livable City Initiative also countered the allegations against Mandy Management by stating that most of the housing code violations in New Haven’s private rental market are not against Mandy and other prominent local landlords.
Still, Eaton said that her clients only accept Mandy housing because of circumstances that make them unappealing to other landlords.
“If you are somebody that’s had felony convictions, who’s had evictions, who’s had low credit and Mandy Management says, ‘I’ll meet you in the parking lot and I’ll hand you the keys to an apartment for $800,’ you don’t have many choices,” Eaton said.
Billy Huang, the president and chief executive officer of Source Development Hub — a New Haven social enterprise that is developing software tools to improve affordable housing access — said that it is important not to view landlords as a monolithic group.
“A lot of landlords are pretty strained right now because their tenants haven’t paid rent because of [the] moratorium,” Huang said. “For smaller landlords, this is a difficult situation because they might not have the financial flexibility to continue operating without rent.”
Huang said that the landlords face a crisis of their own because they have much fewer protections from foreclosure, with most mortgage forbearance and foreclosure protections applying only to landlords with federally backed mortgages. If smaller landlords are subjected to foreclosure, the city may see a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis, where bigger, less empathetic landlords — like Mandy Management — buy foreclosed properties and own most of the properties in the city.
The new housing developments in New Haven target a new, more affluent population, according to Eaton. Now, apartments are smaller, usually studio-sized, which means that three- or four-bedroom apartments are in greater demand and shorter supply.
If Yale students decide to rent these bigger apartments together, according to Eaton, families in New Haven that are also looking for those apartments will face greater difficulty.
“If three Yale guys decided that they want to rent an apartment together, those larger apartments they want to rent are really, really desirable apartments,” Eaton said.
Eaton pointed out that non-Yale BIPOC communities in low-income neighborhoods often have out-of-date or state-issued laptops, slower internet and limited technological knowledge on using Zillow or other housing online applications. In that way, according to Eaton, Yale students indirectly worsen the housing crisis.
Claudette Kidd, a Mothers and Others for Justice organizer, wrote to the News that those who choose to reside in New Haven must do so for the right reasons.
“Permanent affordable housing is a human right, not just for those who want an urban experience,” Kidd wrote. “House those in the urban neighborhoods 1st!”
At 2.7 percent, New Haven has one of the lowest vacancy rates in the country, which presents a grim environment for New Haven residents seeking affordable housing.
“I think we have to be very careful when saying Yale students have increased rental prices in New Haven,” Huang said. “Personally, I wouldn’t draw the line so far. We can speculate that Yale students contributed to it. It could be development trends. It could be driven by other market factors where the University develops as a whole so you need higher rental housing for professionals who come in. I’m not sure if Yale students themselves are a big enough group to warrant that increase in the rent.”
Sylvia Cooper, an advocate for New Haven Rising, asserted that Yale’s impact on the community goes beyond student decisions. In the monthly Mothers and Others for Justice meeting, Cooper raised the issue of Yale’s tax exemption. As a nonprofit organization, Yale is exempt from paying certain taxes to the city of New Haven, leading to an enduring revenue issue.
According to a New Journal article, Yale only paid $4.9 million in taxes in 2018, and New Haven has claimed the University should be paying twenty-six times that amount. Yale’s tax payments are much lower than those of other highly-selective universities. The article cites the annual fiscal report of Hanover, the New Hampshire town where Dartmouth College is located, which states that Dartmouth paid 7.3 million in taxes in 2017.
Cooper emphasized her non-hostile attitude toward the University and said that she wanted Yale to have a “seat at the table” when considering what the University’s role in the city should be, instead of making demands without communication.
“They can pay a little more than the average resident because they should. They represent New Haven and they’re in our town — though Yale was built hundreds of years ago — they still reside here,” said Cooper.
If Yale paid only 10 to 40 percent of their taxes, it would help alleviate New Haven’s housing crisis enormously by creating affordable housing projects, according to Cooper.
Still, Source Development Hub president Huang said that Yale’s role in the housing crisis might be more nuanced than presented.
THE CASE FOR YALE OFF-CAMPUS HOUSING
Students living off campus are motivated by various factors. Sarah Pillard ’22 told the News that she decided to move off campus before the pandemic began to allow more flexibility in her schedule.
Pillard reflected on how off-campus housing for Yale students has affected the New Haven community.
“Because our time in New Haven is somewhat transient, it is easy to go four years without thinking about what we owe to New Haven and the more permanent community here,” Pillard said. She added that it might be “easier to spend those four years without thinking about the relationship between Yale and New Haven if you are always on campus.”
When living off campus, “you are taking up space that otherwise would be taken by longer term New Haven residents, not only in terms of housing but also at the supermarket, laundromat, etc.,” Pillard said.
Still, Pillard was very careful not to attach a “moral judgement” to deciding to live on or off campus.
“I decided to live off campus and know that by doing so I am contributing to things like rising rent rates closer to campus,” Pillard said.
With this in mind, Pillard said it is important for students to do the best they can to foster community outside of Yale and actively work to hold Yale accountable. She cited the “Yale: Respect New Haven” campaign as a great way to get involved.
Ultimately, Pillard agreed with the sentiments mentioned by nonprofit leaders.
“I think it is really important to remain cognizant of individual impact, but in reality, the institutional power that Yale has lends the University a lot more potential to make lasting change in New Haven than any one person can, and so supporting movements that make significant asks of Yale is something that we can individually do to create that larger change,” she said.
Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project Co-President Tomas Carrillo ’21, who also lives off campus, said that in some cases, the choice to live off campus stems from institutional as well as personal reasons.
Carillo said that a lack of on-campus housing, as well as yearly increases in class size, have pushed many students off-campus. For instance, annex housing, usually a housing option to accommodate residential college overflow, was not offered to students this year. Carillo said, “[Students in off-campus housing] want to live close to campus, so those apartments will see a rent rise. It’s almost unavoidable for the student and it’s a Yale issue rather than a student issue. To put the onus on the student is a bit unfair — even students need a place to live.”
Like the nonprofit leaders, Carrillo added that Yale students’ effects on the housing crisis in New Haven might be difficult to quantify immediately.
“It’s something we can talk about a lot but we’re not really going to understand it right away,” Carrillo said.
A CALL TO ACTION
Students and [community leaders] mentioned several ways in which Yale students can get involved. For instance, Yale students can volunteer at the Yale Community Kitchen on Fridays and Saturdays. Students can also check the YHHAP website and join the panlist to find more volunteer opportunities.
Eaton also suggested finding work with the New Haven Legal Aid Association, which handles pro bono eviction cases. Goldman mentioned donation drives for hygiene products and peer-to-peer fundraisers such as New Reach’s “Adopt a Family” initiative. Goldman also said that New Reach is open to finding ways for students to get involved.
Source Development Hub president Huang said that Yale students’ unique position to raise awareness about the issue is advantageous.
“I think having student activism to talk about these housing, eviction and homelessness crises is very important,” he said.
Above all, Eaton emphasized that though immediate solutions to create affordable housing are important, creating systemic change must remain at the forefront of advocacy.
She recognized that Yale students have “bright futures” and will one day have the opportunity to donate their time and money to the causes they choose.
“When they are in positions of power,” Eaton said, “I hope they don’t forget all that they’ve learned here.”
Correction, Nov. 29: An earlier version of this article misstated that New Haven averaged 20,000 evictions per year before the pandemic, when the statistic actually represents the whole state. The News regrets this error.