Daniel Zhao, Senior Photographer

On Monday afternoon, Karen DuBois-Walton ’89 — president of Elm City Communities, the Housing Authority of New Haven — publicly launched an exploratory committee for the 2021 New Haven mayoral Democratic primary.

The Yale alumna addressed a crowd of roughly 100 supporters and campaign staff outside the Community Center on Wilmot Road in West Rock, promising to deliver a “New Haven for All” should she reach the mayor’s office. She stressed her experience at Elm City Communities and said her exploratory committee is meant to stimulate the same level of community organizing and discussion she has worked with over the course of her career. 

DuBois-Walton is the first to publicly consider a run against Mayor Justin Elicker, whose first term will end on Jan. 1, 2022. After a stint at the Yale Child Study Center, she entered the public sector at the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. She then held a variety of positions at City Hall, concluding her time on Church Street as chief of staff to Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. She began working at the housing authority in 2006. 

At her Monday address, DuBois-Walton stood near the West Rock-Hamden border, where she contributed to the demolition of a major fence separating the two communities during her tenure at the authority — one of the accomplishments she listed in her exploratory committee announcement, and one oft-cited by former Mayor Toni Harp in the 2019 campaign cycle.

“When you look up this road and see that you can see into Hamden without looking through a chain-linked fence or a wall, then you know what happens when community members work together, have big ideas and a big vision, and then take bold action to make things happen,” DuBois-Walton told attendees. “When you take far too limited public dollars but you get creative with them, when you don’t think just in terms of scarcity but in terms of what we can do, then this is what you create.”

As she is currently in the exploratory phase, DuBois-Walton has not launched an official campaign yet. She told the News she remains unsure when the committee would hypothetically transition to a campaign, though she said it will come no later than July, when the local Democratic Party is expected to make its official endorsement.

According to DuBois-Walton, her exploratory committee will serve to launch fundraising efforts in preparation for her potential campaign and source more New Haveners on the issues that matter to them. The latter effort, DuBois-Walton told the News, is nothing new, as she has spent the past 14 years at Elm City Communities listening to the community’s concerns.

“It’s been an opportunity to bring together people of very different backgrounds, and to put a team together that is able to work with our residents to really hear what they want,” she said. 

DuBois-Walton noted that over the past year, New Haven has faced a variety of challenges. The pandemic’s toll on the Elm City has included learning loss among the city’s youth, she said. She also pointed out the persistence of racial inequities and rising rates of New Haven crime and homicides.

“I feel like now more than ever, we need a really strong leader,” she said. “I was feeling a sense of urgency, and I started talking to other people and being approached by people who wanted to know if this would be the time that I ran. Exploratory feels like the first step to see how this resonates and where the energy is.”

In a press release, DuBois-Walton touted her accomplishments on housing in New Haven. Under her leadership, Elm City Communities became the sole housing authority in the state to cancel rent during the pandemic and the first to implement automatic voter registration for residents. The authority also rebuilt 2,000 units of housing and launched “entrepreneurial, homeownership and workforce development programming that lifts families out of poverty,” according to the press release.

But alongside successes, DuBois-Walton has come across various new challenges, she said, and “some of those require some different kinds of decision making out of city government.”

“Because of a long history — the history of discriminatory practices — you find that federally subsidized housing has been segregated into certain communities that have also been under-resourced for decades,” DuBois-Walton told the News. “Our efforts now need to be focused on how we are reinvesting in those communities.”

41 percent of New Haven residents are rent-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. 

If she transitions her committee into a campaign and wins, though, DuBois-Walton will confront a variety of other challenges, including a looming budget deficit that could cause massive cuts to city services if funding is not secured.

DuBois-Walton, like potential opponent Elicker, has faith that funding through the newly passed Tiered PILOT, or Payment in Lieu of Taxes, legislation in Connecticut will help. But she also noted that the city needs to implement “an inclusive economic growth strategy.”

“We need to be a city that’s creating growth in ways that’s inclusive of all aspects of our community,” she said. “Where the folks that are owning the property here are living here and spending their dollars. And we need a strategy that supports the business community in a way that matches what our residents are interested in.” 

Erik Clemons, chairman of the board of Connecticut Community Outreach Revitalization Program and of Elm City Communities, introduced DuBois-Walton at the press conference, highlighting her work in the housing industry as so impressive that he saw her as an example for his daughters to look up to. 

He recalled a previous lunch with DuBois-Walton when, amid a conversation over her plans for New Haven, he challenged her to think bigger.

“I said, Karen, you need to do more,” Clemons said. “I said that, not because she didn’t do enough, but because I’ve got four Black girls at home. And those four Black girls need to know you exist in the world. The need to see that North Star. They need to see what excellence looks like, and feels like, and walks like, and talks like. It’s so important.”

Ward 30 Alder Honda Smith of West Hills, who gave a welcoming address at DuBois-Walton’s announcement on Monday, stopped short of offering DuBois-Walton her endorsement, but told the News that she “want[s] to hear what [DuBois-Walton] has to say.”

“She entered into my ward and she’s given me the respect as an alderperson to let me know that she’d like to make an announcement in the ward, and if I would do a welcome address,” Smith said. “She’s respected my leadership — that’s where I’m at. It’s just cut and dry. I think everybody should do the same thing when they’re coming in.”

Smith noted that she has worked with DuBois-Walton on various projects in her ward — from youth to housing initiatives — and that she has made a significant impact on the area and that “she’s been doing what a director should be doing.”

Dubois-Walton graduated from Yale in 1989.

Thomas Birmingham | thomas.birmingham@yale.edu

Owen Tucker-Smith | owen.tucker-smith@yale.edu

Owen Tucker-Smith was managing editor of the Board of 2023. Before that, he covered the mayor as a City Hall reporter.