Elicker proposes $53 million in city spending as residents call for increased transparency
The federal funds would go to affordable housing, vocational training, small businesses, and climate solutions.
Tim Tai, Staff Photographer
Low-income residents and small businesses will get a financial boost under Mayor Justin Elicker’s proposed use of $53 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan.
Elicker announced his proposal for the Phase 3 use of American Rescue Plan, or ARP, funds at a press conference on Jan. 12. The ARP, a $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package passed last March, allocated approximately $115 million to New Haven. In Phase 3, the city will use ARP money to support five categories of spending: youth engagement, vocational and technical education, affordable housing, wealth creation, and climate change.
“We believe we’re submitting something to the Board of Alders that reflects the hopes and desires of our community and will have a deep, significant and long-term impact in particular on those who have been under-resourced for decades,” Elicker said during the press conference.
This ARP fund allocation plan — the largest to date — was workshopped throughout the summer of 2021 through a “civic space” public engagement process. The city organized five community forums, 20 focus group and stakeholder conversations and an online submission portal, through which officials gained input about resident priorities.
The proposal devotes $10 million to a variety of youth engagement initiatives, including recreational programming, youth employment, early childhood education and youth centers. Gwendolyn Bush-Williams, New Haven’s director of youth and recreation, said that many of these initiatives are an extension of last year’s Summer Reset Program, which funded summer camps, concerts and other activities.
Another $10 million will go to the I’m Home initiative, a suite of neighborhood development and housing projects. The initiative will help New Haven residents buy and renovate homes, provide assistance to low-income renters and finance affordable development projects. It will also provide funding for housing navigators and for the management of the Fair Rent Commission, residential property inspections and other local activities.
Ed Randall, a New Haven resident, spoke at the press conference about the value of these homeownership programs.
“I realized that New Haven has a lot of resources and programs that can help you achieve your goals and dreams,” Randall said. “It gives you a sense of pride, not only just owning a home but also taking care of your neighborhood.”
Elm City Communities president and former mayoral candidate Karen DuBois-Walton shared that she was encouraged to see the inclusion of affordable housing programs in the new allocation plan. She noted that she had been “concerned” by the absence of attention to this issue in Phase 1 and Phase 2, given that “housing is so fundamental to recovery from COVID.”
DuBois-Walton and her team had submitted a number of suggestions to the planning team, some of which she saw included in the final plan — particularly efforts to stabilize the rental housing market and increase home-ownership opportunities, with a focus on “recognizing racial inequities over time” in the city. However, she still noticed gaps in the city’s proposal.
“We can’t get to housing stability without thinking about how we move people who are currently unhoused and strengthen the system that’s serving the unhoused, so I think there’s going to need to be some investments there,” DuBois-Walton told the News. “It’s not jumping out at me that the services and housing support for the unhoused got a significant boost. And we’re all bracing for the eviction moratorium ending…there are still clearly thousands of families that need our support.”
With an additional $4 million, the city will establish the New Haven Land Bank, which will allow the city to buy and hold real estate assets until they can be put to a socially beneficial use. Economic Development Administrator Michael Piscitelli told the News that the real estate boom in the city has also led to “some speculation,” which the Land Bank will counteract by making it possible for the city to temporarily hold onto certain properties and “provide the right stewardship until the highest and best use…what’s in the public interest comes along.”
A third $10 million chunk of the funds will go to wealth creation programs which will support small business owners, creative entrepreneurs and other city residents. These programs will especially focus on Black and Latinx residents and others who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
To bolster the recently unveiled Cultural Equity Plan, a proportion of this element of the funding involves the encouragement of small businesses centered around arts and culture in historically underrepresented communities, according to Piscitelli. Marketing support, technical assistance and capital will be provided to support “the amazing talent in our neighborhoods.”
In addition to the support for current entrepreneurs, the plan will dedicate $8 million to vocational and technical development, especially for students and young adults. The press conference took place at James Hillhouse High School, which offers its students vocational education in the fields of construction, automotives, surgical technology and more.
“It’s very important that our kids are exposed to a vocational job, especially in our comprehensive high schools,” Principal Glen Worthy said at the press conference. “For far too long we’ve allowed our kids to graduate from schools not ready for the workforce.”
Five million dollars will be allocated toward improving the energy efficiency of local homes and municipal buildings. This funding will also be used to train local contractors to conduct these renovations.
Kai Addae, the chair of New Haven’s Climate Emergency Mobilization Task Force, told the News that these funds will support the city’s goal of having zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
“This is not going to solve the climate crisis in New Haven,” Addae said. “This won’t get us to zero, but it’s a very important first step, and I’m excited that the city is looking at all of the ways that we can address climate change across the board.”
Addae added that ARP money can only be used for restricted purposes, but that she is hopeful that federal infrastructure spending will provide funding for sustainability improvements to New Haven’s electricity grid, transportation and other sectors.
The remaining $6 million of the proposed Phase 3 allocation will go to public health and infrastructure. In addition to funding the city’s coronavirus response, this money will allow for improvements to local parks, houses and other structures.
In an interview with the News, Piscitelli shared that conversations with residents and stakeholders during the civic space planning process for this initiative primarily focused on how to address “systemic inequities…that were exacerbated by the pandemic” and promote a sustainable recovery. As a result of these discussions, he said, the city set the two overall priorities of building economic sustainability and closing the racial wealth gap through their new programs.
“The main goal of the civic space engagement process was to make sure that the recommendations for how the city would use the funds that came to it would come from the people, to make sure that the voices of New Haven residents would really be represented,” Durell Coleman, CEO of one of the two firms that helped design the civic space process, told the News.
Coleman said that the city was especially focused on including “folks who sometimes don’t get to participate fully in the civic process,” like low-income residents and Black and Brown residents. To that end, the civic space engagement process “mix[ed] a variety of different methods” to reach under-represented populations, from holding conversations with undocumented residents to hosting meetings in a range of New Haven neighborhoods. Coleman told the News that these conversations focused on the four major themes of “income inequality, intergenerational wealth, homeownership rates and access to institutional capital.”
Not all residents felt included in the development process, though.
Reverend Boise Kimber told the News that he was not involved in the civic space process and had not heard from anyone who was.
“Maybe there were some people involved, but were they people who lived directly in the communities that are hard-hit by crime, hard-hit by unemployment, hard-hit by rents?” Kimber said. “I don’t know who was a part of it, but I know I wasn’t, and I was not asked to be a part of it.”
Kimber said he was especially disappointed with the civic engagement process because he had concerns about the use of previous rounds of ARP funding. He told the News that he had not seen evidence of improvements in schools or low-income communities. He added that previous rounds of ARP funding went to crime surveillance cameras and other public safety measures which “patrol and watch what people do in the community” without reducing violence.
DuBois-Walton, who had criticized earlier phases of the ARP funding distribution for not incorporating adequate community input, told the News that the civic space process still “didn’t feel as open and transparent as what [she] would have liked.”
She suggested that the city create a centralized website in which residents can view the real-time details about the distribution of ARP funding, as well as the suggestions and complaints of other residents, “without having to dig through the minutes of the finance committee.” Coleman said that there was a “civic space portal” for residents to submit ideas, which received over 50 responses.
One significant uncertainty in the planning process was the question of how much funding the city could expect to receive from non-ARP sources, such as from the federal Economic Development Administration and Department of Transportation.
Piscitelli told the News that the city wanted to ensure that the programs created through local recovery funds like the ARP were not “duplicative.” With this in mind, this round of ARP distribution did not include allocations for areas such as transportation and broadband high-speed internet that were likely to receive additional funding.
“[Bringing fiber-optic internet] to the home is an eligible use for the local recovery program,” Piscitelli said. “But it’s also eligible under the Infrastructure Bill, it’s also eligible under Build Back Better. So we’re trying as best we can to use those other funding sources such that we can deploy more local programs to wealth creation.”
ARP distribution in Connecticut has been under a microscope in recent months after the FBI arrested New Haven-area State Rep. Michael DiMassa for allegedly defrauding West Haven of over $600,000, some of which came from federal COVID-19 relief funding. As a result of this, the State of Connecticut is currently conducting an audit of how all cities in the state have spent their relief funding.
According to Piscitelli, the next step to approve this budget is a public hearing, for which a date will be set over the next couple of weeks by the Board of Alders.
“I think that the framework that’s been presented can get some more meat on the bones or can get some amendments as it moves through the Board of Alders process,” DuBois-Walton said. “We intend to be active in that process — make sure that things we think are important…stay in the plan, and maybe even grow things that are left out that we can push to get them in.”
Prior to the January 12 announcement, about $38 million of New Haven’s $115 million ARP funding allocation had been spent.