“This is not the moment we should be holding back”: Community provides passionate input on influx of federal funding
Dozens testify to the Board of Alders on a proposed spending plan for $53 million from the American Rescue Plan
Nathaniel Rosenberg, Contributing Reporter
Many New Haven residents want more affordable housing, better childcare, and a stronger effort to combat climate change in the Elm City. Many see $53 million of incoming federal aid as the chance to begin those investments.
The American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package passed in March 2021, allocated approximately $115.8 million to New Haven. The current $53 million is from the Mayor’s Phase 3 disbursement of the money, and is allocated to seven priorities: $10 million for youth engagement, $10 million for affordable housing, $10 million for wealth creation, $8 million for vocational and technical education, $5 million for the climate emergency, $6 million for public health and infrastructure and $4 million of seed money for the establishment of a New Haven Land Bank.
A hearing held by the Board of Alders Finance Committee last Monday to discuss the funds drew over two dozen people testifying, in front of an audience of more than 100, including at least 17 alders. The room frequently broke into applause after moving testimony, and various protestors stood in the back of the room, imploring the committee to invest money into fighting climate change and assisting immigrant communities.
The proceedings opened with a presentation by representatives from the mayor’s office, including Economic Development Administrator Michael Piscitelli, who touted the City’s community engagement process for their Phase 3 funding plan, particularly focusing on the Civic Space community meetings that were held during the summer of 2021.
“There are many challenges involved, not least related to income inequity, the unfair and disproportionate impact that some of our neighbors have felt through the pandemic relative to other parts of the state or the nation,” Piscitelli said. “What we’ve tried to do with this Phase 3 program is be responsive to what we heard in the Civic Space process, look at the data and be evidence-based in our approach.”
Ward 25 Alder Adam Marchand, chair of the Finance Committee, bypassed the customary time for alders to question the presenters, and instead opened the meeting to public comment, citing the large number of people signed up to testify.
“Far more than $10 million” for housing
Throughout the city’s unveiling of ARP distribution proposals, New Haveners have continued to call on officials to allocate more funds to affordable housing. Camila Guiza-Chavez ’19, the co-director of Havenly and a member of the Sisters in Diaspora Collective — a group of migrant and refugee women who advocate for better access to housing in New Haven — urged the committee to invest more in housing at Monday’s meeting.
“[Housing] is such a fundamental part of a good and healthy life and well-being,” Guiza-Chavez testified. “It is the top priority and the top preoccupation of every single family we work with.”
The Collective had previously sent a proposal to the Finance Committee, urging them to spend $62 million dollars of the total ARP funding on access to affordable housing. The group arrived at that number by taking 54 percent of the total $115.8 million dollars New Haven is receiving in federal funding, as the Collective claims that 54 percent of New Haven residents are housing insecure.
The proposal, which was read as testimony at the hearing, calls for New Haven to spend $50.5 million on buying buildings owned by “corporate, absentee landlord companies,” naming in particular mega landlords Mandy Management and Pike International, in order to convert those units into publicly owned housing. The group requested to spend the other $12 million in their proposed budget on subsidies for families currently on the waiting list for Section 8 and public housing in New Haven.
Alyson Heimer, a real-estate agent who grew up in New Haven before being priced out of living in the city by rising rents, echoed Guiza-Chavez’s budget priorities.
“We have to take back this city from big landlords and give it back to the community members,” Heimer testified.
Specifically, Heimer identified 144 for-sale properties containing 395 units across 23 of New Haven’s 30 wards that could be bought by the City of New Haven for $52 million and sold back to housing nonprofits — such as the Livable City Initiative and Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven — in order to fund other city priorities.
“I don’t have $50 million. But I hear you guys do,” Heimer testified to laughs and applause.
A show of strength by New Haven Rising
Abby Feldman, an organizer with New Haven Rising, testified that the group had surveyed over 900 New Haven residents citywide, with 62 percent of respondents coming from low-income neighborhoods. Feldman reported that the survey found 23 percent of respondents wanted to finance youth and community centers and programs, 22 percent wanted to see the money spent on providing jobs and 21 percent wanted to fund affordable housing.
“It is so important now to make sure that this funding benefits New Haven neighborhoods and households that are struggling the most,” Feldman told the committee.
Claudine Wilkins-Chambers, a Newhallville resident and former president of Local 3429, the union that represents New Haven Schools paraprofessionals, opened the evening’s testimony by describing the needs of Newhallville residents.
“One person I talked with described enduring rundown rodent and rat-infested living conditions. I suggested mice traps. But he explained buying those traps would cut down on his money for groceries and gas,” Wilkins-Chambers told the committee. “Families are between a rock and a hard place. Communities need fair housing.”
Wilkins-Chambers detailed how, in conjunction with New Haven Rising, a non-profit in New Haven that fights for racial, economic and social rights, she had surveyed over 25 residents of Newhallville to determine which priorities mattered the most to them.
“People I spoke to identified the following issues,” Wilkins-Chambers recounted. “Crime prevention, access to good jobs, education and affordable after school programs for children.”
Nicole Mealey, a Dixwell resident and another member of New Haven Rising, testified that she surveyed more than 20 neighbors, and that one of her priorities for the ARP expenditures was to enhance youth services.
“Dixwell residents also want to see more youth programs,” Mealey testified. “We need programs that focus on intervention, prevention and aftercare. This is because many of our youths grow up in environments that make it challenging to go to school and reach their full potential.”
Barbara Vereen, the organizing director of Local 34, also testified, describing her experience door knocking in Georgia with UNITE HERE! unions in support of Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, who both ended up being deciding votes in the passage of the ARP in the spring of 2021. Now, she wanted to see the money be put to good use.
“Jobs are always a big concern in Newhallville, and a vocational school in our neighborhood will give us this opportunity for training and good paying jobs,” Vereen testified. “We must ensure that our residents have access to the jobs like one we have at Yale and Local 34. We need to make sure our jobs pay a good living wage and provide real economic security.”
Several other New Haven Rising members, as well as other members of UNITE HERE! Locals 33 and 34 also testified, each sharing stories about canvassing for Joe Biden and the Georgia senators, as well as surveying their own communities about the proposed funding plan. Each speaker made sure to stress the three priorities of youth and childcare, housing and jobs, which combined are allotted $28 million in the Phase 3 funding.
Varied funding priorities
In her testimony, Allyx Schiavone, the executive director for the Friends Center for Children, said that the workforce has a disproportionate number of white head teachers and women of color assistant support teachers. Shiavone also testified that in New Haven, the average annual salary for an early childhood educator is just $26,000.
“Women in New Haven who care for our youngest children are being paid to live in poverty,” Shiavone told the committee.
Shiavone said that the lack of funding in early childhood education also hurts local children.
“For every $1 New Haven spends and invests in high quality early care and education, there’s a 13 percent annual return,” Shiavone told the committee. “New Haven invests zero percent of its education budget in early care and education. So it’s yes, a zero percent return.”
Ultimately, Shiavone claimed that the $2 million of Phase 3 funding allocated for early childhood care and education was the minimum of what was necessary to fix what she saw as New Haven’s systemic underinvestment and inequities on the issue.
Several organizers with the New Haven Climate Movement Youth Action Team also testified on the importance of using the ARP to address climate change. Patricia Joseph, a senior at Engineering and Science University Magnet School, and member of NHCM, invoked New Haven’s 2019 declaration of a climate emergency.
“When you’re declaring a climate emergency it doesn’t mean just sounding the alarm bells without responding to the needs of New Haven,” Joseph said. “Declaring an emergency means responding and instituting change in our communities now.”
Joseph encouraged the committee to invest in electrification, hire climate staff and integrate climate work into city departments.
Jayla Anderson, a sophomore at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School and member of NHCM, echoed Joseph’s testimony, and advocated for the city to use 10% of its federal funding, a total of $15 million, on “climate related issues.” The Mayor’s current funding plans allocate $5 million to address climate change.
Rebecca Moore, the program director for the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, also expressed support for the pandemic-relief funding that was allocated to the arts. The Phase 3 funding earmarks $368,267 for “Arts and Culture” in New Haven.
“As we all know, the arts is one of the reasons we have been able to survive during these times, especially during the pandemic,” Moore testified. “The arts bring a sense of togetherness, unity and strength. The arts is the epitome of culture and diversity. Let’s dismantle the term starving artists.”
Ultimately, after hearing over two hours and fifteen minutes of public testimony on the funding, Marchand chose not to bring the proposed funding to a vote, instead deciding that the committee would conduct additional meetings before taking any further action.
New Haven has already spent $38.3 million of the $115.8 million allocated to the city by the ARP.