Nathaniel Rosenberg, Contributing Photographer

Amidst a burgeoning housing crisis and lower-than-expected test scores in New Haven schools, Mayor Justin Elicker sees brightness on the horizon for the Elm City. 

Alders and New Haveners gathered in City Hall Monday evening as Elicker delivered his fourth annual State of the City address. Elicker presented an optimistic outlook of the city’s future, telling the crowd that the city is on track to meet the challenges of 2023. Top of his list for the new year: better solutions to the city’s housing crisis, improving attendance and test scores in New Haven Public Schools and continuing economic growth and fiscal stability in New Haven. 

“We still have a lot more work to do and a long way to go,” Elicker said during his address. “We commit ourselves to an end goal of inclusive growth, a city where no one is left behind, a city where there is hope for all, and a city where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.”

For Elicker, 2023 is the first time he could report a “bright” future for New Haven. His 2020 address warned residents the city was on the brink of financial collapse without a significant cut to the city’s budget. 2021’s address was delivered at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic and 2022’s was cautiously optimistic as the city still confronted public health and budgetary concerns. 

From $66 million budget deficit in 2020 to $17 million budget surplus in 2023

Elicker began his speech by reminding New Haveners of the dire financial straits the city was in when he took office in 2019.  At the time, the city risked financial collapse due to what he called “structural financial issues” including mismanagement, increased pension and debt costs and an increase in employee salaries. 

“Together we charted a different path from a financial collapse,” Elicker told attendees.

New Haven’s financial situation has improved since New Haven’s State Senator and Senate Pro Tempore Martin Looney helped double the state’s contribution to the city through payment-in-lieu-of-taxes funds from $41 million to $91 million.

After extensive advocacy that Elicker credited to the UNITE-HERE unions, Yale agreed to pay an  additional $10 million in the form of their voluntary contribution. This contribution, as well as an increase in city revenues due to economic growth has led to the city’s current $16 million budget surplus. 

“All of these factors have left us well positioned for the new fiscal year with our budget proposal coming on March 1,” Elicker said. 

“Building back better:” A beacon of economic growth in Connecticut 

In the last year, 58 storefront businesses opened their doors in New Haven. However, Elicker acknowledged that much work had to be done with one in four New Haveners living in poverty.

“We’re leading Connecticut’s recovery from the pandemic and we have a layman’s recipe for success,” Elicker said. “We’re honest and straightforward about the problems we face and we take challenges head on. We have a long way to go, but we’re going to build an inclusive economy.”

Elicker touted a slew of recent projects, including the opening of the Elm City Bioscience Center on Church Street and the groundbreaking of a $838 million Neuroscience Center facility at Yale New Haven Health’s St. Raphael campus. 

Elicker also highlighted the city’s plans to “Build Back Better” using the phrasing of the Federal infrastructure bill passed by the Biden administration to improve physical and green infrastructure across the nation. 

With the recent creation of a climate office, plans to improve pedestrian and bike access in New Haven, as well as roughly $200 million in pandemic and infrastructure-bill related funding from the federal government to strengthen the city’s flood response, New Haven is on the path of “green, sustainable” infrastructure growth that moves away from a car-centric model according to Elicker. 

“Across the city, from new roundabouts to raised crosswalks near schools, every day we’re working to make it safer, easier and more accessible to get around,” Elicker said. “We’re currently focusing on eight of our busiest thoroughfares, and we continue to be strong advocates on the state level for an extension of the state’s free bus service.” 

Elicker talks decreasing crime, recent homicides

The mayor began his discussion of public safety by highlighting the promotion of New Haven Police Chief Karl Jacobson last July with a promise to prioritize what Elicker described as “community-based policing.” Elicker also touted decreases from both 2020 and 2021 in violent and property crimes.

At the same time, Elicker mourned the gun violence that has claimed five lives so far in 2023, including that of Dontae Myers. Myers’s mother,  LaQuvia Jones, was a guest of Elicker’s at the speech and received a round of applause when her presence was noted by the mayor.

“Now, these are statistics, but we know they’re not just statistics. They represent real people, family, friends, neighbors,” Elicker said. “In the words of LaQuvia Jones…’when you pull the trigger, you don’t pull it on a target. You’re pulling on in the community. You pull it on anyone who loves that person.”’

Elicker reviewed several solutions to reduce crime and violence in New Haven. In addition to current policing strategy, he highlighted the investments the alders had made in more surveillance cameras and Shotspotter technology, despite some of those investments drawing the ire of activists.

He also praised the city’s new non-violent first responders program, Elm City COMPASS, which he said has responded to more than 250 emergency calls since its launch in early November. 

Several members of the COMPASS team were also at the speech as guests of Elicker. They expressed appreciation for being mentioned and their excitement about their ongoing work.

“It’s always cool to get accolades, get your flowers while you’re still here,” said Jennifer Vargas, one of the COMPASS team members. 

Righting the ship for NHPS 

With roughly 40 percent of students chronically absent, record-low test scores and the retirement of current NHPS superintendent Iline Tracey looming, Elicker and the city hope that a slew of policy changes will allow NHPS to course-correct. 

“Average student performance, like many of our peer cities across the state and country, was alarmingly low,” Elicker said.

The Mayor cited the city having only 24 percent of third to eighth graders meet or exceed state proficiency standards. That 24 percent compares to 49 percent statewide. In math, Elicker continued, only 11.5 percent of third to eighth graders met or exceeded state proficiency standards compared to 40 percent statewide.

Elicker pointed to the pandemic as a major contributor in the drop of scores, also claiming that most students were not meeting proficiency standards before the pandemic.

He also expressed optimism about the recent ratification of a teacher’s contract that will increase pay by 15 percent over three years, also highlighting the Board of Alders’ approval of $2.5 million of funding for after-school programs.   

“These efforts are paying off since June of 2022,” Elicker said. “Until now, we’ve seen a decline in chronic absenteeism by 20 percentage points, and when it comes to literacy and math NHPS is piloting a new early literacy curriculum that embraces the science of reading, and is aligned with the requirement of the state’s right to read legislation.”

While Elicker claimed credit for these proposals, Fair Haven Alder Sarah Miller wrote to the News that NHPS has “had to be pushed hard by outside forces.” 

“The new teachers’ contract and shift to science of reading are positive moves — but in both instances, the district had to be pushed hard by outside forces,” Miller wrote to the News. “Meanwhile, New Haven has gone from leading the state’s urban districts on most indicators to trailing them. We need to be honest about how perilous things still are, and how much business-as-usual hurts our kids and school communities, in order to have a real shot at reversing this trend.”

Grappling with the affordable housing crisis

During the address, Elicker stressed his commitment to making New Haven an inclusive city. He said that the city needs to add a variety of housing options by providing access to more affordable housing units and improving the affordability of existing housing stock. 

According to Elicker, New Haven has issued the most housing permits at all affordability levels in the state — 2,225 since 2020. The city has renovated over 500 affordable housing units in the last two years, with over 1600 more in the pipeline. 

“Significant projects are underway in nearly every neighborhood in the city,” Elicker said. “Projects have been green-lighted — shelves are in the ground, and cranes are in the sky.”

Elicker also mentioned the city’s inclusionary zoning ordinance which the Board of Alders passed  in January of 2022. The legislation ensures that affordable housing units are incorporated into every major development.  

“We will continue to be one of the strongest advocates at the state capitol for legislation promoting, and if necessary, requiring the creation of regional affordable housing,” Elicker concluded the housing efforts. “It is the right thing to do for New Haven, and it is the right thing to do for our state.” 

In addition, Elicker noted, the city is also working to protect the tenants by ensuring safety standards through inspections and fighting for transparency in the rent market. 

New Haven also became the state’s first municipality to recognize tenants’ right to organize against unfair rent increases and ensure better living conditions. Representatives from the Blake Street Tenants Union — the first officially recognized in New Haven — could not attend the address but received a round of applause from the audience. 

Elicker is the 51st elected Mayor of New Haven. 

Yash Roy covered City Hall and State Politics for the News. He also served as a Production & Design editor, and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion chair for the News. Originally from Princeton, New Jersey, he is a '25 in Timothy Dwight College majoring in Global Affairs.
Yurii Stasiuk is a Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. He previously covered City Hall as a beat reporter. Originally from Kalush, Ukraine, he is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College majoring in History and Political Science.
Nathaniel Rosenberg is City Editor for the News. He previously served as Audience Editor, where he managed the News's newsletter content, covered cops and courts and housing and homelessness for the City Desk. Originally from Silver Spring, MD, he is a junior in Morse College majoring in history.