City officials and advocates reflect on two terms of Elicker’s housing policy
Ahead of Tuesday’s Democratic primary, the News spoke with activists and city officials about New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, rising homelessness and a growing affordable housing crisis.
Tim Tai, Senior Photographer
On Tuesday, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker and Liam Brennan will face off in a Democratic primary defined largely by housing.
Elicker has spent much of the past four years managing the COVID-19 pandemic and a growing affordable housing crisis in the city. With ownership vacancy rates across the city around 1.4 percent and homelessness on the rise throughout the state, housing has become a central challenge for his administration.
“We’re doing a little bit of everything, because there is no one solution to addressing this issue,” Elicker told the News. “Housing challenges exist for someone that has very low to actually no income, but it also is impacting someone that [has] low to moderate income.”
The News spoke to several city officials and activists on New Haven housing to evaluate the successes and failures of the Elicker administration’s housing policy in four areas: pandemic rental assistance, affordable housing, tenant protections and homelessness.
These experts pointed to a mixed track record for the Mayor, pointing to the strengthening of the city’s first tenant unions and an inclusionary zoning bill that had mixed success creating additional affordable housing. They also noted the failures of the Liveable City Initiative and the controversial bulldozing of two tent encampments that had been home to unhoused residents for several years.
Millions of dollars to pandemic rental relief
In his first mayoral term, Elicker rolled out new programs to address housing insecurities caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. His administration launched many of the programs with an influx of federal funding that was allotted to the state for pandemic relief purposes, according to Karen DuBois-Walton ’89, executive director of the New Haven Housing Authority, who challenged Elicker in the 2021 Democratic mayoral primary.
According to DuBois-Walton, the Elicker administration used state resources to move people out of congregate shelters and into hotels for extended periods of time, helping to curb the number of COVID-19 cases within the city.
Most prominently, the city initially invested $10 million of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds into an “I’m Home” initiative to fund rental assistance and affordable housing development.
In 2022, the city allocated an additional $1 million to the program with the goal of increasing down payment assistance from $10,000 to $25,000 per person for those who earn below 300 percent of the federal poverty level for New Haven.
“We have programs for every income level to support people with the goal of … having long term sustainable housing,” Elicker said.
As of 2019, only 29 percent of city residents owned the home they lived in, compared to 66 percent of Connecticut residents. Elicker said that the city’s expansion of the down payment program aimed to close this gap.
This past spring, Elicker’s administration proposed spending another $5 million of ARPA money to expand the program again, in order to jumpstart long delayed affordable housing developments in the city.
Another program, the Coronavirus Assistance and Security Tenant Landlord Emergency Program, distributed grants as high as $8,000 to help tenants behind on rent and homeowners behind on mortgage payments.
DuBois-Walton explained that CASTLE “was an important step at a time when people’s housing was very insecure.”
The program has also been widely criticized for not utilizing enough of its allotted funding during the peak of the pandemic. According to the New Haven Independent, CASTLE expended roughly $103,000 out of its $800,000 budget between the program’s launch in September 2020 and May 2021. However, as of March 2023, the program expended around $844,000 to 139 different households.
Inclusionary zoning creates some — but perhaps not enough — affordable housing units
One of Elicker’s main policies aimed at increasing affordable housing in the city was an Inclusionary Zoning Law, which went into effect Feb. 18, 2022. The law requires that new apartment buildings provide a certain number of units at rent prices below market rate to tenants earning no more than 50 percent of the area median income.
The law has since succeeded in approving the construction of 23 affordable housing units, with 17 more units still in the approval process, according to Lenny Speiller, the mayor’s director of communications.
DuBois-Walton said she believes that apartments covered by the inclusionary zoning law represent only a small subset of the needed affordable units.
“The vast number of units that we need to develop are not going to come from inclusionary zoning,” DuBois-Walton said. She suggested the solution might lie in city-wide initiatives that prioritize building affordable housing units in larger quantities.
In an interview with the News on Friday, Elicker touted the creation of over 900 units of new or renovated units having been brought online and an additional 900 more units in the pipeline since beginning of his administration in 2020.
DuBois-Walton also discussed city efforts to construct accessory dwelling units, which are smaller housing units added to existing homes or apartment buildings. In 2021, New Haven’s Board of Alders passed an ADU ordinance in order to encourage new apartment development. However, no ADUs have since been built based on the amended zoning requirements.
Mayor Elicker told the News that he intends to submit legislation to further encourage the building of additional ADUs.
According to a report by Elm City Communities, a group that includes the city’s Housing Authority, this lack of AUD building is likely due to the current city requirement that only owner-occupants of housing units can build ADUs.
Other city initiatives, such as LCI’s creation of a Below-Market Rental registry, have helped to facilitate affordable housing research within the city.
Tenants find strength in unions but neglect in Livable City Initiative
One of the largest steps forward in establishing protections for tenants made under the Elicker administration has been the formal recognition of tenant unions. Last September, Elicker signed an ordinance defining tenant unions and establishing a process through which tenant unions can collectively complain to the city’s Fair Rent Commission.
Since the ordinance was passed, three tenants unions have formed in New Haven: the first at 311 Blake St., and others at 1275 Quinnipiac Ave and 1476 Chapel St. Last week, mega-landlord Ocean Management agreed to negotiate with members of Blake Street Tenants Union, marking the first time in Connecticut that a landlord has recognized and agreed to collectively bargain with a union.
“When I signed into law the first state of Connecticut tenants union ordinance, I didn’t know quite how powerful it would be,” Elicker said in a speech Wednesday, Aug. 30, at a march the Blake Street Tenants Union organized to protest alleged retaliation by Ocean.
Luke Melonakos-Harrison DIV ’23, vice president of Connecticut Tenants Union, told the News he saw the tenants union ordinance as an important first step toward further protections for tenant organizing.
“Every time a tenants union has filed, the administration has been very celebratory and receptive. And we appreciate that,” he said. “We’re proud that New Haven is leading Connecticut when it comes to unions.”
However, Melonakos-Harrison pointed to the Liveable City Initiative as a place where the Elicker administration has failed in properly protecting tenants. LCI is a city agency created to enforce living standards in rental units.
LCI has been plagued by delays and unresolved complaints, with tenants living in hazardous conditions, left waiting weeks and months without receiving support from the city.
“LCI must be reformed. It must be better staffed. It must be more transparent to tenants,” Melonakos-Harrison said. “Tenants have to have better access to information about their own housing conditions and need to be given more tools to hold their landlords accountable and be protected from retaliation.”
In April, Melonakos-Harrison, along with two other tenants living in Ocean Management-owned units, published an opinion piece in the New Haven Independent detailing what they see as the chronic underfunding of LCI.
In a conversation with the News, DuBois-Walton agreed that LCI lacks the staffing and resources to effectively ensure that landlords comply with city housing standards.
“To expect that [LCI is] going to be able to do the level of inspection and housing code work… with the number of units that are in this market, with the staffing they have is very unrealistic,” she said.
There are currently twelve full-time LCI inspectors, who are responsible for close to 36,000 rental units across the city.
Elicker argued that those twelve inspectors are supported by officials in other departments, such as lead inspectors from the Health Department and Fair Rent Commission staff who inspect units. However, Elicker added that he plans to allocate “additional inspectors and funding” to LCI in the budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
The mayor also hinted at future reforms for LCI in a conversation hosted by the Yale Law Democrats on Thursday night, saying the city is looking to “potentially restructure LCI,” but that no plans have been finalized.
Officials evict tent cities; administration looks for shelter alternatives
Elicker faced fierce criticism from activists and community leaders for the forceful removal of two tent encampments within the past six months where unhoused people were living.
In March, Elicker ordered the New Haven Police Department to forcefully evict the West River tent city. In August, another long-standing encampment under a Lamberton Street bridge was bulldozed. Elicker told the News that the second eviction was initiated by the state’s Department of Transportation, who owns the land.
Elicker argued that the city only intervenes when the living conditions in camps become dangerous — as he said he believes was the case with the West River camp. Back in March, city inspectors repeatedly found signs of burn pits, trash and construction of a permanent shower, all of which are not allowed on the public land. At the Lamberton Street camp, some tenants were located dangerously close to a railroad, Elicker said.
“We very actively, with outreach workers and with our nonprofit partners, engaged with the people that were on site [in tent cities] … to try to find alternatives,” Elicker told the News.
Mark Colville, a local activist and member of the unhoused activist team U-ACT, strongly condemned the Mayor’s administration for evicting unhoused people without providing adequate alternative housing. Colville runs the Rosette Street Project, where he hosts unhoused people living in tents in his backyard.
According to Colville, after the most recent eviction of the Lambert Street Bridge encampment, fifteen to twenty people who were evicted showed up to the Rosette Street Project seeking shelter.
“[Elicker] won’t talk about the atrocity of evicting people and not having any legally-sanctioned place for a person to be who has been excluded from the housing economy,” Colville told the News.
Another challenge the unhoused community in New Haven faces is a lack of shelter beds. In New Haven, there are five permanent shelters, providing a total of 227 beds and 37 family rooms. The city also operates seasonal shelters and warming centers providing 105 additional beds.
For some unhoused people, staying in a shelter is not an option, according to DuBois-Walton. She told the News that until recently, the city’s shelter system followed a “one-size-fits-all” model, sorting unhoused people into temporary homes solely based on factors like gender or whether they have children.
In shelters, some married couples cannot stay together, unhoused people cannot keep their pets and the strict curfew prevents some people from working. DuBois-Walton explained that for others, living in shelters with strict regulations and without much privacy can be a re-traumatizing experience.
“People don’t want to use the shelters; that’s why they’re camping out,” DuBois-Walton said, explaining why some choose to stay on public land. “Or they can’t behave according to the criminal justice model that a shelter is run by.”
To address some of the factors that DuBois-Walton said cause people to avoid shelters, Elicker has proposed the city reallocate $5 million of ARPA money to purchase the Days Inn hotel on Foxon Boulevard. The administration hopes to turn the building into a hotel-style emergency housing that would provide additional 56 rooms, or 112 beds, to shelter unhoused individuals and provide them with flexibility and privacy. The purchase still needs to be approved by the Board of Alders.
Homelessness in Connecticut rose for the second year in a row in 2023 — increasing by roughly 3 percent.
Correction 9/11: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed the creation of the Below-Market Rental registry to the Affordable Housing Commission and also has been updated to include more information about the CASTLE program budget and Elicker’s plans to further change the ADU ordinance in the city.