New Housing, Slumlords On Next Mayor’s Agenda

Melissa Bailey File PhotoFirst of four parts on mayoral candidates’ stands on major issues.

When New Haven’s next mayor takes office, Church Street South might be in line for an upscale makeover. The doomed Star Supply project may get a second life. And City Hall might try to revive an old idea: housing co-ops.

Those positions emerged in four separate interviews with the candidates running for mayor in next Tuesday’s Democratic mayoral primary: Kermit Carolina, Justin Elicker, Henry Fernandez, and Toni Harp.

The candidates spoke at length with the Independent about housing and economic development issues they’d face if elected, ranging from the future of the old Dwight Co-ops and the Ninth Square to waterfront development and the handling of problem landlords.

Here’s what they said:

How will you specifically address the problem of Newhallville slumlords, property flippers, and perpetrators of mortgage fraud?

The Newhallville neighborhood has been battered by blight caused in party by either absentee landlords engaged in quick-profit real-estate flips or outright mortgage fraud rings that allowed decaying buildings to languish while making off with millions of dollars.

Carolina: Start “listing some of these slumlords publicly. We need to let people know who they are. We need to make it as public as possible. There’s nothing worse than peer pressure and public pressure.” Also give the Liveable City Initiative (LCI), the city’s anti-blight agency, “more teeth” to enforce the law more. “It’s disgusting when you walk through Newhallville and see some of the homes that are owned by slumlords.”

Elicker: Better enforce laws already on the books. Given LCI’s finite resources, do fewer inspections of properties owned by landlords with good records in order to increase the number of inspections of properties owned by problem landlords. And “crowdsource” public information about landlords by setting up a section on the city website for tenants to grade them; landlords would be able to respond on the site.

Fernandez: Do what he did as head of New Haven government’s Livable City Initiative: Work with the state’s attorney’s office to pursue not just civil, but criminal investigations of slumlords violating building codes. Work with the FBI and federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to pursue investigations into mortgage fraud, a federal crime. The resulting wave of prosecutions reduced criminal activity among flippers and fraudsters for years by sending a message that “if you engage in mortgage fraud, we will go after you.”

Harp: In addition to investigating fraud, push for more on-site homeownership in Newhallville on a large scale by helping people, particularly young people, obtain mortgages to live in multi-family homes and rent out the other apartments. “We have a similar type of housing in the Hill where we actually have working families working in the unit. Then they can have market-level and Section 8/RAP as well. That stabilizes communities. If you look at what has happened in the Hill neighborhood, the same can happen in Newhallville.” She’d also promote construction of single-family homes marketed to on-site middle-class homeowners like the government-assisted construction a decade ago at the homes along Division Street across from Science Park.

Should Newhallville’s empty lots mostly be turned into new housing or kept as open space? Or be used for another purpose?

The city owns more than 30 vacant lots in Newhallville. They represent the best hope for reviving the neighborhood on a broader scale. Some have thriving community gardens. Many are vacant. Most used to have small houses on them. A debate has been taking place over the best strategy for future use of those lots. Read a three-part series about that here, here and here.

Carolina: Work with Yale to develop a “small-business incubator” on some of the lots. Otherwise pursue a mix of housing and community gardens. “We need to diversify.”

Elicker: “Case specific.” Focus on development projects on larger lots along commercial corridors like Dixwell Avenue. Listen to what neighbors want. Continue the city sliver-lot programs that sells small plots to responsible abutting property owners. Given Newhallville’s dearth of city-owned green space, encourage community gardens—and see them as tax-base boosters because of how they raise neighborhood property values.

Fernandez: A combination of community gardens and greenspaces; and new housing, aimed at “working-family” potential homeowners, on the larger lots.

Harp: Focus on building affordable housing, except where the lots are too small.

Should Dwight Gardens be rebuilt largely as a Section 8 development, as proposed by one of the property’s suitors?

An 80-unit former co-op on Edgewood Avenue between Garden and Dwight streets fell into disrepair; the city brought in a developer who promised to fix it up, then failed. Since the the city has scrambled to find a new developer to rescue the complex before another winter sets in; different visions for the complex have emerged, from creating a mixed-income community to transforming much of it to “project-based” federal-subsidized Section 8 housing. Click here, here, and here. Dwight was one of several ‘60s-era co-ops that flourished for decades around town then went into default and were turned over to private developers.

Carolina: Mixed-income. And take a closer look this time at the developer’s track record and qualifications. Make sure the decision involves no “quid pro quos.”

Elicker: No specific position for that property; in general, pursue mixed-income developments. “You don’t want all poor folks living in one place and all rich folks living in another.”

Fernandez: Not a good Section 8 site. Should be mixed-income, possibly through the use of housing tax credits. City should have refinanced the coop in the first place rather than letting it fail and the property go into private hands.

Harp: Revive it as a tenant co-op again. Yes, some co-ops failed; others, like Florence Virtue in Dixwell, haven’t. And most of them have physically stood up better than many privately-owned subsidized-housing projects. “I was on the board of Florence Virtue; those women [on the board]  were tough on the tenants.” The problem at some of the co-ops lay in mismanagement and infighting on co-op boards. Federal money may not be available this time to launch or rescue co-ops. If not, he city should seek other sources—and this time write protections into agreements so it can step in early if management problems or board infighting occur.

As mayor would you have supported the plan to build new housing at the old Star Supply property on State Street? Why or why not—and what will you do about the property as mayor?

East Rock neighbors and members of a Yale union-affiliated citizens group succeeded in convincing officials to kill a plan to build a mixed-use, 268-apartment complex where a long-abandoned factory now stands on Upper State Street. The developer didn’t need financial help; it did need zoning relief, in part to have fewer parking spaces than allowed as of right. Opponents feared they’d lose parking spaces. Supporters said it would have brought needed housing—and tax revenue—to the city, and they argued that the city should build projects with less parking in the future. Read about the project and that debate here, here, here, and here.

Carolina: Pursue new housing there. “We have to make sure our residents understand our city is in a fiscal crisis. We’re all going to have to make some sacrifices. While I understand the importance of these parking spots, that was a lost opportunity to build our tax base.”

Elicker: Yes. “It was unfortunate that the proposal got shot down. I supported it. I would support it again.” It would broaden the tax base, encourage more mass transit, create jobs, boost neighborhood businesses. He wouldn’t have “chosen” to have it rise seven stories as the developer proposed, but he doesn’t feel a mayor gets to make all those specific design choices.

Fernandez: Support new housing there along the general lines of the shot-down plan. In its current condition, the property is “unsafe—we have a real risk of people getting into that property” and of “a roof collapse.” Meanwhile, the property drags down property values. A housing complex there would boost mass transit and the tax base. Contrary to some critics of the plan, he believes it’s OK to include market-rate housing, rather than just “affordable housing,” in new projects.

Harp: Push to have the project, or one like it, built. Do a better job from City Hall discussing the idea in advance with the neighbors, and including more voices—not just the most motivated opponents—in the discussion. “We’ve got to build more housing in our town,” Harp said. She said she hears from many people in the Goatville near Star Supply who want to see more affordable housing built; their voices did not get heard enough in the Star Supply debate, she said.

Will you support the request by the developers of the Ninth Square for a bailout and new tax breaks?

The developers of the busy, renovated downtown neighborhood southeast of the Green have asked the city for new abatements to keep a lower tax bill for years to come and to secure new loans and $9.9 million in forgiven debt payments. The issue is unresolved and may well land in the next mayor’s lap. Read about it here and here.

Carolina: Highly skeptical of the bailout request. Stands by his original remarks in this story.

Elicker: We’re not giving bailouts to other taxpayers in the city. We can’t give a bailout to the developers of the Ninth Square. This problem was foreseen.

Fernandez: He’s open to renegotiating the debt on what he considers “one of the most successful affordable housing developments in the country.” he argues that the city can get better terms than what the developer has requested. “Just because a developer states the sky if falling, doesn’t mean the sky is falling.”

Harp: Highly skeptical of the bailout request. “What’s to stop this from happening again in 10 to 15 years?” Happy to see someone else “who can make it work” take over the project. Stands by her original remarks in this story.

Do you support the proposal to build new homes and businesses along the waterfront? Or do you agree with people who suggest climate change makes that too risky?

Carolina: Would explore whether building seawalls would make it less risky to build new projects there, with the hope that such projects can be pursued in order to build the tax base.

Elicker: Yes, build near the waterfront, but take a close look at existing maps projecting sea-level rises to see where it’s safe. Don’t rely on seawalls. Include buffer zones for coastal flooding. And don’t look to build new “towers” as some have suggested for Long Wharf; that “misses the point of new urbanism,” where people are seeking a “sense of place.” Build three-to-five-story mixed-use buildings with access to the water, like projects undertaken in Stamford and in Rhode Island.

Fernandez: Would focus first on Fair Haven’s River Street district, “the most significant opportunity for harborfront redevelopment.” He’d seek a mix of commercial, residential, and retail development there, as a spur to development a greenway connecting Criscuolo Park to Quinnipiac River Park and Dover Beach. He’d look into Long Wharf development but sees challenges because of the height and noise of the freeway.

Harp: Agrees with former mayoral opponent (and now campaign supporter) Matthew Nemerson that new housing and commercial development should go up near the waterfront. “It doesn’t have to be all up on the waterfront,” but rather set back to locations with waterfront access, like near the old Brewery Street Post Office.” Notes the presence of IKEA and Assa Abloy on Sargent Drive.

What’s your plan for the future of Church St. South and the ‘Hill-to-Downtown” district from the medical school to the train station?

City planners have focused on the abundance of surface parking lots in that district as the remaining big development opportunity in town. Read about that here and here. Meanwhile, the future of the troubled Church Street South complex across from the train station remains a subject of debate. Read about that here and here.

Carolina: A mix of office buildings, restaurants, stores, and new housing throughout that district. Tear down and replace Church Street South as part of that plan—but first “talk to residents” about how to make sure they can move to a “better affordable-housing” elsewhere.

Elicker: It starts with Church Street South. As a gateway to the city, it gives a bad impression in its current state. Rebuild it more densely with a mix of incomes; make sure tenants have a right to return.

Fernandez: Church Street South as a residential development has failed” under a series of owners. Redevelop it as a mixed-income housing complex to form a new “gateway” to the city, with current tenants getting a chance to move back in or find “high-quality” housing elsewhere. Pursue developers to purchase surface lots nearby to build high-rise office buildings and house new companies tied to Yale-new Haven Hospital and the medical school, tapping into new opportunities spawned by the passage of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Harp: “It’s got to be developed” with mixed-income housing and commercial projects.

What will be your first big ask of Yale?

Click on the videos throughout this story to watch candidates’ full answers.

Carolina: Ask Yale to expand the homebuyer program to cover not just university workers, but also city employees, including the approximately 70 percent of teachers, firefighters and cops who currently live outside the city, in order to lure them to buy homes in New Haven neighborhoods. Also ask Yale to help develop a small-business “incubator” for local entrepreneurs going well beyond the high-tech focus of Science Park.

Elicker: Combine Yale Shuttle & CT Transit. “One line is for one type of person. CT Transit is for everyone else. There’s a social justice involved. There’s an environmental issue, because it’s wasteful. There’s an efficiency issue. ... Yale can inject some money into the CT Transit system” and increase routes. Other universities do similar “U-passes” for its students. Also ask Yale to give more support to local entrepreneurism.

Fernandez: Have Yale’s School of Management create a premier training program for high-school principals. Include slots for New Haven teachers and administrators; steer a number of graduates of the program each year into city schools. (Read more about that idea here.)

Harp: Rent out street-level stores, especially in the Audubon Street district, that Yale keeps vacant for years on end in order to wait for optimal tenants. If necessary, ask Yale to subsidize solid tenants who might not be able to afford high rents. And ask Yale to give priority to local merchants. 

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posted by: FacChec on September 3, 2013  11:52am

The responses from the candidates vary in the priority, degree, and the order of importance they would apply to each individual project. All seem to agree that housing, redevelopment and code enforcement is a high priority for the city in the next term of the new Mayor.

What the questions and answers say to me, is that the city is in need a new dynamic housing plan which incorporates, HUD, CT. housing finance authority, private developers, and LCI. On the other hand the city currently has a plan formulated by city plan dept and LCI, but that so called plan is sitting on the shelf giving preference to the Mayor’s downtown development plans 100 college, RT 34 and the coliseum redevelopment.

Clearly, the current Mayors plan and a new housing plan are at opposite ends of the priority scale.

One of these candidates has to step up and outline what the priority will be, it cannot be both. It is not enough to simply provide a generic answer to a single focus question. It takes long range planning. Henry should know that best.

As far as LCI is concern, the agency is floundering in its task; taxpayers pay the salary of housing inspectors while they are off inspecting HANH units for a fee, and ignoring blighted units in Newhallville, Dwight, Hill and Fair Haven.

Elicker correctly notes that LCI already has the enforcement teeth, but does not properly and timely execute it; at the same time, neither the Mayor nor the BOA performs oversight.

This has to stop; a reorganized housing strategy backed by a new plan is the demand of the day.

posted by: citoyen on September 3, 2013  12:29pm

Excellent article.  I look forward to the ones to come.

(One correction: Carolina did not say he’d like Yale to expand its homebuyers’ program to “the approximately 70 percent of teachers, firefighters and cops who currently live in the city,” but to those who do NOT currently live in the city.)

[Editor: Ouch! Thanks for the correction.]

posted by: Hieronymous on September 3, 2013  1:09pm

Looking forward to this series. These are good questions and not the type that get a lot of discussion in the debates. I really hope NHI will post the full videos of the interviews. Thus far, I’ve found that the single best source of info on the candidates has been there hour-long interviews with the NHR editorial board (though I understand that only Elicker’s and Carolina’s have been posted in full). It’s extremely helpful to hear them speak at length, in their own words. That way we can assess not only their ideas (which may or may not be prepackaged), but also their facility with articulating them, and whether they seem to actually know what they’re talking about.

posted by: robn on September 3, 2013  1:41pm

Harp gets a failing grade on Star Supply. Neighbors wanting “to see more affordable housing built” killed the project right along with the parking complainers….even though asking for affordable housing is completely inappropriate during the Zoning Variance process, which should only discuss use and form. That was a case study in political extortion gone wrong.

posted by: grounded on September 3, 2013  2:18pm



posted by: sunshine44 on September 3, 2013  5:13pm

I agree that seeing the full interviews will be helpful.  Only by seeing the full interviews, “warts and all,” can readers get a reasonably full picture of who each candidate is and how he/she deals with questions and issues.  In the NHR, there are only managed excerpts for Harp and Fernandez—highlighting their positions on selected issues.  I understand that this was called to the attention of the Register’s news bureau nearly a week ago and they promised to correct the error.  As far as I know, the full interviews are still missing.  This makes you question the newspaper’s objectivity, and particularly any editorial position the Register may take.  I hope that the Independent follows a different path by providing equal coverage of candidates and full excerpts of their interviews.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on September 3, 2013  6:02pm

A first “ask of Yale” should be for it and all wealthy non-profits to have an independent assessment of their real and personal property, give up their tax exemptions, pay their fair share of taxes to show solidarity with the citizens of New Haven by paying their fair share of taxes.
How disappointing that all the candidates think more development will solve the financial problems that go back so far in time. It hasn’t worked so far, but incredibly every one - candidates and union leaders - still think it’s a panacea.
New Haven should be the one place - other than New London - that understands government officials are lousy city planners.

posted by: Bill Saunders on September 3, 2013  6:02pm

I think an interesting ‘Tell’ is Harp’s statement about Yale Properties and local business, and that guy named Bruce(?).

First, she starts to say these vacant commercial properties should be filled with local, no wait, it should be filled first, and with local business if possible.

We all know what that possibility is, and apparently so does she.

Finally, a specific…..

posted by: HewNaven on September 3, 2013  6:52pm

Most useful 2013 campaign article that I’ve read so far. Great job.

posted by: Elm City Lifer on September 3, 2013  10:24pm

Hopefully we will get some defininitive answers from all the candidates.i made it through dilieto,daniels and destefano.hope the new mayor will have real solutions to our problems and not just save it for the next guy or gal.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on September 3, 2013  11:18pm

What is Harp talking about with her reference to the “old Brewery Street post office”?  It’s still there; doesn’t she know that?

posted by: Hieronymous on September 4, 2013  11:08am

So, I was kind of expecting a “[Editor: Yes, we’ll be posting the full interview videos]” after my last comment (or sunshine44’s). Will you be?

I’ve found, in my admittedly limited and somewhat biased experience, that Toni Harp is like the Johnny Damon of this race—she makes a lot more sense when you read her remarks than when you hear them. The same could probably be said of the others, but, as someone who hasn’t been able to attend all the debates, I’d like to see for myself before next Tuesday. Thanks!

[Editor: I didn’t take video of the full interviews. Just the snippets we’re showing. Sorry!]

posted by: OneCityManyDreams on September 4, 2013  11:54am

senator harps comments are just odd.  She wants Yale to do a better job at renting space. This is “the ask’ goodness…ABH…anybody but Harp….

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on September 4, 2013  4:09pm

Church Street South buildings are not a lost cause. Through selective, surgical demolition, new streets could be opened up through the site and new mixed-use buildings could be constructed on Union Avenue facing the train station. Mid-rise buildings could be constructed on the vacant portion of the site near Tower Lane and Church Street South, next to St. Basil’s Church. The mechanical systems can be replaced, pitched roofs can be added, and the courtyards can be privatized with gates. Some units can be renovated for re-use with Section 8 vouchers while others can be gutted and completed redone as market rate units. Church Street South has an enormous variety of unit sizes, including 5-bedrooms, which offers ample space for renovations.

With a little investment, much of the existing housing at Church Street South could be renovated, resulting in property values and unit sales comparable with the Trade Union Plaza Apartment complex located on the block bounded by Howe, Crown, George and Dwight Streets. New construction could also provide some luxury housing, retail and office space to compliment the market rate and Section 8 units of the renovated low-rises. Church Street Housing has good bones and with a little investment and redesign it can be saved and rejuvenated without requiring complete demolition and redevelopment.