Work is going on at the Dwight Co-Op Homes—which in this case could be a sign of failure, not progress, at the latest New Haven housing experiment to change hands.
A new owner was supposed to have finished by now transforming the worn collections of town houses across Edgewood Avenue from the Amistad (formerly Dwight) School.
For four decades, the 80 homes there constituted a federally-supported cooperative controlled by a tenant group, one of several launched in town in the mid-20th century. Other co-ops—Trade Union Plaza, Ethan Gardens, Canterbury Gardens—have failed and been sold to private owners. Most recently it was Dwight Co-Op’s turn.
The city foreclosed on the property in 2010 sold it to a Bridgeport developer with a spotty financial record, Garfield Spencer, on the condition that he make the $6 million in repairs, $1 million of that coming from a city loan. He had a July 2012 deadline.
It’s now October and “less than 10 percent” of the work has been completed, said the city government’s point man on the project, Livable City Initiative (LCI) chief Erik Johnson (pictured at a recent neighborhood meeting). “They have not demonstrated that they have the financing required to complete the renovations.” Spencer has run into similar problems before.
So, Johnson said, the city is exploring “taking action” on the deal. He declined to specify what kind of action. “No legal action has been filed to date,” he said.
Spencer did not return phone and email messages seeking comment.
Tenants interviewed at the complex acknowledged that the tenants group that previously ran the complex fell down on the job. But they said selling off the place to a new owner hasn’t proved to be a solution.
Georgia Ballard (pictured) looked up at window-less, empty units as she got in her car to go to work.
“By now it should have been fixed. They promised 24 months. Twenty-four months is gone,” she said. “Things are not getting done the way they promised things were going to get done.”
Ballard, who has lived in the Dwight Co-Op Homes for over 20 years, and her fellow tenants came tantalizingly close to paying off their mortgage and owning the complex outright.
The city helped open it in 1969 as part of a social experiment: government-subsidized co-ops. Working families earning low incomes, screened by a board, obtained shares in the co-op for around $325. They got a 40-year federal government-backed $1.492 million mortgage. They ran the place jointly and paid monthly fees to keep up the place. Similar co-ops sprang up throughout New Haven in the 1960s, part of the “Model City” period of antipoverty experimentation.
For decades Dwight Co-Op Homes stayed in good shape. Kids played basketball and parents held meetings and parties in a standalone community center.
Over the last decade the co-op fell apart—figuratively and literally. The board started fighting, a lot. It fell behind in bills. First the complex fell into receivership to the gas company in 2007. It paid back the $150,000 owed in early 2009, but fell way behind in payments to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which holds the mortgage.
Meanwhile, no money was going to repairs. Roofs started leaking throughout the complex. Boilers broke. A series of hired managers came and went. The community center (pictured) became uninhabitable. The deferred maintenance tab reached the millions. Twenty of the 80 apartments went vacant, compounding the fiscal crisis. Click here to read a story about the project’s trajectory over the years and visit with some of Co-op Homes’ long-time occupants..
They had one year left on the mortgage when the city foreclosed and inked a deal for Spencer’s company to take control and theoretically fix it.
“Had they given us more of a chance, I believe all of that [the problems] could have been taken care of,” Georgia Ball said.
“I think it was messed up; we were about to own it,” Kenny Freeman said as he walked his pit bull Yay one recent morning. Freeman, 23, has lived in Dwight Co-Op Homes since he was 7.
“This place is old, man,” Freeman said. He spoke of persistent leaks in the complex and hot water not working for a week at a time, apartments remaining gutted. “They’ve been prolonging so much,” he said of the new owner. “Some people just worry about they self. They don’t worry about us; they go home.”
“I’m not sure,” he added, “that we would have fixed it up, though,” if the tenant cooperative had remained in charge.