Old Rowe To New Rowe: Move Happens Quick

Laurel Leff PhotoTenants of Howard Avenue’s Rowe apartments have waited for years to move out of their crumbling housing project and into a new high-rise nearby. When they finally got word that it was time to go, the mostly disabled and elderly tenants had just hours to vacate.

A blown transformer shut off the power at 904 Howard St. in the early morning hours of Sept. 1, speeding up the move-out date. On the very day the lights went out, the 40 remaining tenants of the complex that once housed 172 apartments wheeled carts and toted boxes with their belongings to their new home, a just-completed mixed-income building around the corner.

After a week in residence, a dozen or so tenants joined government officials and private investors Wednesday to celebrate the opening of the new William T. Rowe Residential Apartment Building, now located at 33 Sylvan Ave. Memories of the hasty departure have faded and the appeal of their new surroundings have sunk in.

“It’s beautiful,”  76-year-old Margaret Hopkins, who lived in the old Rowe for 34 years, said—a refrain repeated over and over again by tenants describing their new apartments. It was also the phrase heard most often as 100 or so guests ogled three apartments on display in the “New Rowe,” as the city’s press release called it.

The New Rowe represents a new approach to public housing in the neighborhood by mixing wealthier tenants (in this case, possibly doctors working at the hospital nearby) with public-housing tenants (in this case largely seniors).

The nine-story building a block from Yale-New Haven Hospital has 104 one- and two-bedroom apartments. Of those, 78 are for low-income households (defined as a family of four earning about $41,800). Another 26 will rent at market rates, beginning at $1,100 for a one-bedroom and $1,300 for a two-bedroom.

Laurel Leff PhotoThe building has a fitness center, community support services and outside parking for 88 vehicles. There will be 2,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor.

The developer broke ground a little over a year ago, and the building opened a little ahead of schedule.

For the Old Rowe’s tenants, the new building’s lush colors and crisp lighting have not erased their last years at 904 Howard St.—or the daunting process it took to end them.

“It was terrible,” Darnell Clark, 28, said of the building he called home for four years. “The maintenance was not keeping up with the building. Outsiders were coming in. Security guards were not securing the building.”

Of his new digs, Clark said: “I can’t complain. It’s wonderful. It’s beautiful.”

Sandra Claxton, 71, echoed the sentiment. “It’s new and it’s clean and it smells good,” she said.

The rapid move was a strain, however. “I haven’t moved like that in 16 years,” she said, adding that “I’m still tired today.”

Cameron Taylor, pictured, a 46-year-old who heads the resident association, spoke during Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. She described the new building as “a blessing.” (She’s pictured above with Amy Eppler-Epstein of New Haven Legal Assistance, which represented the tenants during this process.)

“I don’t have to worry about the elevator breaking down,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about suffering in the summer when we don’t have adequate ventilation.” 

She concluded: “We’re looking forward to very many years in this community because we now know the community cares.”

Chatting before the ceremony, Taylor described what she particularly likes about her two bedroom apartment: “Everything is more accessible. It’s all for the handicapped.” Taylor, who is disabled, lives with her husband who just had a triple-bypass operation.

The number of people who spoke at Wednesday’s ceremony—12 were scheduled, 10 did—reflected the tortuous path to the New Rowe. Kenan Bigby, project manager for the private developer, Trinity Financial, explained how the project began with a small circle of people, including representatives of his company and the Housing Authority of the City of New Haven (HANH), as well as several tenants. Every year, the number of agencies and private investors grew.

In the final deal, Trinity, a Boston-based developer that specializes in urban projects, used money from the city, the state, and the federal government. HANH put in $7 million, and the City of New Haven added $4 million. On the state level, the quasi-public Connecticut Housing Finance provided $18.5 million in construction and permanent debt financing; the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development contributed $3 million. Enterprise Community Investment pitched in $8 million fueled by government tax credits purchased by TD Bank.

Two events put the deal over the top, according to Karen DuBois-Walton, HANH’s executive director. The first was $10 million in federal stimulus money.

In a theme repeated by many speakers during Wednesday’s ceremony, a representative of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which made the grant, said the joint effort demonstrated the importance of government funding.

“At a time when there is a raging debate about the role of government, this community and this authority are showing what amazing things can be done with public investment,” Jennifer Gottlieb Elazhari of HUD’s Hartford office said.

The other crucial event was an unusual land-swap deal involving the HANH, Yale-New Haven Hospital, and Trinity Financial. HANH had been reluctant to refurbish the old Rowe building because it would mean the tenants would need to be relocated more than once. Constructing a new building would be easier on the tenants.

But HANH didn’t own any land nearby. Yale-New Haven did. So HANH agreed to give the hospital the land under the old Rowe apartment building and to demolish the building. In exchange, HANH got land Yale owned. HANH in turn provided Trinity Financial with a 99-year-old lease on the land where the New Rowe stands.

It’s not yet clear what Yale-New Haven will do with the site once the building, which is a half block from the hospital, comes down.

The market-rate apartments in the New Rowe are designed to attract hospital employees. Laura Brennan, marketing specialist, said she had been showing apartments for about three weeks. About five or six people a day have been looking at apartments, and nine are in the process of being rented.

No one has moved into the market-rate apartments yet.

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posted by: anon on September 8, 2011  11:50am

It’s nice to see this decrepit housing replaced by something that contributes to the area.  Credit is due to Trinity Financial, HUD and HANH, and others (not the least including everyone who didn’t vote for McCain/Palin).

Unfortunately, most everyone knows that YNHH will build yet another enormous parking garage on their new land, contributing to the sky-high asthma rates within the area. 

Route 34 is now being widened and rebuilt as a highway which will funnel even more traffic past. 

The city needs to look at the neighborhood holistically, not just at the housing issue.

posted by: Anderson Scooper on September 8, 2011  1:54pm

The “Old Rowe” was built in 1975, and lasted just 36 years.

Here’s hoping the “New Rowe” enjoys a much longer life!

And where is the investigation into what went wrong with the old building for it to be condemned after so few years of service? Where does the fault lie? With the builder? With the Housing Authority?

Or was it just demolition by neglect, as part of a secret scheme involving YNHH?

posted by: joe on September 8, 2011  2:42pm

my elderly grandmother lived in apartment 9A at the old Rowe building. She passed away years before the change, however even back then the place was dirty, smelled and all kinds of stuff. I dont know how many years her front lock on her door was broken, probably still is, all you had to do was give the door a good shove and it would pop open. it was just terrible. I wish the remaining tenants good luck at their new place, too bad my grandmother wasnt around to see this day

posted by: Cedarhillresident on September 8, 2011  4:24pm

@Anderson Scooper

I vote all of the above!

posted by: Roy Becoat on September 12, 2011  1:29pm

My Uncle Johnny B. McNeil is in the featured photo, the gentleman in the wheelchair were amongst those who gained access to this beautiful edifice. Four to three weeks prior to this as he laid in a hospital bed at Yale-New Haven Hospital he was all to proud to let his entire family know that he would soon have a new home. He brought to the attention of all his families members gathered who had travel from South Carolina the building which could be viewed from room. The doctors prognosis wasn’t good for him, but God knew more and let it be so that he ‘d be able to seize the day and gain entry. I’m overjoyed for him truly.

posted by: Karen Bishop on September 12, 2011  2:13pm

This is absolutely beautiful. One of my family members is pictured in this photo in the wheelchair. He just knew he was going to move into this building, and no one could tell him different. I am so proud that Uncle Johnny B , has the opportunity to enjoy this beautiful building. What a blessing for him and the other tenants to take part in the New Rowe Building. “God is Good”!