Minnie Harris packed up glassware in a ghost town, as the housing authority prepared to move forward with a $40 million plan to raze and rebuild an elderly housing complex on the outskirts of West Rock.
New Haven got the official blessing last week from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to start moving the final 42 people left living amid the boarded-up apartments at Abraham Ribicoff Cottages, an elderly and disabled public housing complex way out near the Hamden border, off Brookside Avenue.
The housing authority also received a letter of intent from its investors last week to back the $40 million first phase of the rebuilding project. The project entails tearing down 100 apartments, which were built in the 1950s and have become plagued with mold, mildew and flooding problems. After the old Ribicoff is torn down, the housing authority plans to build 106 apartments. A later phase would include owner-occupied homes.
Harris, who moved into Ribicoff in 1999, is now living in a sea of boarded-up homes. The complex has faced systematic problems of mold, poor drainage and nasty sewage. Harris said she plans to move back into the new Ribicoff. She isn’t sad about trading out her current apartment for a nice, new one.
“I want a nice place,” she said. “I don’t want no junky place like I have now.”
But she said she feels anxious about where she might end up for the next year and a half.
“I don’t want to move to a bad area where they are doing no drugs,” she said.
Ribicoff is part of a $200 million, 432-unit West Rock Revitalization Project that includes tearing down and rebuilding the Brookside Rockview complexes and improving transportation to an isolated part of town. The new Brookside is finished; Rockview has been put on hold while the housing authority fast-tracks Ribicoff.
The housing authority’s development arm, Glendower, in October replaced Trinity Financial as the sole developer on the Ribicoff redo, according to Jimmy Miller, deputy director of the housing authority. He said Glendower, which was founded six years ago, has built 500 housing units totaling $400 million in just five years, establishing a track record that enables it to secure tax credits and private investments on its own.
Miller said the housing authority is working against a Dec. 31, 2015, deadline to build the new Ribicoff and lease all of the spaces—a requirement of the tax credits it secured from the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority. Building will take about 18 months, he said. So the housing authority has set a goal of relocating all of the tenants by June.
With last week’s approvals secured, it’s now time for the last remaining public housing-dwellers to find temporary or permanent homes.
“We’re ready to pack them up and move them,” said Karen DuBois-Walton.
To do so, the housing authority will have to find comparable apartments for each of the 42 remaining people. As soon as that happens, demolition can begin.
Some tenants have opted to use a Section 8 voucher at a private apartment. Some have chosen to move into elderly high-rises. Some, like Minnie Harris, don’t yet know where they are going.
“I’ve gotta go, but I don’t know where,” said Harris (pictured) in a recent conversation at her dining room table. She was taking a break to rest her leg after packing up some “whatnots” with her nephew. She wore an campaign T-shirt reading “Sherry Killins for mayor,” a throwback to a 2003 Democratic primary.
Harris said she wanted to move into the new Wilmot Crossing complex (pictured), which is not far away at Brookside and Wilmot Road, but her doctor said she can’t use an elevator because of her bad leg.
Ribicoff residents were given first dibs on apartments in Brookside and Wilmot Crossing. Now they are also being offered apartments across the housing authority’s 2,000-unit portfolio, which includes four senior-only complexes, according to Miller.
Harris and Esther Pearson, the tenant council president, said they are apprehensive and unhappy about the choices being offered to them. They were given an option of taking federal Section 8 rent vouchers or moving to a different public housing complex. They both said they don’t trust the Section 8 program because they are concerned Republicans will eliminate it after President Obama leaves office.
Miller said he has tried to assuage those fears.
“There’s been no reduction in Section 8 in my lifetime” of 62 years, Miller said. “Section 8 has always been a stable source of revenue.” It is politically safe, he said, because its constituents are not just low-income renters, but also landlords and developers. “It’s a good a government bet as there is,” he said.
Pearson has begun packing up some boxes (pictured). She does not know where she will be moving them. She said she didn’t want to go to Wilmot Crossing because the rooms are “tiny” and too “clustered” together. Pearson said she was offered a spot at the Charles T. McQueeney Towers on Orange, and at the Crawford Manor at 90 Park St. She said she’s concerned she will pick up bed bugs if she goes there.
“I don’t have any bed bugs,” Pearson said. “If I go over there and take my little bit of junk furniture, I’m going to leave with bed bugs.”
Pearson, who is 77, has lived at Ribicoff for 11 years. She said she is concerned that movers will steal her valuables off of the truck when she moves. She suggested Ribicoff be built in phases—one half at a time—so that the remaining residents could remain there during construction.
Miller said that’s not possible, due to the tight construction deadline. He said the housing authority has taken seniors on a tour of available spaces. About 10 percent of its 2,000 public housing units become vacant every year, he said. When someone moves out, the space often has to be rehabilitated so that it meets inspection standards. Housing authority staff alone can’t keep up with the rehab that needs to be done to put the vacant apartments back on the market, Miller said.
To speed up the process, the housing authority board last week approved hiring two outside contractors—GP Contractor LLC and Yul Watley’s ATC, LLC—to rehab vacant public housing apartments so that Ribicoff refugees can move into them.
Miller said the housing authority takes great pains to meet the needs of each person who needs to be relocated. For each person, it compiles a detailed profile of their housing needs, including family size, disabilities, access to medication, and the location of the person’s family, kids’ schools, churches and caretakers.
“There’s no way we can meet every single need, but we will try our damnedest to meet as much of these needs as possible,” Miller said.
Miller said the housing authority has no interest in getting into an eviction battle with its tenants. The authority can’t kick them out until it finds them a comparable apartment. It wants to find an apartment the tenant is satisfied with, because that makes the move quicker; an eviction battle could drag out and take up precious time.
“We have to cooperate with them,” Miller said, “because we need them to cooperate with us.”
Harris said she’s anxious for the waiting period to end. She spent last Wednesday morning carefully packing up appreciation plaques from her church, St. Matthews on Dixwell. She also carefully packed up glassware that belonged to her sister, who died in the house while Harris was living with her. Harris said she has grown tired limping around the apartment packing, not knowing where she will go.
“Wherever they’re going to put me,” she said, “I just hope they get it over with.”