A U.S. Army veteran will take the keys to a new home in the Hill, as the Yale Building Project takes a new focus in its 40th year.
Renee Wells (pictured) set off for a six-month tour of duty in Saudi Arabia in 1995. Exposure to oil refineries, she said, left her with lasting health problems, from asthma to lung disease. She bounced around from home to home, struggling not to become one of the nation’s 200,000 homeless veterans.
Now Wells has found a stable home — 33 Kossuth St., a one-block street in the Hill neighborhood near the John C. Daniels School.
“This is huge!” said Wells as her kids explored their new territory at an opening ceremony Monday. Moving from her native Norwich area to New Haven will bring her closer to the VA Hospital in West Haven, and give her children — “a dancer and a karate kid”— lots to do.
Wells’ home, which she hopes to close on in late November, will be the 19th affordable home completed by Yale School of Architecture students as part of the Yale Building Project. A recent book by the Yale University Press details the program since its inception 40 years ago. In the last two years, students brought solar-paneled works of art to Henry and Orchard Streets.
This year, the program shifted its focus, pairing up with Common Ground Community to focus on a nationwide problem: An estimated 23 percent of homeless people are veterans, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
This year’s angular abode will be home to two vets: Wells will own the home and live with her two children (Megan and Kenny, pictured above) in a handicapped-accessible, three-bedroom unit. To help them make mortgage payments, they’ll rent out a second unit to another veteran.
In brief remarks before a large group of students crowded onto a front patio, Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. praised the handicapped-accessible design. New Haven’s disabled, who comprise 25 percent of the population, are usually limited to living in high rises, he noted.
As the ceremony continued, a neighbor in a silver car slowed down to see what was going on. “About time they do something with our neighborhood!” she cried out the window.
“Now they gotta do something for the Puerto Ricans!” she said to a friend.
Adam Hopfner, the faculty adviser to this year’s project, said the focus of the design was “reentry into society” — helping those who have served in the military reintegrate back into normal life. A generous front patio is intended to embrace the street.
Integration has not always been so easy, however.
In 1993, Latino owners moving into a Yale Building Project home on Newhall Street, in a largely African-American neighborhood, found their home vandalized shortly after moving in.
An Indian family that bought the 2006 home on Henry Street, also in a largely African-American neighborhood, told the Independent that shortly after moving in this summer, they suffered a series of nighttime attacks. Once, vandals threw eggs. A second time, someone banged on the door in the middle of the night, apparently trying to gain entrance. A third time, vandals chucked charcoal bricks at the large glass panes of the home.
It turned out what had been an attractive architectural feature — glass panes letting light pour into the rooms — ended up the biggest concern for the couple and their daughter, who said they fear for their safety.
How did Yale builders balance security with design in the Kossuth Street home? Hopfner said the team redesigned the front patio because “there were concerns that the space would feel dangerous.” They put the big glass panes facing the rear yard, not the busy street. “Safety and security are always concern,” he said.
Next door, neighbors had mixed reviews.
“It’s beautiful!” said Ann Brown, a retired hospital employee who’s kept watch on the street for 40 years. She praised Yale for turning a vacant lot into a home.
Sitting beside her on the stoop, her nephew took a more skeptical tack. “Who are they?” he asked, begrudging the new building for taking up what used to be an informal playground. “I taught my cousin to play baseball there,” he grumbled. “Now they got nowhere to go.”
“Never mind him,” said Brown, shaking her head. “The house is gorgeous.”
Renee Wells is a participant in Empower New Haven’s MI HomePower community impact initiative and will receive downpayment and mortgage insurance assistance. Click on the play arrow to watch video highlights of Monday’s event, courtesy of Empower’s Tom Ficklin.