The “ghost house” of Fair Haven Heights, a long empty 1830s potential Greek Revival gem, is on track to becoming a host house, a restored historic structure that will shelter a young, working New Haven family through the labors of love and finance of Habitat for Humanity of Greater New Haven.
Yet others like it may well meet the wrecking ball if Community Development Block Grants (DCBG) and similar federal funds that support Habitat are eliminated, as currently called for in the President Trump’s proposed budget.
That was the calm but minatory message delivered by Connecticut U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal Monday afternoon as he stood with Habitat Executive Director Bill Casey in front of 387 Lenox St., at the corner of Clifton in Fair Haven Heights.
Casey said his group has already put a $10,000 bid on the house and, if successful, will utilize the sweat equity of a yet-to-be identified working-poor family, lots of volunteers wielding hammers, and contributed materials, and the expertise of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation to restore the house to a look it might have had in 1830.
That was when it was called the Merritt Brown House. The house has earned itself a berth on the national Register of Historic Places. The building, long vacant, dilapidated, and an eyesore on a very visible corner, is also part of the Quinnipiac River National Register Historic District.
With the $90,000, which Habitat has received annually through the federal CDBG program, the group can buy eight or nine properties — not all historic, and some vacant lots — and build that many new homes for young families who then are able to take out affordable long-term mortgages with Habitat, move in, and help stabilize a family and a neighborhood.
Blumenthal called the CDBG program and the federal HOME Investment Partnership program, from which groups like Habitat also benefit, “essential programs that help neighborhoods like this improve themselves.”
He called the proposed cuts, from a humane point of view,” heedless and heartless,” and also economically unwise, because the elimination of one ghost house is not just “new life for one house but the whole neighborhood.”
If the deal for the Merritt Brown house goes through, it will be the fourth house in the Fair Haven Heights area that Habitat will have completed in recent years, with a total of more than 100 citywide, said Casey.
While the $90,000 annual CDBG grant may not seem a huge part of Habitat’s annual $2 million budget — the $10,000 offered for the Lenox Street house is already in the bank, of course — statewide $36 million is at stake through CDBG and $11 million through the HOME program, said Blumenthal.
That’s a lot of families who will not get new homes and a lot of neighborhoods that will remain more ghostly.
“We’re in the process of acquiring five vacant lots” in New Haven, said Casey. “If funding goes away, I don’t know what will happen.”
Blumenthal said that if the funding is blocked, groups like Habitat have to go into the private philanthropic sector and must compete with other not-for-profit CDBG recipients like Meals on Wheels programs, intensifying the private competition for the limited pool of private funds.
“Blocking the proposed heedless and heartless cuts can [also] be bipartisan. There’s nothing red or blue about this home. It should be bipartisan,” added the senator.
If the cuts come through, the contingency plan “will be to do less,” Casey said.
While the owner of the 387 Lenox property wants to sell it to Habitat, a mortgage company is also involved and hasn’t yet responded to the recent offer. Negotiations are ongoing, Casey said.
“We’re based on an old Yankee tradition of barn raising,” Casey said, “not only building a house, but [building] a community.”