Church Street South Tenants Organize

Carbon monoxide from faulty furnaces drove Esther Martinez and Charleen Ortiz from their homes this winter. They have since returned home as leaders of a door-to-door organizing effort to give the 300 low-income families there a voice—and place to return to—when the Church Street South housing complex is rebuilt as a mixed-income development.

The private complex of 301 federally subsidized apartments across from Union Station is owned by Northland Investment Corporation of Boston.

Frequently referred to as “The Jungle” by local people and long a trouble spot for drug dealing and shootings, Church Street South is the target of a makeover into a mixed income development in a project launched by Northland, the city and the federal Housing and Urban Development Department.

According to preliminary plans based on a planning grant, Northland is expected to reconfigure the complex, with its attractive near-to-transit location, with only 100 affordable apartments.

What’s going to happen to the other 200 families currently residing at Church Street South?

That’s the question around which the women are organizing.

“I’d like to come back here,” said Ortiz. She added that most people they talk to feel the same way.

According to Ricardo Henriquez of the Connecticut Center for a New Economy (CCNE), who is helping in the effort, “One lady told us: I’ve lived here for 25 years under crappy conditions. Now that they’re building a new building, they want to throw me out.”

Mayoral spokesman Adam Joseph said that the plans don’t include official numbers yet.

“The city has encouraged Northland to make more of an effort to reach out to the residents of Church Street South.  The city has inserted itself in these discussions because the City wants to make sure that the interests of residents are being considered as Northland works on crafting redevelopment plans,” Joseph stated. “No contract has been signed and there are no final plans. Regardless, under federal law, the developer would have to give at least a full year’s notice to all residents before any relocation for construction or renovations could occur.”

Allan Appel PhotoFor tenants like Ortiz and Martinez, poor maintenance of apartments hit a low point in January when dozens of families had to be evacuated to area motels as the city compelled emergency repairs which, it was alleged, federal inspectors had missed.

The families spent two weeks at the motels for two weeks during emergency repairs before they could return home. During that time, Esther Martinez said, Hill South Alderwoman Dolores Colon engaged them in the prospect of organizing other tenants. She connected them to Ricardo Henriquez.

When they returned to their apartments, they did got started. Three other women joined Ortiz and Martinez, in organizing regular meetings.

Colon Launches Re-Election Campaign

When five-term incumbent Alderwoman Colon launched her re-election campaign Saturday morning, she chose to do so with a barbecue at the main entryway to Church Street South along with the organizers.

“This is a forgotten population,” said Colon as she served up hot dogs, carrots, and celery to Brian Vega, Ortiz’s son. “I want them to know they are on my radar. This is an opportunity for me and them to speak to the powers that be.”

Colon said that Northland had been holding meetings with area aldermen like her and Hill North’s Jorge Perez. The most recent meeting was on Wednesday. Colon pronounced the plans offered as still “unclear” and not speaking to the anxiety of Church Street South residents.

Henriquez said the message that he, Ortiz, Martinez, and the other organizers are bringing consists of two main points: If 300 affordable units are here now, 300 should be built. Also that people living here have a right to come back when the redevelopment is complete.

Henriquez says there’s a fear that the management company might take steps to evict people in the interim, so that there will be fewer to have to deal with upon return.

When redevelopment occurs, these young mothers like Ortiz and Martinez said good additions to the complex would include a clothing store for little kids, a deli, and a laundry. There used to be a laundry on site, but it is now boarded up.

“And more security,” said Truman School eighth-grader Brian Vega. “There’s too much shooting,” he added.

The next meeting is May 19, when door-knocking-neighbors will be joined by organizers from CCNE and the New Haven People’s Center.

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Comments

posted by: anon on May 18, 2011  10:21am

Though they may have good intentions, the tenants are running the risk of being used as “pawns” by local politicians.

All housing complexes have a natural rate of turnover and, while tenant rights should be fiercely protected, it is rare that one person stays in a federally-subsidized unit for their entire life.  This is as true of housing complexes as it is of any other type of housing in New Haven. This natural turnover in housing is what allows cities to change over time, a process that, if stopped, inevitably leads to a “death spiral” of decay. 

Look at Elm Haven, where housing blocks like the Jungle were torn down to create a mixed-income community, and the number of murders per year dropped from about 10 per year to about 1 over a five year period. 

Although Elm Haven may not have been redeveloped in the fairest way possible, other cities have done this hundreds of times and have figured out ways to do it in ways that are fair to all parties, and in particular, in ways that allow the current tenants to be major beneficiaries of the new investments.

Looking at the big picture, New Haven has far more than its fair share of subsidized housing units.  Many of them are concentrated in communities like the Jungle.  I don’t think it is in anyone’s interest to keep this many subsidized units in one place. 

The other factor is that this place is so valuable in terms of potential jobs—the key ingredient in a successful city, and supposedly the top demand of every member of our Board of Aldermen.  The complex sits across from the train station, on land that could easily accommodate thousands of new, well-paying jobs many of which could be given to local residents (similar to the new jobs at IKEA or Yale which give jobs to local residents, and unlike the jobs at the City of New Haven most of which go to wealthy suburbanites). 

Do the members Board of Aldermen really want jobs for local constituents, or do they just want to play a power game?

Whether this property is redeveloped or not, the developer and government should be required to pay a significant amount into an AHTF (Affordable Housing Trust Fund), like other cities do, in order to improve units, maintain the units that already exist, and create better units elsewhere.  Developers and the government also need to be forced to lobby for smarter housing policy throughout the state, so that New Haven isn’t forced to accommodate 90% of the subsidized units despite having less than half of the area’s population.

Current residents need to play a role in the redevelopment of the Jungle.  But it is not great if politicians step in to use them as a “pawn” in an unproductive political game.

posted by: anon on May 18, 2011  10:33am

The conditions in these apartments are deplorable (both interior and exterior). 

Whichever company is responsible for managing them should be fined and put out of business.

posted by: question on May 18, 2011  10:48am

Why do Alderpeople always want to talk about pertinent issues around their re-election time?  Why can’t that “forgotten population” as she calls it get addressed in an off year?  Only a question

posted by: JAK on May 18, 2011  10:54am

So CCNE thinks that people who receive reduced and/or free rent from taxpayers should be able to dictate where their subsidized housing should be? 

Just out of curiousity, what rights does CCNE think should be afforded to the people who actually own and pay for the property?

posted by: robn on May 18, 2011  12:03pm

ANON,

Where is the data showing that it is rare for one person to stay in a federally-subsidized unit for their entire life?

Also, Do you have hard data on IKEA jobs (% local) and any tax abatements that might have been given?

posted by: Scot on May 18, 2011  12:25pm

Redeveloping this property would be a great move for the city. If it could be privately developed, the property would bring in a ton of tax revenue. That revenue could be put towards improving public housing throughout New Haven. Even if its not privately developed, improving it as described in the article is the next best thing. 

Not only is it directly across from train station, it is also directly in between the train station and the Yale medical area (and where Downtown Crossing will be). It should be a safe, vibrant place for people to walk through (as well as for whoever lives there). Redeveloping it would really connect the transportation hub of the city with Downtown Crossing, Gateway CC, the nearby Yale buildings (nursing school), etc.

posted by: Scot on May 18, 2011  12:48pm

Are we talking about all of the public housing located between Church St South, S. Frontage Rd, and Union Ave, or just one of the complexes?  Looking at google maps it appears there is more than one public housing complex there: “Church St South”, “South Orange”, and “Tower Lane”.

The article refers to it as Church St South, however it also says that it is “across from Union Station” which on the map looks like Tower Lane. Wondered if that could be clarified?

[Ed.: The complex is directly across the street from the station; it is separate from the Wolfe Apartments or the Tower One/Tower East elderly housing complex, both of which I believe you’re looking at, too.]

posted by: anon on May 18, 2011  1:33pm

Robn - Nationally, the average tenure for a family in a section 8 unit is approximately 72 months.  According to NHI, 100% of the units in the Jungle are section 8.  Of course, average tenure may be somewhat higher or lower in the Jungle (and those numbers are widely available to the public if one wishes to get them), but I was making the general point about housing turnover and the opportunities that all cities have to provide jobs within their neighborhoods—by promoting economic development and favoring the fair sharing of resources instead of the concentration of resources among the hands of a few wealthy and politically connected people.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on May 18, 2011  3:02pm

I would like to see high density development in a pattern of downtown blocks filled with ground floor retail space and light manufacturing shops, with offices and various kinds of apartment units above and perhaps some townhouses. Some units, perhaps 100, should be set aside as affordable with the remaining 200 units scattered throughout the city in rental apartments or possibly incorporated into the Route 34 developments.
Something along the lines of this character and scale:
http://a4.sphotos.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-ash1/16955_1218016365644_1085910074_30540676_6136925_n.jpg

I think Northland only owns the units formerly known as the Jaycees Housing, which are now usually referred to as the Church Street Housing Projects, which include the low-rise concrete units as well as an apartment building that fronts onto Union Avenue. There are also the two elderly public housing towers, which I do not think Northland owns. With Gateway moving does anybody know what the plan is for their old buildings? Will they still be in use by the school or can they potentially be part of the redevelopment?
With major streets - Church Street South and Union Avenue - surrounding the area, it would nice to see a network of short and small streets and a small plaza between these areas to make it a walkable place rather than having a few large streets bisect the blocks into islands of large developments.

posted by: Funky Chicken on May 18, 2011  4:51pm

When I first started reading the story I wondered why CCNE was working this area. Then I read on and saw that Alderwoman Colon is running again. Now it all makes sense. A loyal Union Alder - Ms. Colon - is up for re-election. So the union is coming into the ward and working for her. This would all be fine except the fact that CCNE is a non profit and is not allowed to get involved with political campaigns.

I noted CCNE’s habit of getting involved in places that non profits have no place in and we see it here again. Paul - I think it would be an interesting story to look into who is running CCNE and what their connection is to organized labor and what they are doing getting involved in a political campaign.

To the larger picture - we see once again another battle is being fought by organized labor against the Mayor. Here they are going on the defencive by protecting a loyal soldier. This is just a battle in the war for the hart and soul of New Haven.

posted by: first observer on May 18, 2011  6:15pm

Scot, above, is onto the right idea—this is a golden opportunity—a once-a-century opportunity—to realize a dream for New Haven that literally is a century old (since the Gilbert and Olmsted plan of 1910)—namely, creating a direct link between the train station and downtown.

The opportunity cries out for the creation of some kind of plaza directly opposite the station, or maybe incorporating part of Union Avenue, from which a short road, with sidewalks, and preferably with bike lanes, runs directly over to Church Street South—and thus automatically connects from there to Church and Chapel.

This would sacrifice some of the land currently occupied by the Church Street South housing development.  In compensation, perhaps Northland could be allowed to build higher when it develops its new housing units.  Perhaps it could be given some kind of tax break for being willing to cede some land to the city.

Or perhaps, if necessary, the city could use the power of eminent domain to acquire the needed land, if Northland is difficult about an agreement.

There is a broad civic purpose at stake here.  A real opportunity.  A vision that is not just visionary, but actually possible.  It surely will be IMpossible, if people decide so beforehand.  Are city planners thinking anything about this?

posted by: NH Native on May 18, 2011  8:04pm

This site is once in a lifetime development opportunity to solidify the city as a major transportation hub with a real connection to downtown.  A mixed use project including mixed income plan is right on.  The site however should not be financially burdened by a large low income population which will make it more difficult to finance and ultimately redevelop. 

A note about a comment in the article “One lady told us: I’ve lived here for 25 years under crappy conditions. Now that they’re building a new building, they want to throw me out.”

Am i the only one appalled by this.  How is it someone is allowed to be subsidized for 25 years!  And SHE’s upset that she may have to go elsewhere.  Isn’t this ambivalence a part of our larger problem.  Where is this woman’s drive to find a better life and a better home.  Shame on her for not taking initiative to create on her own a better living situation.  Why is it the city’s responsibility to house this woman and her family for 25 years of her life?  New Haven can not sustain itself when we subsidize the overwhelming majority of low income housing in the region.  It’s time to provide incentive for people to find their own way out instead of keeping them in these deplorable projects. 

It sounds harsh, but we are not helping anyone by allowing them to not support themselves for 25 years.

posted by: MRBN on May 18, 2011  8:12pm

I have seen the question few times, so I will give the answer.  IKEA did not attempt to benefit from the city deferral program, which would have phased in the developments value change over 5 years.  They are located in an enterprise zone, which gave them the ability to possibly have a longer period of phase in.  They discussed this with the assessor at that time, and indicated they were not going to seek any deferrals from the city.  There is equipment on site that was eligible for certain state programs of manufacturing equipment they most likely use, as do many businesses.

A good article was written by Betsy Yagala called “Defer madness” in the Advocate last year that exposed a few questionable participant’s

posted by: Brian M. on May 18, 2011  11:03pm

You know one way to have less shooting in that complex? Let people who are employed and want to live next to a rail hub move into the redeveloped space. I’m guessing that the majority of drug dealers aren’t taking Metro North express trains to Grand Central.

The idea that someone could think that she - and her children - are entitled to live at taxpayer expense next door to a train station - a prime location - and inherit that right for generations to come, is completely insane.

posted by: Jason S. on May 18, 2011  11:27pm

Much as I’d like to see social justice prevail at this site, I think the city’s economy has to take precedent, and in this vein, I support the developers’ decision to limit the amount of affordable housing.  If the city can create a vibrant residential-retail-business district around the train station, then everyone wins, across all economic layers.  The city’s most underdeveloped resource is its train station.  This is also the area where the city could most easily boost tax receipts, helping pay for city services that everyone needs.  Too much of New Haven residents’ hard-earned money ends up being spent at the ubiquitous retail chains in the suburbs.  Why not build up retail within the city, keeping some of that money (and the retail jobs) within New Haven, at a site that is visited by thousands of people every day?  New Haven has the opportunity to turn a blighted and dangerous housing block into a key components of a vibrant, mixed-use transit hub.

What will help the area around Union Station prosper are attractive, market-rate apartments that appeal to middle-class residents, with some units set aside for the current residents who would otherwise be displaced.  New Haven’s comparatively high housing costs suggest that new construction is needed.  But requiring too much affordable housing could discourage the developers from moving forward on the site, in which case everyone loses.  Healthy, economically-integrated communities require a good balance of housing types and demographics, and the area around the station presently has too many subsidized housing units, as other commentators have pointed out, leading to social pathology in the form of intense poverty, crime, and blight.

posted by: anon on May 19, 2011  7:01am

This is not just the most economically viable site in the city, it is the most economically important site in the entire State of Connecticut. The state should step in starting tomorrow, buy out all of the tenants, and provide incentives to locate large-scale mixed use developments here. 

Unfortunately despite Malloy’s sweet talking about a better state economy, he is more interested in paying off his cronies and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new research boondoggle buildings in the wasteland/greenfield towns of Farmington and Storrs instead of on one of the only economic development projects in the State that makes sense.

posted by: reader on May 19, 2011  9:12am

In 2010 you had to have 3 minimum wage full time jobs to afford a two-bedroom apartment in New Haven. (http://www.nlihc.org/oor/oor2010/data.cfm?getstate=on&getmsa=on&msa=1049&state=CT) Anyone who is faulting residents for living in subsidized housing should go ahead and try working 3 full-time minimum wage jobs. or try even finding one minimum wage job that will give you 40 hours a week. The problem isn’t that “new haven already has too much subsidized housing”...it’s that wages are too low.

posted by: NH Native on May 19, 2011  10:46am

Reader,

I grew up in a place that had few available good paying jobs.  What i didn’t do was whine about my hometown not implementing a government mandate to have companies pay a wage above what the market would bare (which would further exasperate job growth).  I MOVED to a place that i could find a good paying job—that turned out to be New Haven.  I understand those with a mental or physical incapacity are at a serious disadvantage and as a just society we should no doubt provide assistance. 

We should also have a safety net for all people in our society who are in a desperate stretch.  What does not help however is for our community to provide someone a lifetime of assistance.  Once in a while an individual needs to take the horse by the reins instead of hoping for a government agency to lead.  I can’t think of a worse life than relying on a government agency to determine my fate—-for 25 years!

I would be interested to know how many current housing authority residents are second generation residents.  We need to continue to fight to improve education and change the culture of our housing projects that stunts the educational development of our kids from getting out of these situations.

posted by: Scot on May 19, 2011  11:36am

I don’t fault anyone living in the complex.  Our city certainly needs adequate, well managed, low income housing. I think the current tenants should be treated fairly and respectfully.  But the fact is that is incredibly prime real estate.  The current residents should make out well.  From what I’ve read the conditions in that complex are not very good.  For the amount of money and economic prosperity that redeveloping that prime real estate would bring in, a brand new low income complex that is much nicer than the existing one, could be built in another area. 

The benefits of that area being redeveloped are numerous:
1. connect the transportation hub to the city.
2. make it safe for people to walk from downtown to train station.
3. it would lift up the entire neighborhood in proximity (towards Trowbridge Sq).. Crime would go down, property values would go up, etc.
4. it’s the first thing that visitors see when they arrive in New Haven, it’s the first impression they have of New Haven.
5. The property, if redeveloped nicely, and in particular if its private development, could bring in a ton of new tax revenue to the city.
6. Make the city more attractive to businesses who might want to locate near the train station, bringing in additional tax revenue.

posted by: anon on May 19, 2011  1:38pm

“Crime would go down, property values would go up”

Very true, but it is also true that residents should benefit from these increases in value.  Transit and transit-related improvements are closely linked with gentrification and displacement.  Though gentrification is, in general, a great thing, the harmful impacts must be mitigated and residents or business owners within an area need to benefit from the resulting improvements. 

As noted above, many other cities have come up with ways to do this.  If the city doesn’t come up with a way to ensure fair outcomes for all, their project will fail.

That said, there are also folks who want the project to fail either way (witness CCNE’s actions on the Cancer Center), and those folks need to have their motives exposed.

posted by: win win on May 19, 2011  1:40pm

Great story! Nice work, Alderwoman Colon and the residents of Church St South. Whether or not you’re up for reelection, I appreciate you standing up for your constituents.

It saddens me, however, that many people are so quick to demonize low-income folks by implying that being poor means you are lazy, undeserving, a burden and should have no VOICE in decisions that impact your life, home, and community. These tenants are bravely standing up for themselves and trying to make the community better for ALL by advocating for high-quality, affordable housing and a safer, more stable neighborhood. The idea that a safe, “nice-looking” redevelopment project which serves the interests of Yale students, professionals, commuters, tourists, etc is at odds with the interests of these low-income tenants is a false dichotomy.

What we need to work for are solutions which serve the interests of inner-city and working people AS WELL as Yale and the city as a whole. In my opinion, redevelopment projects which are only aimed at serving the interests of the affluent and of guests/tourists, developers, and corporations are a moral and economic failure which drive inequality and further deepen the underlying problems of poverty and crime in the city.

Our economy and our city will not be stable and healthy until we find solutions that work for all. We can’t continue short-term near-sighted “fixes” that balance the budget at the expense of working people (read: tax-payers) while giving the most prosperous a pass. We need long-term, balanced, sustainable solutions. Re-development projects CAN serve the needs of ALL without pushing people out of their homes, further segregating our community. But we need to be more creative and visionary in our thinking. And we need to understand that we are connected to each other. What happens to our neighbors affects us.

I’m not advocating socialism here, I’m talking common sense. A safe, vibrant New Haven with low crime rates, walkable and bikaeble neighborhoods and a thriving economy is one that offers opportunities for all to provide for themselves and be productive, engaged community members. Or we could keep trying to get rid of poverty by getting rid of poor people.

posted by: JAK on May 19, 2011  3:19pm

Jaimemm,

You think the prosperous in this city get “a pass?”  Do you have any idea what the property taxes are here?

Its great that the folks are standing up for themselves.  But why not stand up and ask for something permanent and transformational? What about a high quality education which would empower the poor and under-educated forever such that they’d never have to look back again?  W

hy doesn’t CCNE organize around public education quality?  Could it be that agitating for effective schools doesn’t sync up so well with their clear commitment to supporting organized labor?  It’s an inconvenient truth, no?

Your assumption that some people on these pages are looking at this as some sort of zero-sum game between the rich and poor is way off base.  If New Haven maximized the economic value of this property by developing it for its best and highest use, there would be more resources for everyone - including those who are truly less fortunate and need a temporary hand-up.

Your tired class warfare rhetoric also suggests that the most prosperous among us are somehow not “working people”.  So who are the most prosperous?  If they are not working their asses off to be successful then where can we find all of these 3rd generation trust fund babies who simply and idly sit around at the spa and clip their interest coupons?

Socialism works until you run out of other people’s money.

posted by: Hmmm... on May 19, 2011  3:23pm

Does anyone else find it upsetting that Ald. Colon has been in position for 10 years but complains that a big part of her ward is “forgotten”?  What has she been doing for the last 10 years?  Isn’t it part of her job to make sure we remember them?  Oh wait… I forgot… she’s part of the “machine.”

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on May 19, 2011  5:58pm

In the 1980s and early 90s, the jungle boys drug gang ran the Church Street South projects. This gang was responsible for more homicides that any other single group in the city. Their leadership was dismantled and jailed in 1992 as part of a federal, state and local law enforcement effort. Since that time, new requirements for low-income renters have been passed, which have stricter residency requirements and background checks. This, along with other things, has meant that substantial groups have not been able to form within the project again. Unfortunately, it also means that outsiders can come in and sell drugs with near immunity. Most of the crime involves outsiders either as the perpetrators or victims. Most residents of the actual project are not involved in criminal activity.
A redesign of the housing project to discourage drug dealing and loitering by non-residents by designing defensible space, public spaces that face the street rather than interior, hidden courts could have a positive impact on the area and reduce crime substantially. However, I think that this space can be put to a more intensive use than just housing for low and moderate income people. It is quite easy to create small, affordable housing units inside larger developments that bring in residents, shopper and workers of all income and skill level. Upper State Street in East Rock has affordable housing in apartments above stores and in apartments on side streets; so does Westville. The thing to avoid actually is mono-cultures where there is a high concentration of people from one demographic - that is a key component of why the public housing and suburbia experiment has been such a massive failure.