Hill Scrutinizes Columbus House Plans

SONYA SCHOENBERGER photoThomas Breen photoA local homeless shelter nonprofit and Yale’s architecture school have teamed up to build five homes in five years for formerly homeless tenants.

Before the partnership proceeds with its third such home in the Hill, it seeks to win support of neighbors wary of adding a “rooming house” to a part of town already rich with social services.

That tension was on display this past Wednesday night at the Hill South Community Management Team’s regular monthly meeting at the Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School cafeteria at 150 Kimberly Dr.

Carl Rodenhizer, the chief real estate officer for the Hill-based homeless shelter and homelessness services provider Columbus House, pitched neighbors on the nonprofit’s plans to build a new three-family house on a currently vacant, city-owned lot at 162 Plymouth St.

“We try to find empty lots that are owned by the city, and basically do in-fill housing,” Rodenhizer said. “We’re basically putting these houses on the tax rolls. We’re providing additional housing for affordable housing.”

The proposed Plymouth Street project would be the third in a five-house, five-year collaboration with the Yale School of Architecture, Rodenhizer said.

The relatively new collaboration between the two organizations is part of a decades-old initiative called Jim Vlock First Year Building Project initiative, whereby roughly 50 first-year architecture graduate students compete over the course of a semester to design and help build a new house somewhere in the city.

Starting in 2017, the Columbus House has teamed up with Yale to construct five “Vlock” houses with the specific intent of housing residents experiencing homelessness. The first such house to come out of the Columbus House-Yale partnership was a duplex at 54 Adeline St. that was completed in October 2017.

In October 2018, Columbus House and Yale finished its second “Vlock” house for the homeless, a duplex at 41 Button St., also in the Hill.

Now the organization has its eyes on a vacant plot of city-owned land at 162 Plymouth St. But before before Columbus House applies to the city’s anti-blight Livable City Initiative (LCI) to buy the property from the city, Rodenhizer said, it must first submit a letter of support from the local neighborhood management team.

Columbus House CEO Alison Cunningham told the Independent that both units in the Adeline Street property are currently occupied, and that one of the two units at the Button Street property is occupied, with a new tenant about to move in to the second unit.

“They’re fair-market rent for all four units,” she said. She said the three tenants currently living in the Adeline Street and Button Street properties are all paying rent through government subsidies.

“Are these owner-occupied?” Hill resident Paul Larrivee asked, citing Habitat for Humanity’s construction projects in the neighborhood as an example of helping low-income residents become first-time homeowners.

No, Rodenhizer responded. The apartments in this newly constructed house will be rentals.

“Columbus house would continue to hold the title,” he said, “and we would manage the properties. We would take care of the grounds, take care of maintenance of the structure. We would basically manage the place as a rental unit.” He said Columbus House will work with a property manager on the project to ensure that tenants pay rent on time, and to make sure that the tenants are good neighbors.

“How do you select your tenants?” asked Hill resident and affordable housing advocate Claudette Kidd. Do they have to be current Columbus House clients? Or does the nonprofit look outside of its own current list of clients to the broader community of city residents in need of an affordable place to live.

“Our push is try to get somebody who has experienced homelessness,” Rodenhizer replied. “That’s our focus.” In addition to looking for tenants within Columbus House’s own orbit of clients, he said, Columbus House will also tap people from a local Coordinated Access Network (CAN) wait list of people in urgent need of housing.

Management team communications director Angela Hatley asked if the new structure will be a one-family house, a two-family house, or a rooming house.

“Because Columbus House is going to retain ownership,” she said, “my concern is you might put up a structure with individual rooms in there under the guise of, we’re putting up a house for the homeless. I want details.”

Rodenhizer said the proposed Plymouth Street property would be a three-family house, consisting of three one-bedroom apartments.

“We could do more,” he said, “but we’re putting a restriction on this, because we want to make sure that we blend in with the neighborhood. It’s basically a triplex that we’re proposing there. That’s all we would build.”

Longtime neighborhood activist Johnny Dye asked the team to hold off on providing a written letter of support until Columbus House presents to the team actual designs for the proposed house.

Which will be a little difficult for Columbus House to do, Rodenhizer said, because Columbus House is looking to purchase the property from the city sooner rather than later, and the actual design won’t be done until the end of the semester-long student design competition this spring.

“I can tell you that we will only allow them to design three one-bedroom units,” he said about Columbus House’s instructions to the architecture students.

Dye asked the team to create a committee to monitor the design and subsequent construction of the property, so that Columbus House acts according to the plans presented to the community.

“We don’t want any hanky panky,” he said.

“We’re not looking to do any hanky panky,” Rodenhizer replied. “This is our neighborhood too.”

He said Columbus House would be happy to include a member of the management team on the panel of judges that will decide on the winning design for the Plymouth Street proposed house.

The team decided to hold off on writing any formal letter in support or against the project, and agreed to resume discussion of the matter at the next meeting.

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