A coalition of local activists demanded that a new task force listen to the underemployed and the houseless as it works to solve the city’s affordable housing crisis.
On Wednesday afternoon, a handful of speakers from the New Haven Legal Assistance Association (NHLAA), Mothers & Others for Justice, and the Connecticut Bail Fund’s Housing Not Jails initiative made that demand at a press conference outside City Hall in which they called on the city’s new Affordable Housing Taskforce to be transparent, inclusive, and action-oriented.
Around 40 people gathered outside City Hall’s front steps to cheer on the affordable housing watchdogs for the 20-minute presser.
“We are here today because New Haven needs affordable housing,” said Kerry Ellington, a community organizer with NHLAA’s community and economic development unit. “We need new measures introduced on behalf of local residents. We are calling on members of the Affordable Housing Task Force and public officials to take action now!”
Click here to read the full letter to the task force.
The organizers of Wednesday’s event included NHLAA, Mothers & Others for Justice, the Connecticut Bail Fund’s Housing Not Jails initiative, the Dixwell & Newhallville Watchdog & Advocacy Committee, New Haven Rising, and Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven.
Their collective letter to the task force called on the task force members to ensure that their meetings are transparent, inclusive, and action-oriented.
The city created the Affordable Housing Task Force earlier this year with the mission of investigating and providing policy recommendations around addressing the city’s lack of affordable housing.
The task force’s first meeting in June brought out over 100 attendees who packed City Hall’s Aldermanic Chambers and testified for three hours on the challenges of living at the edge of homelessness while also juggling unstable employment, family responsibilities, poor housing conditions, and the looming threat of eviction.
The task force has met each month since June. It consists of Christian Community Action Rev. Bonita Grubbs, city Fair Rent Commission Executive Director Otis Johnson, Jr., Elm City Communities Executive Director Karen Dubois-Walton, the city’s anti-blight Livable City Initiative (LCI) Executive Director Serena Neal-Sanjurjo, City Plan Commission Chair Ed Mattison, Connecticut Fair Housing Center Executive Director Erin Kemple, and Hill Alder Dolores Colon. The task force’s non-voting facilitator is Wooster Square Alder Aaron Greenberg.
“Today’s rally is an important reminder to the task force that the affordable housing crisis is real and requires urgent action,” Greenberg said during a phone interview after the rally. He said the task force committed during its July meeting to deliver a set of specific policy recommendations to the Board of Alders (BOA) by the end of the calendar year, and that he is encouraged by the level and passion of community engagement around the issue. The next Affordable Housing Task Force meeting is at 11 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 22 at City Hall.
The watchdog coalition’s first demand of the task force is that it follow through on its promise to provide actionable recommendations on the issue of affordable housing to the BOA that include New Haven-focused solutions.
“Since the early 2000s, the price of housing has increased dramatically,” Ellington said, “but per capita incomes in New Haven have barely budged. This increased cost of living is regressive and disproportionately impacts New Haven’s working class, working poor, unemployed, and underemployed communities.”
She said that, between 2002 and 2015, the number of units renting for more than $2,000 per month in New Haven increased by 97 percent, while units renting for $800 or less in the city decreased by 2 percent.
“This reality has left 41 percent of New Haven residents paying more than 30 percent of their income toward housing,” she said, “a situation that puts them one financial hiccup away from eviction and a host of related problems.”
Kim Hart, one of the leaders of Mothers & Others for Justice, said that the affordable housing crisis is not an abstract issue for her: for two-and-a-half years, she said, she and her then elementary school-aged son were homeless. Now they are in a more stable spot in their lives, she said, but she cannot forget the helplessness she felt during that stretch in her family’s life.
The group’s second demand of the task force, Hart said, is that the task force’s recommendation process be as inclusive of the New Haven community as possible.
“We call on the task force to include a set of community-led recommendations that would include, at a minimum, a proposal for an Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance and methods to preserve existing affordable housing,” she said. “We hope that the task force will look at affordable housing as a collective issue that impacts many different populations within our community.”
Sade and Donny, two activists with the Connecticut Bail Fund’s Housing Not Jails initiative, said that they are currently homeless, and that they want to make sure that the task force hears their voice and their perspective too.
“It’s very hard to find an apartment for people convicted of felonies,” said Donny. “We believe housing is a human right. We believe we are entitled to safety. Currently it is easier for the government to put us in jail and use taxpayer money to house us in a cage instead of putting us in a proper home.”
Both said that they are living in an encampment under an overpass, and are working with an outreach worker at Columbus House to find stable housing.
“I’m now 31,” said Sade, who said that she grew up in state Department of Chidren and Families (DCF) custody and has struggled with addiction since the age of 19, “and I do not know what it’s like to have an apartment.”
As the group’s third demand, Hart called on the task force to move its meeting times from weekday mornings to evenings, so that more working families can attend.
“It’s been extremely challenging over the past few months to find a time for every task force member to meet,” Greenberg said. But, he said, he will prioritize going forward making sure that the meetings are as accessible as possible for community members to participate in, and that he is open to discussing alternative meeting times at Monday’s meeting.
Task force member DuBois-Walton said after the rally that she is in support of everything that the housing rights activists called for, but she stressed that the city’s affordable housing crisis cannot be solved by New Haven alone.
“We need to aggressively call on neighboring surrounding towns to build affordable housing,” she said, noting that towns like Milford, Cheshire, North Haven, and Branford cannot continue to shirk their responsibility to allow the development of low-income housing.
“So far we’ve gotten a lot of incredible data and testimony and expertise on the question of what does affordable housing mean,” Greenberg said. He said that representatives from LCI and Elm City Communities will present that information to the task force during Monday’s meeting to help the task force accurately take stock of existing affordable units and the extent of the problem.
He said that the task force is still very much committed to delivering specific policy recommendations to the full Board of Alders by the end of the year, and that the alders will then need time to craft the recommendations into actual laws to be passed and implemented.
“It’s so important that we have this level of community engagement,” he said about the rally and its organizers.
Click on the Facebook Live video below to watch the full press conference.