Legacies Eyed

Paul Bass PhotoThey have spent decades fixing valuable old buildings—while focusing on the people who will occupy them.

Mayor John DeStefano said that Tuesday evening about the staffers at city’s leading not-for-profit builder, Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS).

And he said the same thing about himself.

DeStefano made the observations during a keynote speech at the festival annual meeting-cum-community-party held on Sherman Avenue by the 33-year-old NHS, a nationally recognized pioneer in rescuing trashed old urban homes, making them beautiful again, then helping working families afford to buy them, live in them, keep them up, and revive the surrounding neighborhoods.

NHS gave DeStefano an award at the meeting for his work as New Haven’s mayor. It seems DeStefano is receiving these awards pretty much every week as he prepares to step down as mayor after 20 years in office.

In the process, he has been thinking, and speaking, about his legacy, and New Haven’s legacy.

He spoke about NHS’s legacy, too. Under the direction of Jim Paley (at right in photo, schmoozing at Tuesday’s gathering), NHS has restored over 250 houses with a fine attention to detail, then found low to moderate-income people to buy them.

NHS’s secret, DeStefano said, is that it understands the turning around neighborhoods lies in more than fixing up property. It lies in helping people make the most of opportunities. NHS counsels homeowners in how to pay for and then retain their homes. It schools people in “financial literacy” (dealing with banks, lenders, budgets, long-term costs). Its classes help struggling homeowners hold onto their property in the face of foreclosure. It leverages government and private money as well as tax credits available to support historic renovation and energy-saving repairs.

In the past year alone, NHS has found $2.6 million to buy and rehab homes in neighborhoods like Newhallville, the Hill, Fair Haven, and West River, enabling people like Wilona Ferguson (who spoke at Tuesday night’s event) become first-time homebuyers. (“Now I can live my dreams,” Ferguson told the overflow crowd inside a tent pitched for the annual meeting.) It held 11 financial literacy classes, eight “post-purchase home maintenance and energy-saving classes,” helped 220 homeowners facing foreclosure, helped 124 homeowners get “rescue” money or lender modifications to hold onto their properties. It also stepped in to finish a new home in Newhallville after Yale abandoned the project; purchasers of NHS properties have helped lead the charge to revive the neighborhood amid some recent setbacks, while NHS develops a “cluster” approach to making a difference on several blocks at a time.

“It’s really dealing with people, where they are in their lives, their skills, how they think about ownership, how they think about responsibility for themselves, their family, and their neighborhoods,” DeStefano said. (Click on the video to watch his remarks.)

DeStefano drew a parallel to his own $1.6 billion program to rebuild New Haven’s crumbling schools over his 20 years in office.

At first 20 years ago, he recalled, he thought to himself: “That’s great. These schools leak ... [and] are ugly ... You get to a point and you realize it’s not about the buildings. ... It’s about the people. It’s about the people inside the buildings.”

“Going back to the New Haven of 1993, if you had gone into the neighborhoods with the vacant structures, you wanted to do the buildings. If you walked into the schools, you wanted to do the buildings. And Lord knows if you walked down Church Street ... and Temple Street and College Street, it was grim,” DeStefano said.

Those streets are more vibrant now, with both busy buildings and lots more people.

When he looks back now on the final years of his mayoralty, DeStefano said, he feels proudest of accomplishments like his administration’s embrace of immigrants and pursuit of school reform. “It’s been about investment in people,” he said. “I think there are a lot of opportunities to” do that moving forward. For instance, “I feel we can do so much more to invest particularly in young people who in school are showing the early markers of behaviors that will become violent later on.

“As we think about what’s important to do in the future, it’s not the place. It’s the people. Whether it’s kids in our school, making sure they have the skills and talent to succeed in college, which is what our economy demands today ... or whether it’s young people who have been exposed to violence or experienced violence ... How we can support them so we’re not imprisoning them 20 years or 10 years from now?”

The mayor linked those efforts with NHS’s financial-literacy and homeownership classes.

“Those are going to be the really smart efforts for New Haven,” the mayor said. “Everything else is so 1994. And it isn’t 1994 anymore.”

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