Yale Daily News
When Mayor Justin Elicker announced his plan to spend $53 million in American Rescue Plan funds in January, he said he hoped the money would have “a deep, significant and long-term impact” on New Haven. However, some activists are concerned that Elicker’s proposal will not bring the change he’s hoping for.
The American Rescue Plan, or ARP, is a federal COVID-19 relief package that allocates $115.8 million to New Haven. Elicker’s Phase 3 ARP investment plan would spend $10 million each on a range of initiatives related to youth engagement, housing, wealth creation and job training. But many residents have criticized what they see as a “piecemeal strategy,” and are instead calling on the city to make a more targeted investment towards housing by spending money on public housing and rent subsidies, which they say could have much more “transformative” results.
“It’s $115 million that you get to make decisions about, and the way that you allocate these funds says a lot about your priorities and where and what you prioritize and who you prioritize. And it’s been really disappointing to see the way that it is being allocated,” said Camila Guiza-Chavez, co-executive director of the nonprofit organization Havenly and a member of the Sisters in Diaspora Collective. “Housing is a basic, fundamental need of human life. … And the fact that there’s 54 percent of New Haven residents who do not have access to affordable housing, according to the Affordable Housing Commission, to us means that that’s where you should be prioritizing.”
Guiza-Chavez said she came to see the importance of housing through her work with the Sisters in Diaspora Collective, a group of mostly immigrant and refugee women who have participated in Havenly’s programming. Sharing their experiences helped the collective realize that the “principal” challenge — and a major systemic injustice — facing many marginalized people was a lack of access to affordable quality housing. They started advocating for the city to do more to address its housing crisis, and quickly directed their focus to the use of ARP funds.
The current Phase 3 ARP proposal devotes $10 million to “I’m Home” initiatives. That $10 million would support local homeownership, affordable development and housing inspections. It would also provide rent assistance to low-income families who are not currently receiving housing aid from state or federal programs.
An additional $4 million would be used to create the New Haven Land Bank. In an email to the News, Economic Development Administrator Michael Piscitelli wrote that the land bank allows the city to “be more assertive in the marketplace” and “provide stewardship until a meaningful project creates long-term value,” thereby preventing some speculation.
Although many local activists support these proposals, they are skeptical of the impact that $14 million can have in a city where over 21,000 families are on public housing or Section 8 rent voucher waiting lists.
“It’s a crisis, and you only want to spend $10 million of that money [on housing]?” said Norman Clement, a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation. “We understand that there’s a lot of things that can be done with that money … but everything starts from housing. If you don’t have a place to live, you can’t do anything.”
Piscitelli said that “[t]he Phase 3 plan reflects the severity of the pandemic and the impacts felt both by business and by residents. The City appreciates the thoughtfulness of the Civic Space process last summer and we look forward to moving these projects forward.”
A community coalition, led by the Sisters in Diaspora Collective, is instead calling for the city to spend $62.5 million — 54 percent of its ARP funds — on housing, in accordance with the 54 percent of New Haven families who are cost-burdened by housing. This coalition — which includes the New Haven Housing Fund and the Party for Socialism and Liberation, among others, is advocating for housing to be a bigger priority through op-eds, petitions and public hearings. Clement said the coalition has also submitted their proposal to the Board of Alders, although they are unsure when it will ultimately be heard by the Board’s Finance Committee.
The coalition proposes that the city spend $12 million to provide monthly subsidies to families on Section 8 and public housing waitlists. Karen DuBois-Walton, executive director of New Haven’s Housing Authority, told the News that rental assistance funds are included in the proposed I’m Home initiatives, but that it is undecided how much of the $10 million would go to rent assistance specifically.
Under the coalition’s proposal, an additional $50.5 million would be spent to buy buildings owned by corporate landlords like Mandy Management or Pike International and convert them to public affordable housing. Guiza-Chavez said she is concerned about high rents, poor conditions and the increasing consolidation of property ownership in the city. Mandy Management alone has acquired over 400 New Haven properties in the last four years, according to the New Haven Independent.
“I don’t think that any single or few companies should have such a large monopoly over land, should own so much of the land in the city, when we still need so much more affordable housing,” Guiza-Chavez said. “Let’s envision a world in which the people who are renting out properties live maybe in the same home, or on the same street, in the same neighborhood, and have a stake there and care that their properties are maintained well.”
Multiple housing experts from outside of the coalition told the News that they in large part supported the collective’s proposal. Jeff Gentes, lecturer at the Yale Law School and managing attorney at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, said that subsidies for families on rent assistance waitlists sounded “awesome.” DuBois-Walton said she was “very aligned” with many of the collective’s proposals and agreed that more ARP money needs to be spent on housing.
“It’s a really good policy suggestion, just saying that we need more rental assistance for people,” said Amy Eppler-Epstein, staff attorney at the New Haven Legal Assistance Association. She added that this isn’t just a local issue — state and federal governments can also increase their funding for rent subsidies.
Eppler-Epstein and DuBois-Walton were less certain about the practicality of buying buildings directly from corporate landlords. Eppler-Epstein said she was not sure whether owners “would have any interest in selling to the city,” and that the city probably couldn’t use its powers of eminent domain to forcibly acquire those properties for public housing purposes.
DuBois-Walton added that outside investors often acquire vacant properties at above-market prices.
“I think the ability to buy it back is going to require the city to pay a significant amount of money, and it can further enrich these investors who are going to want to make a profit off of what they’ve already made,” DuBois-Walton said.
Both Eppler-Epstein and DuBois-Walton said that the city can pursue other avenues to resist the monopolization of rental ownership, including more strictly enforcing housing codes and funding local and nonprofit housing development. In addition, supporting local homeownership would enable residents to push back against outside investors who do not maintain their property.
In the coming weeks, the Board of Alders Finance Committee will hold public hearings about the Phase 3 plan. Clement confirmed that members of the coalition plan to attend these meetings.
According to a 2021 report from the Affordable Housing Commission, rents in New Haven are 11 to 27 percent higher than the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s calculated fair market rate.