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New London - Eight years after a class-action lawsuit was brought on behalf of the tenants of the Thames River Apartments, the brick-faced high-rises sport new paint, cameras and lighting, but the goal of attorney Robert I. Reardon Jr. hasn't changed. He wants the buildings knocked down.
If the case is not settled through mediation, which continues Monday in Middlesex Superior Court before Judge Barbara M. Quinn, it is scheduled for trial beginning June 16.
The three high-rises, built in 1968, are showing their age despite the New London Housing Authority's efforts to freshen them up. The authority painted the bottom exterior of buildings A, B and C bright yellow in recent years and, with the help of volunteers, restored the basketball court that stands in the shadow of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge.
The housing authority, which manages the apartments under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, has installed security cameras and high-powered lighting in an effort to eliminate dark corners where drug dealing and other illegal deeds tend to occur. A rickety elevator has been replaced in one building. The plumbing is being updated and the housing authority implemented a preventive extermination program.
Deputy Police Chief Peter Reichard says there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of calls to the complex. Fire Chief Henry Kydd reports the buildings have passed all inspections, and false alarms from the property have decreased. The complex has been removed from HUD's troubled list, and its annual Public Housing Assessment Score, a measure of its condition, has improved from a 47 (out of 100) in 2009 to 90 in 2013, according to Sue Shontell, executive director of the housing authority.
Reardon, whose New London firm is representing the tenants free of charge in the class-action, says that's not good enough.
"They're trying to maintain the status quo," Reardon said. "That doesn't change the fact that the property is not considered to be acceptable in today's public housing world."
The lawsuit claims, in part, that the federal housing project is an uninhabitable slum; that the authority has employed incompetent and unskilled contractors to maintain it; has allowed criminals, vandals and trespassers to remain on the premises; and has failed to remove all nuisances and sources of filth, including human waste, within a reasonable period of time.
Reardon's goal is to demolish the buildings and relocate tenants to more suitable housing. He says the housing authority has been mismanaged and mired in financial problems for years and has missed out on millions of dollars in federal redevelopment grants that have been received by other Connecticut cities.
He wants a court-appointed receiver to take over.
"It's a complicated thing to get grant money," Reardon said. "You have to have lobbyists, put a plan in place."
Though he said he is not committed to any consultants or developers, Reardon has disclosed that he plans to call as expert witnesses Scott Precourt of the Chichester, N.H.-based company called U.S. Housing Consultants, and Jaime Bordenave, principal of the Washington, D.C., based firm The Community Group International.
Precourt is an expert in public housing administration who will testify about available funding and the benefits of private equity partnerships, according to Reardon.
"He will further testify as to how such high-rise residential complexes, such as the Thames River Apartments, are the least successful at providing for the needs of the public and are the most problematic for surrounding communities," according to a court filing.
Bordenave's expertise is in policy development and program management related to the sustainable revitalization of distressed and low-income communities. He is expected to testify about strategies and methods of various public housing authorities around the country that are similar to New London.
Reardon also has consulted with Carabetta Brothers, the Meriden developer that renovated and now owns the 300-unit Bates Woods and Briarcliff townhouses, public housing off Jefferson Avenue. Carabetta Brothers, working with architects and engineers, drew up a plan that calls for knocking down two of the high-rises, renovating one as a "mid-rise" for senior housing and building 106 townhouse units on the site. The price tag is $31 million.
Keeping rents low
Reardon said he is urging the volunteer commission that oversees the New London Housing Authority and other city officials to attend the mediation session. He has notified Judge Quinn that a bigger space may be needed.
"We want the entire housing authority, as well as representatives of the City Council, to attend the mediation session," Reardon said. "We think this is a critical problem that needs to be addressed by the City of New London and that has been neglected."
In some ways, the parties in the class-action lawsuit are not far apart. The housing authority and its commissioners over the years have acknowledged that "warehousing" low-income people in high-rise buildings in the middle of the city's industrial area is not suitable.
Shontell, who took over as executive director eight years ago, has been thinking about redevelopment of the Thames River Apartments for years while trying to preserve housing for those who can least afford it. High-rise tenants, whose income is considered "extremely low," pay 30 percent of their income toward rent. Some tenants pay as little as $50 a month, according to Shontell.
"We don't want to lose people who need us," she said.
Rents are higher at the Carabetta properties, now called Pride Point and Progress Point. The properties were renovated through the low-income tax credit program, which is administered by the state, and rents are calculated based on the tenant's income. This past week, Carabetta apartments were advertised online starting at $800 a month.
The housing authority has contracted with Guilford architect Chris Widmer, who is looking at the feasibility of a plan to build replacement housing no higher than three stories on the Thames River property. Tenants could relocate to the new housing as each building is demolished, Shontell said.
"The good news is, the goal of both sides is to have improved conditions for the tenants," said the housing authority's attorney, Don A. Swift of New Haven.
He contends the court has no authority to appoint a third-party receiver.
"Our position is that the court cannot order the housing authority, without the approval of HUD, to do anything at Thames River," he said.
Reardon said he and his staff have met regularly with Thames River tenants over the past several years to update them on the litigation. The last meeting took place in 2013, he said.
Reardon initiated the class-action after meeting tenant Nicole Majette, who slipped in a puddle of urine in a hallway at the complex and broke her arm as she was leaving for work. Majette received a $1 million settlement and moved away. She was replaced by another lead plaintiff, Cheryl Gregor, who also has since moved out.
Another former tenant and plaintiff, Jennifer Anderson, also received a settlement and moved away. A single mother, like many of the tenants, Anderson, now 36, said she lived on the fifth floor of the B building for 12 years. It was all she could afford, she said, so she made the best of it. She said she sued the housing authority after stepping on a piece of glass and getting a staph infection in her foot.
As Anderson has returned to the apartment complex to visit friends, she has noticed improvements, such as the basketball court, but she said she would never move back.
"I guess they're trying to fix it up, but I don't think it's gotten any better," she said.
Members of the New London Housing Authority's board of commissioners, including Chairman David Collins and Treasurer Mary Minton, are expected to attend Monday's mediation. Collins could not be reached for comment and Minton, reached by phone this week, declined to discuss the case.
Minton's brother, City Councilor Michael Passero, has since December served as the council's liaison to the housing authority. Passero, who as a city firefighter has been to the high-rises many times, said he is following the class-action lawsuit.
"I'm waiting to see how the mediation works out," Passero said. "I'm considering having an Economic Development Committee meeting and somehow engaging the council in getting more involved in the issues that underlie the class-action lawsuit."