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NL authority should resume tenant talks

Published July 28. 2012 4:00AM

The New London Housing Authority has made impressive strides to improve public housing in the city, recently ending its 13-year designation by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as a "troubled" agency.

Credit goes to both Executive Director Sue Shontell and to the board of commissioners, headed by Chairman David Collins (no relation to The Day columnist). The authority has been addressing its past financial problems, in the process rebuilding relationships with vendors who provide the goods and services necessary for the operation and maintenance of 443 units of state and federal housing.

Gone are the days when large numbers of apartments would sit vacant for long periods of time for lack of repairs, robbing the authority of needed revenue. There are now few vacancies at any one time and the authority is meeting federal standards for getting units ready and reoccupied in a timely fashion.

Common areas, elevators, playgrounds and basketball courts have been repaired, some with the help of volunteers, including cadets from the Coast Guard Academy.

But challenges remain. The authority received a low score in the financial category. Still sitting on the books is $158,000 in overdue water and sewer bills. As a result the authority is now rated "substandard," an improved rating but not acceptable. Ms. Shontell said the authority is aiming to eliminate the overdue bills by year's end, which could lead to a rating of "standard performer."

But for all the steps in the right direction, we were disappointed to learn that mediation talks over a lawsuit filed against the authority in 2006 have ceased and the case could end up at trial.

Residents of the 125-unit, 9-story Thames River Apartments filed a lawsuit against the authority in 2006 alleging deficient, unsafe and unsanitary conditions. The Reardon Law Firm of New London, headed by the highly successful personal injury attorney, Robert Reardon, is representing the tenants in the state Superior Court case. The firm is litigating without charge to the tenants.

While crediting the authority for the improvements (and noting that the pressure of the lawsuit probably had something do with the progress), Mr. Reardon said he and his clients are not satisfied.

"These types of high-rise projects have been shown, nationally, not to be an effective way to provide public housing and never will be no matter how many improvements you try to make," Mr. Reardon said. "The solution is to rebuild and provide adequate housing."

The high-rise apartments opened in 1967.

Mediation talks included a discussion about the potential for new public housing construction. The Carabetta Brothers of Meriden, which successfully renovated the housing authority's 300-unit Bates Woods and Briarcliff townhouses off Jefferson Avenue under a partnership agreement (Carabetta now owns and manages the apartments on the authority property), drafted a rebuild proposal called Thames River Park. The $43.6 million project envisions "midrise" elderly housing with roof-top gardens for older tenants, with several two-story townhouse-style apartment buildings for families and other residents.

With its improving rating, Mr. Reardon said the authority will become eligible for federal and state funding for such a project.

The authority, however, has broken off the talks.

"We are prepared to litigate," Ms. Shontell said. She contends the authority has addressed the substandard conditions that the lawsuit alleged. And while new construction is a long-term goal, the authority will set the schedule, said Ms. Shontell. Mr. Reardon, she said, is overplaying his hand by trying to force a rebuild.

We'd like to see the parties back at the mediation table. Mr. Reardon should not be underestimated. The authority could find itself confronting a court order. The better choice is exploring a settlement that leads to new housing. High-rise apartments such as these have proved to be a poor choice for public housing. Mr. Reardon is right about that.

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