Published August 25. 2014 12:33PM Updated August 26. 2014 12:22AM
Hartford — Tenants of the Thames River Apartments in New London thanked a Superior Court judge and hugged their attorney Monday after the judge signed an agreement that provides a three-year schedule to begin rehabilitation or redevelopment of the high-rise apartments at the intersection of Crystal Avenue and State Pier Road.
“You don’t know what it means to us and our kids,” tenant Crystal Worsley told Judge David M. Sheridan.
The stipulated judgment, approved by the New London Housing Authority’s board of directors and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, brings to an end an eight-year-old class-action lawsuit that the Reardon Law Firm brought against the housing authority on behalf of more than 300 tenants of the three high-rise apartment buildings.
The housing authority manages the 124-unit, low-income apartment complex under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and is overseen by a volunteer board of directors. The case was scheduled to go on trial Monday, but after years of negotiations, the parties reached an agreement.
Sheridan will oversee the redevelopment under an agreement that contains a series of deadlines through November 2017, when construction is scheduled to begin. Sheridan was appointed to the bench in 2010 and has decades of experience in civil litigation that includes serving as the lead attorney in a case involving federally funded senior housing. He urged the parties to feel free to use the court system as the project progresses.
“I want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem,” Sheridan said from the bench. “I think if we all stay on top and try to meet these deadlines and present a unified front to (HUD) it will be the best way to get things done.”
Attorney Robert I. Reardon Jr., whose New London firm has represented the tenants free of charge, said he would continue to serve as the attorney for the plaintiffs as the project goes forward.
“If they (the housing authority) fail to meet their deadlines, I would be the one to petition the court,” Reardon said.
The project could include a complete or partial teardown of the existing buildings or new construction on another site. The housing authority is expected to seek federal redevelopment grants for the project, which Reardon said has been estimated at $37 million.
The housing authority is already at work on meeting its first deadline, which is to engage a qualified public housing consultant by Nov. 1. The authority put out a request for proposals for a housing consultant on Aug. 12 that has already garnered 20 responses, according to Sue Shontell, executive director. The cutoff date for proposals is Sept. 8.
Reardon, a personal-injury lawyer, initiated the class-action lawsuit claiming the complex was unsafe and uninhabitable in 2004 after representing high-rise tenant Nicole Majette, who slipped in a puddle of human waste in a hallway at the complex and broke her arm as she was leaving for work. Majette invited him to visit the complex and Reardon said he was appalled at what he saw.
“When I was down there I saw a rat climbing up a wall,” he said. “It was the middle of the day and there were children on the playground.”
Reardon said he had lined up 17 tenants to testify at the trial and they had taken their own photographs depicting unsafe and unsanitary conditions. He said the stipulated judgment represents a win for everybody.
“The tenants certainly will be the biggest winners,” he said. “The Housing Authority will finally face up to this and deal with it. We’re in New London, Connecticut, in what purports to be one of the wealthiest states. There’s no reason for people to live like this.”
Attorney Donn Swift, representing the housing authority, said there was evidence that the allegations were inaccurate, but that the authority felt it was in their best interest to settle the lawsuit.
“They (the board) looked at the goal as being consistent with something they wanted to do,” Swift said.
Shontell, the housing authority’s executive director, issued a statement that said the plaintiffs no longer had a viable case against the housing authority, which she said had dramatically improved conditions at the complex while working on new housing plans “regardless of the status of this lawsuit.”
“We were basically on the same side of this, to try to get new housing,” Shontell said.
The authority was on HUD’s “troubled” list for several years under former executive directors. Shontell said the annual Public Housing Assessment Score, a measure of the condition of the high-rise, has improved from a 47 (out of 100) in 2009 to 90 in 2013 and that the authority has passed every inspection since 2010. Some of the improvements included new paint, cameras and lighting, an updated plumbing system, a preventive extermination program and replacement of a rickety elevator.
Worsley and Rena Cook, part of a core group of about 30 tenants who worked with Reardon while the lawsuit was pending, attended Monday’s court hearing. Worsley cried as the judge addressed the tenants and prepared to sign the agreement. A mother of two who works for the Ledge Light Health District, she said she moved her family into the apartment complex seven years ago.
“I lost everything and I ended up there,” she said. “We’re so stereotyped. You’re down there and you’re stuck down there. They think we don’t care about our kids and we don’t work.”
Cook said some tenants were afraid they would be evicted if they came forward.
“At the end of the day, I’m grateful to have a place over my head,” she said. “But I catch ten mice a day, no exaggeration.”
Reardon, who has won multi-million-dollar verdicts by taking on everything from abusive priests to medical malpractice cases and car crashes, said this was one of his nicest wins. He said the authority had resisted him every step of the way until June, when the board had a lengthy phone discussion with one of two national experts on public housing development who had worked with him free of charge.
“I felt they did not realize what was necessary to get the job done,” Reardon said.
Back in court, the judge thanked the lawyers from both sides for working together “without acrimony or conflict” for the good of the community. Sheridan commended Reardon and his firm for taking on the case.
“This is the kind of stuff we all go to law school for,” Sheridan said. “That sort of attitude, that sort of commitment, that sort of community spirit are in short supply these days.”