1st step towards new Thames River housing

After years of remaining at legal odds, it was pleasantly surprising to see the New London Housing Authority and the trial attorney who has taken on the cause of public housing residents reach an agreement that will now have them working together to improve the lives of tenants.

Ten years ago, New London attorney Robert I. Reardon Jr., better known for winning large judgments in personal injury cases, began his pro bono representation of tenants of the Thames River Apartments in the class-action lawsuit. His legal contention was that the high-rise apartments at the intersection of Crystal Avenue and State Pier Road did not meet minimal living standards and had to be replaced.

For a decade the housing authority fought the effort, contending the 124-apartment complex, built in 1968, was not in such serious condition as to justify legal intervention by the courts. In recent years, the housing authority, working with Executive Director Sue Shontell, has made significant improvements. The tenant group, however, maintained its position that the housing was inadequate and in need of replacement.

Indeed, it is now widely recognized that this type of housing is inherently bad, warehousing the poor and breeding crime. Mr. Reardon has sought to demolish the complex and replace it with scattered, townhouse-style dwellings.

On the eve of trial, it appears the housing authority recognized it had more to gain by reaching a settlement than continuing the fight.

"We were basically on the same side of this, to try to get new housing," Ms. Shontell told Day Staff Writer Karen Florin.

Overseeing the stipulated judgment and court order was Superior Court Judge David M. Sheridan, who had experience in public housing law while working as an attorney. He vowed to stick with the case throughout what promises to be a long process.

Most encouraging is the set of deadlines set down in the agreement, with the goal of starting construction on "replacement housing and/or renovations" by the end of 2017.

The first deadline, set for Nov. 1, is perhaps the most critical, said Mr. Reardon. It requires the housing authority to hire a "qualified public housing consultant" to advise it. A development team must be in place by June 30, 2015; the funding application process has to start no later than March 1, 2016; and the issuance of construction bids by Jan. 1, 2017.

The plaintiffs can return to court, and potentially, renew litigation, if deadlines are not met. Mr. Reardon can also seek appointment of a receiver by the court if the authority is not meeting its deadlines. None of that should be necessary if the spirit of cooperation seen in reaching the settlement carries forward.

Recognizing the complexity of the challenge, the agreement notes that "events may occur outside the control of either party that may require some flexibility in the carrying out of the provisions" of the settlement.

Funding will provide the biggest challenge, with an estimated price tag of about $40 million. Consultants for the tenants' group said the authority will likely have to muster funding from a variety of sources, including state, federal, charitable foundations and potentially private financing.

But the path to any destination, no matter how difficult, begins with a first step and the former legal combatants have taken it.

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