High-rise problems persist; vouchers coming this week
New London — Jeanne Ward is fed up and disgusted. A “tsunami” of an overflowing toilet that left most of her possessions wet just days before Christmas will do that.
The mother of four, who is head of a tenant group at the soon-to-be-vacant Thames River Apartments, was displaced from her Crystal Avenue unit Friday because of an overflowing toilet that left several inches of water on its floors.
It's the latest problem at the federally subsidized housing complex for low-income families that was deemed obsolete by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Tenants, who years ago joined for a class-action lawsuit to fight the unsafe and unsanitary conditions there, are awaiting the arrival of mobile housing vouchers that provide a deep subsidy to allow them to live at privately owned apartments of their choice.
Ward is expected to be among the first tenants to receive a housing voucher, which were made available after the Housing Authority's so-called disposition application to HUD was approved earlier this year. HUD essentially agreed that the cost of renovating the long-troubled complex was not worth the trouble.
Housing Authority Executive Director Lee Erdmann said the move out of the complex will start sometime in the new year, as tenants identify their apartments of choice, and the Glendower Group, which was contracted by the Housing Authority to aid the move, confirms and inspects the new living arrangements. The first group of housing vouchers is expected to be distributed Thursday.
There are 349 people living at the Thames River Apartments. Erdmann said the goal is to have everyone out by June 30 or sooner.
Ward said she has identified a new home and the move can't come soon enough.
"People are ready to get out of here. There are children who need a safe environment. This complex should never have been. It's sad that it took so many years for them to do something about it," she said.
Ward said the toilet issue is related to the plumbing and not something of her own doing and is symptomatic of the larger issues at the complex.
Ward’s toilet problems started Dec. 19, but her calls to maintenance crews were unanswered and escalated into a full-blown emergency by Friday, she said. The posted photos and calls for action on social media caught the attention of both Betsy Gibson, chairwoman of the New London Housing Authority board of commissioners, and Mayor Michael Passero. Both showed up at her apartment to inspect the damage on Friday.
Maintenance crews also arrived at that time and claim the first message they had received about the problem was that day.
Either way, both Ward and Gibson said the response from Housing Authority staff in several respects was unacceptable. Ward initially was given $20 to use the laundry machine to wash her blankets. At Gibson’s urging, the Housing Authority later delivered a $100 Walmart gift card. Meanwhile, Ward said she was forced to throw out a number of possessions, including her daughter’s mattress, which was on the floor.
And instead of a hotel room and a comfortable place to spend the holidays, Ward was moved to a smaller apartment in the same building and provided with five Red Cross-style cots. Ward spent Christmas with family but said she and her kids spent the night at the homes of different family members or friends to avoid going back to the high-rise.
“This is an insult. As far as the New London Housing Authority, I have no words,” Ward said. “To sum it up would be disgust. It’s inhumane, terrible. Sad. How do you go to sleep at night with a clear conscience? Basically, I feel like I’m homeless."
Gibson said she is disappointed in the response and angered by what appeared to be a lack of compassion by the staff.
“I’m furious this is how we treat our residents in a crisis situation,” she said.
Gibson said Ward always has been an outspoken critic of the conditions at Thames River and hoped that the lack of response to her plumbing issue was not some sort of retaliation.
The board of commissioners is exploring the possibility of hiring an outside firm to take over Housing Authority operations.
Erdmann, the authority director, said he is trying to pin down why staff never received Ward’s earlier messages. He said problems with the phones system last week may be to blame.
Erdmann said he intends to find out whether Ward wants to move back to her three-bedroom apartment and will have crews start the necessary repairs if that is the case.
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