Exodus from Thames River Apartments begins
New London — Sitting on a couch of her quiet eighth-floor unit at Thames River Apartments next to a shrink-wrapped stack of moving boxes, Benita Christian surveys her surroundings and contemplates what to pack first.
“I’m ready to go,” Christian said. “Four years is enough.”
Downstairs in a second-floor apartment, the scene is a bit more chaotic as Jessica Yanez, a pregnant single mother of two children, ages 5 and 3, holds open her door while movers roll an entertainment center into the hallway, onto the elevator and out to a waiting moving van.
“It will be nice to be living in a house that is mouse free,” Yanez said. “I’m not used to living like this, dealing with the mice and stuff. I’m extremely happy about (the move).”
The exodus has begun
Christian and Yanez will be among the first of the more than 350 people living in the long-troubled, federally subsidized complex on Crystal Avenue to relocate.
The daily visits by Allied moving company trucks in the courtyard is just one sign. There is also a Dumpster outside being filled with unwanted furniture. The chatter in the hallways these days focuses on when neighbors will be leaving and where they are headed now that Section 8 “tenant protection” vouchers are in the hands of the 117 families that were calling this place home.
Christian, who works with recovering addicts and has custody of her two grandchildren, ages 2 and 4, is moving to a three-bedroom off Buchanan Road. They are going to appreciate beds of their own, she said. One is on a sleeper now and the other sleeps in Christian's bed.
Yanez said that kids by nature love to put things in their mouths and the mouse problems she's been having make her cringe. She said she's been trapping four or five a day of late.
"It's horrible," she said.
The residents have been warned that they should expect a 90-day order to vacate in the coming days. The order, which can be extended for up to 60 days, is the result of the New London Housing Authority’s decision to abandon the high-rises rather than continue to contend with the host of issues that have plagued the complex for decades.
The lack of security and upkeep of the complex was well documented in a long-running class-action lawsuit against the Housing Authority, precipitated by a woman who broke her arm after slipping on a puddle of urine in a hallway.
The lawsuit, filed and doggedly pursued by New London attorney Robert Reardon, led to a settlement in 2014 that stipulated the residents needed new homes. But by 2016, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development downgraded the Housing Authority to “substandard,” again raising questions about whether the authority was doing enough to address concerns over a lack of hot water, rodent and insect infestations and other maintenance concerns.
At one point the mayor stepped in to question whether the apartment complex was on the brink of a crisis when a rented mobile boiler appeared outside the high-rises to replace an unfixed boiler in the building. The Housing Authority board of commissioners has since that time ushered out two different executive directors and currently is working with an intern director.
HUD late last year released $1.28 million to fund the Section 8 housing vouchers in response to the New London Housing Authority’s disposition application.
The scenario has led to anxiety for some and relief for others.
“I’m excited. The kids are ecstatic. They’re excited about having a backyard,” Lydia Torres said.
A single mother of five, Torres and her longtime partner, Jessie Cedeno, already have made a move to a four-bedroom single-family home on Willets Avenue.
As of last week, Torres was among the 17 families to have found a new home, interim New London Housing Authority Executive Director Lee Erdmann said. Two are moving to Norwich, one to Groton and the rest staying in New London.
“It’s ramping up and there are a lot more in the queue,” Erdmann said.
Chaos and crime
Torres has called Crystal Avenue her home for about 15 years, since she was a teenager. A deep sense of community is shared by most residents there but the location, she said, is just not conducive to raising a family.
The complex is situated in the city’s industrial zone, literally in the shadow of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge, with just one small park across the street.
And while there is far less crime and drug dealing than many said went on in the 1990s, there is also no security. Anyone can walk into any of the buildings at any given time. Promises of a police substation never materialized. Less than two weeks ago, a homeless man was discovered in the stairwell of one building, dead from an apparent drug overdose.
There were two shooting in 2015, including one in May when a 17-year-old was shot in the arm and a 4-year-old sustained a minor wound to her leg after two men fired multiple shots in a courtyard. In November of 2015, a shootout resulted in six arrests and the seizure of an AK-47 from one of the suspects.
Charlisha Daniels moved in with her young son that year, not long before, she recalls, three cars burned in the parking lot adjacent to her building. She was awoken in the middle of the night by firefighters. Her 6-year-old son is staying with his father because of her safety concerns.
'A lot of people don't want to rent to us'
Despite what some call deplorable conditions, the move will be bittersweet for many.
“We are definitely a tight community. This is all we know. Most of the kids here have grown up with each other,” Cedeno said. “It is dirty. There is the possibility of drugs. But I grew up with most of the people here. There are a lot of good people.”
Maritza Balle, a working single mother of three, agreed. A resident at Thames River for the past nine years, she called the impending move “a blessing and a curse.”
“We’re getting out of here but everybody’s looking at the same time,” Balle said.
She has yet to find a place to live and thinks the constant bad publicity, coupled with the reputation of the residents, is hurting her chances of signing a lease.
“A lot of people don’t want to rent to us,” she said.
New London attorney Reardon is paying attention. Reardon, who last year notified the city of his intention to reopen the class-action lawsuit, has been holding bi-weekly meetings with the judge in the original case and city and Housing Authority officials.
Several of the recent meetings have included representatives from the Connecticut Fair Housing Center and Connecticut Legal Services to address some rumors about discrimination from landlords.
Erdmann said Glendower Group, contracted to facilitate the move and work with landlords, will stay aware of anything that could be considered discrimination.
He said the Housing Authority estimated the total cost of the move out of Thames River to be about $624,000, which includes the contract with Glendower.
The residents can choose to use the moving company contracted by Glendower or receive about a $1,000 stipend to move on their own, though that amount could vary slightly. The Housing Authority also is paying for the security deposit for tenants, Erdmann said.
“We’re on track so far but we have to watch our cash flow closely,” he said.
The next concern for the Housing Authority’s board of commissioners is future income once the federal money associated with Thames River Apartments is gone. The board is considering hiring an outside company to take over and manage the authority’s entire portfolio, which includes three state-subsidized complexes and one federal property, or about 307 total units.
Many of the people interviewed at Thames River Apartments said the wrecking ball would be an appropriate ending for the high-rises.
“I prefer for them to put us out of here. They can finally demolish these buildings,” Christian said.
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